CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s high court ordered the immediate seizure of all DirecTV property Friday, days after the U.S. company abandoned its services in the South American nation, citing U.S. 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 Nicolás Maduro.
However, pro-Maduro lawmaker María Alejandra Díaz 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,” Díaz 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 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a poke at Maduro over the issue Friday, saying on Twitter: “Why can’t Venezuelans watch Fútbol Total? Because Nicolás 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 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 U.S. leadership team without any involvement or prior knowledge of the DIRECTV Venezuela team,” the statement said.
AT&T has a 44% 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 U.S. companies — General Motors, Kellogg and Kimberly-Clark — that have abandoned Venezuela due to shrinking sales, government threats and the risk of U.S. 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.