Venezuela Pulls CNN off Air Amid Iraq Passport Controversy

Venezuela’s broadcast authority pulled CNN’s Spanish language channel off air this week, after the government accused the news network of airing an unsubstantiated story on corruption among diplomatic officials.

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
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CONATEL says CNN's removal from Venezuela's airwaves is a temporary measure. (Chris Rank/Bloomberg)
CONATEL says CNN's removal from Venezuela's airwaves is a temporary measure. (Chris Rank/Bloomberg)

Puebla, Mexico, February 17, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s broadcast authority pulled CNN’s Spanish language channel off air this week, after the government accused the news network of airing an unsubstantiated story on corruption among diplomatic officials.

In a statement released Wednesday, the country’s national telecommunications commission, CONATEL, alleged CNN en Español intentionally sought to “undermine the image of the national executive branch”.

Describing the network as “Machiavellian” and an “agency” of the US government, CONATEL ordered cable companies to immediately take CNN en Español off air. The broadcasting authority stated the move was intended as a temporary preventative measure, but didn’t hint when the broadcaster might be allowed back on air.

“As part of its traditional interventionist and imperialist policy, this US agency exerts extraterritorial powers that blatantly violate basic principles of international law,” the statement read.

CNN en Español has responded by stating the broadcast ban will not impact its online presence.

"CNN en Español will continue to fulfill its responsibility to the Venezuelan public by offering our live signal on YouTube free of charge and news links on CNNEspanol.com, so they may have access to information not available to them in any other way,” the statement read.

The broadcaster continued by stating it stood by its journalists, including those involved in an expose that sparked its current stand off with the Venezuelan government.

“This happens days after we aired our investigation 'Passports in the Shadows' which revealed that Venezuelan authorities may have issued passports and visas to people with ties to terrorism,” the company said.

CNN’s Investigation

The investigation included allegations Venezuelan diplomatic officials in Iraq had sold Venezuelan passports to non-Venezuelans, including Iraqi and Syrian nationals.

For decades, Venezuela’s government has struggled to reign in public sector corruption, though CNN’s story was the first time a major English language news outlet had reported on allegations of widespread misconduct at the embassy in Iraq.

Many of the most damning allegations were based on the statement of former Venezuelan diplomatic staffer Misael Lopez, who worked at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq between 2013 and 2014. Lopez’s allegations were first made public back in 2015, when his story was published by a handful of Spanish language media outlets, along with Colombian cable news channel NTN24.

At the time, Lopez said he fled his job in Iraq amid fears of retribution for his investigations into the alleged passport fraud. The former diplomat said he was aided in his escape by another embassy official who he claims was later found dead. 

“The official who helped me in the investigation was killed the same afternoon that he helped me take a plane out of Baghdad,” he said in 2015.

The CNN report didn’t mention this latter incident. Instead, it stated, “By the end of 2015, the Venezuelan government accused Lopez of ‘abandoning his post’ and removed him. A police official showed up at his home in Venezuela with a document that said he was under investigation for revealing ‘confidential documents or secrets'. Lopez had previously divulged the information to the FBI, reports CNN.

The Foreign Ministry Responds

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez has dismissed Lopez’s claims as unsubstantiated, and labelled CNN’s year long investigation as a “imperialistic media operation”.

“Lopez is an agent … [of the] Venezuelan opposition based in the United States,” Rodriguez told state news outlet AVN.

However, Lopez and CNN’s story has garnered the support of Venezuela’s opposition controlled National Assembly. Legislators condemned CONATEL’s decision to pull CNN en Español’s signal, claiming the move “gravely affects the human right Venezuelans have to be informed”.

Lopez himself has close ties to Venezuela’s right wing opposition, according to claims made by state broadcaster teleSUR. teleSUR itself was founded in 2005 by Venezuela with the support of other leftist governments in the region as an alternative to CNN.

“Lopez is a close friend and business partner of Ana Argotti, a lawyer who defends violent right-wing activists facing charges for the opposition’s ‘La Salida” campaign,’ teleSUR stated earlier this week.

La Salida was a violent uprising in 2014 endorsed by far right factions of Venezuela’s opposition. The violence left over 40 people dead – most of whom were government supporters, members of state security forces and neutral bystanders such as pedestrians and other commuters caught in opposition blockades.