Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela pulled CNN’s Spanish-language television channel off the air on Wednesday, accusing it of spreading “propaganda” about an alleged visa racket at the country’s embassy in Iraq.
The state National Telecommunications Commission ordered “the immediate suspension of broadcasts by the news channel CNN in Spanish” in Venezuela, a government statement said.
President Nicolas Maduro had earlier said he wanted the US-based news channel “out” of the country, where state media dominate.
Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told reporters the government had “ordered the relevant authorities to take action” against the channel.
Shortly after she spoke, the government made its announcement and the channel disappeared from the air, AFP reporters in Caracas said.
She branded one of the channel’s sources in the report, embassy employee Misael Lopez, a “delinquent.”
– Iraq visa claims –
CNN en Espanol on February 6 broadcast a report alleging that Venezuelan passports and visas had been sold at the Baghdad embassy to Arabs who the channel said may have been linked to terrorism.
The report named Maduro’s new hardline vice president, Tareck El Aissami, as one of those behind the racket.
Hardline former interior minister El Aissami, 42, is next in line to Maduro and would take over if the opposition succeeded in its bid to oust the leader in a vote.
El Aissami was targeted separately on Monday by US authorities who announced sanctions against him for alleged drug trafficking.
Rodriguez said the CNN report was “based absolutely on falsehoods.”
The channel “has launched an operation of psychological warfare, a war propaganda operation,” she said.
– Diplomatic row –
The US Treasury Department on Monday accused El Aissami and an ally, businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello, of being major cocaine traffickers.
The drug allegations against El Aissami had already raised tensions between Washington and Caracas, which had so far been cautious in its stance towards the administration of new US President Donald Trump.
Maduro on Tuesday demanded the United States apologize for the sanctions and vowed to respond “forcefully.”
Rodriguez lodged a diplomatic complaint on Wednesday with the US Embassy in Caracas.
On Sunday the socialist president said in his own television program: “I want CNN out of Venezuela.”
– Drug trafficking allegations –
The US Treasury department froze the US assets of El Aissami and Lopez Bello, and banned US nationals from doing business with them.
The Caracas government credits El Aissami with cracking down on drug trafficking while serving as interior minister.
But the US Treasury says he actually oversaw shipments of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States.
The Venezuelan armed forces also threw their weight behind El Aissami on Wednesday.
In a statement, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez called the sanctions “a new act of interference by the United States” aimed at destabilizing Venezuela.
– US-Venezuela tension –
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Monday’s move against El Aissami was part of a broad crackdown on drug trafficking and “terrorism.”
The accusations triggered the latest in a series of rows over the years between Venezuela’s leftist leaders and Washington, the “imperialist” power it loves to hate.
Trump has not yet personally detailed his stance on the situation in Venezuela.
A severe economic crisis in Venezuela driven by falling prices for its crucial oil exports has contributed to food shortages and deep economic disarray, raising pressure to remove Maduro from power.