July 5, 2014 / 10:26 PM / 5 years ago

In Venezuela's latest media shift, El Universal newspaper sold

CARACAS, July 5 (Reuters) - The owners of Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal said on Saturday they had sold a controlling stake of the company to a little-known Spanish investment firm, Epalisticia, marking the third sale of a major media group in Venezuela since last year.

The sales last year of news channel Globovision and Ultimas Noticias, the nation’s most-read newspaper, resulted in changes to editorial coverage. At Globovision, which was once ardently anti-government, there was a reduction in coverage of the opposition, and at Ultimas Noticias management changes led to a flood of resignations and dismantling of its investigative unit.

El Universal has been owned by the Mata family, descendants of poet Andres Mata, who created the publication in 1909.

Terms of the sale of the 105-year-old newspaper were not disclosed, and calls to Epalisticia’s Madrid headquarters were diverted to an unidentified voicemail.

Reuters was unable to immediately contact the Mata family for details of the transaction. A newsroom employee at the paper said the family now lives in New York.

The new management, in a statement published on the newspaper’s front page, promised to maintain the paper’s editorial line, which has been critical of President Nicolas Maduro and for years openly confronted his predecessor, the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

“The product will remain the same,” Jesus Abreu, El Universal’s new president, said in the statement.

Epalisticia’s website says the company has capital commitments of around $1 billion of investments and focuses on the oil, real estate and media sectors.

Spain’s El Mundo newspaper reported that it had been unable to identify Epalisticia’s owners and said official registers showed the firm’s capital was just 3,500 euros.

Opposition critics say private media in Venezuela has turned steadily toward the government in recent years, alleging intimidation by the ruling Socialist Party.

Government sympathizers point out that private newspapers and television stations backed a 2002 coup against Chavez and say the recent changes have helped address systematic anti-government bias in the media.

El Universal has been forced to reduce the number of pages in each edition with newsprint one item on an increasingly long list of goods Venezuela is running short of as importers struggle to obtain dollars from a government-restricted supply. (Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Peter Murphy and Leslie Adler)

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