CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A popular cartoonist said she lost her job over her representation of the late Hugo Chavez's iconic signature as a flat-lined heartbeat to dramatize Venezuela's health care crisis.
Award-winning Rayma Suprani said that she was fired by El Universal, one of the country's largest and most-prestigious dailies, after the sketch was published Wednesday.
The ouster of the veteran journalist has alarmed press freedom advocates who say once-independent media are seeing criticism of the socialist government snuffed out. Several columnists resigned from El Universal to protest its sale in July to a Spanish company whose shareholders are unknown and who they fear may represent the government's interests.
"We don't know who bought EL Universal or who pays the salaries," Suprani said in an interview Wednesday with CNN en Espanol. "But now we know they are bothered by the critical editorial line so we can presume that it wasn't some invisible man but the government got its hands on it."
Suprani's final cartoon bears her trademark bite, touching a nerve of government supporters who credit Chavez with broadening access to health care and importing hundreds of Cuban physicians to treat patients in poor neighborhoods. More recently however, as Venezuela's economic crisis has deepened, medical supplies and medicines have disappeared, putting lives at risk.
El Universal's longtime editor Elides Rojas declined to comment on Suprani's dismissal but on social media expressed regret over the paper's recent decline.
"What's coming? Resignations in the opinion page, mass resignations in the newsroom, more declines in readership, little publicity," he wrote in Twitter. "I guess we're all leaving."
While El Universal's coverage of the government remains mostly critical, even veteran reporters confide that it's only a matter of time before the new management makes its presence felt and the paper follows in the footsteps of two other major media outlets sold in the past year and softens its editorial line.
The makeover of Venezuela's media landscape comes as many papers face a severe shortage of newsprint. More than a dozen Venezuelan papers have closed or reduced their print editions in the past year because of a lack of dollars to buy newsprint. Venezuela's government has restricted access to foreign currency for 11 years.
Associated Press Writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.