AT&T under pressure to defy Maduro’s censors

MIAMI (AP) — Last April, as a military uprising roiled Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government ordered pay TV providers to immediately cease transmission of CNN and the BBC.

DirecTV, which is wholly owned by AT&T, quickly obliged, yanking the two networks off the air as live images of military trucks running over protesters were being broadcast to the world.

Now, pressure is building against the Dallas-based communications giant to stand up to Venezuela’s government censors.

Last December, officials from the State Department met in Washington with executives from AT&T to urge them to help pull the plug on Maduro’s propaganda machine, according to five people familiar with the discussion.

The meeting followed months of outreach to AT&T by Venezuela’s opposition, according to the five individuals. Under a plan being promoted with the Trump administration, DirecTV, Venezuela’s largest pay TV operator, would restore to its lineup a half dozen international news channels that local regulators have banned in recent years, according to the five individuals.

Clients wait to enter the DirecTV headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela. PHOTO: AP

The strategy harkens back to a Cold War playbook of leveraging information to fight anti-United States (US) propaganda and undermine authoritarian rule.

But instead of covertly beaming US-government produced content into foreign countries as Radio Free Europe did in the former Soviet Union, this proposed effort consists of pressuring a private company to bring back access to private, international news outlets that, until recently, Venezuelans took for granted.

AT&T faces a difficult choice: comply with a Maduro regime that the US government no longer recognises and has heavily sanctioned, or go along with the opposition’s plan and risk seizure of its installations and the loss of its licence.

According to corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company doesn’t actually need a physical presence in Venezuela to beam content into the country. It could instead use broadcast centres in Argentina, Brazil or California.

The US officials and opposition operators are concerned that DirecTV is being used to broadcast state TV programming by Maduro to attack his opponents, who have no way to respond, according to the five individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the politically-sensitive nature of the talks.

Of particular concern, they said, is the private network Globovision, which is carried by DirecTV. The channel has been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and is accused by the opposition of spreading disinformation. Globovision is a customer of the AP.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was briefed and expressed initial support for the plans to enroll DirecTV to help undermine Maduro, according to two individuals with knowledge of the discussions.

Planning is in the early stages, the two individuals said, and it’s just one of several options under consideration to pressure Maduro, who remains firmly in power even in the face of US sanctions aimed at propping up Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognised as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 nations.

The two individuals said no decision has yet been made on how much to lean on AT&T, which is pushing back strongly against any initiative that would jeopardise operations in a nation where it has a whopping 44 per cent market share.