Three DirecTV executives have been arrested in Venezuela and accused of fraud and destabilizing the economy after parent company AT&T abruptly severed television service in the country last month, leaving millions of Venezuelans disconnected from popular news and entertainment programming.
In a statement last month, AT&T announced that it had become impossible to balance U.S. sanctions against Venezuela with the Venezuelan government demands to carry state-backed TV networks and censor international channels critical of Nicolás Maduro's regime.
“Because it is impossible for AT&T’s DIRECTV unit to comply with the legal requirements of both countries, AT&T was forced to close its pay TV operations in Venezuela, a decision that was made by the company’s U.S. leadership team without any involvement or prior knowledge of the DIRECTV Venezuela team,” AT&T said in a statement.
With a 44 percent market share of the Venezuelan TV market, the decision sparked scattered protests in cities like Caracas among frustrated customers who’ve been homebound since March as part of the country’s efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Three days after AT&T’s announcement, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ordered that all of the company’s assets in the country be seized.
Things escalated further over the weekend, after the Venezuelan government arrested three local Venezuelan DirecTV executives last week. In an announcement posted to Facebook and its website on Tuesday, the Venezuala Supreme Tribunal of Justice accused the trio of fraud and efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan economy.
"I hope there is justice in this country," DirecTV Vice President of strategy Carlos Villamizar told reporters before surrendering to authorities.
Former DirecTV employees expressed solidarity with the jailed executives via the #DIRECTVSomosTodos (we are DirecTV) hashtag on Twitter.
>It is surprising and inexplicable that former DIRECTV Venezuela executives were arrested given the fact that they were not involved in the decision to shut down the company’s operations in the country," Lori Lee, CEO of AT&T Latin America, said in a statement to Motherboard. "To the contrary, this decision was taken by AT&T executives in the United States, without the knowledge or participation of these individuals or any other former Venezuelan employees."
The telecom giant has found itself increasingly caught between the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the Maduro administration, and Venezuela’s demands to censor at least 10 channels since 2017 that aired content critical of the Venezuelan government.
Venezuelan regulators had accused the channels of violating Venezuela’s 2004 Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television, purportedly crafted to ensure the airing of socially responsible programming, but long criticized by human rights and press freedom groups as a tool for media and political censorship.
Last year, DirecTV was quick to censor both BBC and CNN at the Venezuelan government’s behest, after both networks aired the brutal murder of protesters in Caracas.
An Associated Press report from last January found that the Trump administration had been pressuring AT&T to not only restore censored channels in the country, but take on a more active role in undermining the Maduro administration and its use of state television to broadcast propaganda.
Despite sharing some similar authoritarian tendencies, the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine Maduro have included both criticism of Venezuela’s brutal oppression of its citizens, as well as unsubstantiated allegations that the Maduro administration had helped stoke recent protests in the United States.
AT&T is one of several companies—including Kellogg and GM—that have departed the country in the last few years. Currently facing massive debt due to a series of U.S. mergers, and limited profit due to Venezuelan regulations that limit the cost of television service, AT&T decided a full retreat was its best opinion.
Roughly 700 Venezuelans were employed by DirecTV in Venezuela, and 2 million Venezuelans have lost access to programming courtesy of the standoff.
Update: This article was updated with a statement from AT&T.