Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

Venezuelan high court orders DirecTV property seized

It comes days after the US firm abandoned its services in the South American nation

A DirectTV logo identifies the company's headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, May 22, 2020. AP
A DirectTV logo identifies the company's headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, May 22, 2020. AP

Venezuela's high court ordered the immediate seizure of all DirecTV property on Friday, days after the US company abandoned its services in the South American nation, citing US sanctions.

The Supreme Court ruling told the nation's telecommunications agency to seize satellite dishes and office space at transmission centers. It also said DirecTV programming should immediately return to the airwaves, in an order that was not likely to be heeded.

Dallas-based AT&T on Tuesday cut off pay TV services in Venezuela, saying U.S. sanctions prohibit its DirecTV platform from broadcasting channels that it is required to carry by the administration of President Nicolas Maduro.

However, pro-Maduro politician Maria Alejandra Diaz said the company is legally bound to uphold its programming.

"DirecTV unilaterally and illegally suspended the right to freedom of expression and communication for almost 10 million Venezuelans," Mr Diaz said outside the court. "It is not true to say that DirecTV could not comply with internal regulations."

The abrupt move cutting off entertainment, news and sports channels, sparked widespread protests at least two nights in a row, with residents leaning from their windows across the capital of Caracas banging pots and pans.

"I want my DirecTV," some shouted amid chants against Mr Maduro.

Venezuelans have been ordered to stay home on quarantine since mid-March to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, which officials say has killed at least 10 people and sickened hundreds.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a poke at Mr Maduro over the issue on Friday, saying on Twitter: "Why can't Venezuelans watch Futbol Total? Because Nicolas Maduro drove DirecTV out. Protecting his cronies and their money is more important than allowing ten million citizens access to uncensored information."

DirecTV on Friday did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. It explained its decision to cut services in a statement on Tuesday.

"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 US leadership team without any involvement or prior knowledge of the DIRECTV Venezuela team," the statement said.

AT&T has a 44 per cent share of the pay TV market and its departure is likely to hit larger cities and the interior that depend on DirecTV for access to information and entertainment.

AT&T joins a number of other US companies — General Motors, Kellogg and Kimberly-Clark — that have abandoned Venezuela due to shrinking sales, government threats and the risk of US sanctions. Around 700 Venezuelans depended on the unit for employment.

AT&T hasn't made money from its Venezuelan operations for years due to strict government controls that keep the price of its packages artificially low — a few pennies per month. The situation has become so dire that DirecTV in 2012 stopped importing set-top boxes, choking its growth. In 2015, it wrote down its assets in the country by $1.1 billion.

Updated: May 23, 2020 10:09 AM

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