(AP) The leading Spanish newspaper El Pais withdrew and reprinted its Thursday edition after discovering that its front-page exclusive photograph supposedly showing ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez being treated in Cuba was a fake.
The paper apologized to its readers for the mistake.
The poor-quality image showed the head of a man apparently on a hospital bed with tubes in his mouth.
El Pais had received the picture from an agency, Gtres Online, which declined to comment on the situation. The agency handles mainly entertainment and celebrity photos. The agency also offered the photo to The Associated Press and another Spanish newspaper, which both turned it down.
El Pais said it withdrew its Thursday edition and changed its website after it discovered the photograph was not of Chavez. It did not explain how it realized the picture was a fake but said it could not independently confirm how, when or where the photograph had been taken.
Chavez has not been seen in public since undergoing cancer surgery on Dec. 11 in Cuba.
El Pais prints some 340,000 copies daily. Many copies had already been distributed before the decision to reprint but the newspaper declined to say how many with the fake photograph had reached the streets.
El Pais said the photograph was on its online edition for 30 minutes before the error was discovered and the site changed.
Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas denounced the photograph as a fake in a series of Twitter messages. He said the picture came from a video of another man and he circulated a link.
That video, uploaded to YouTube in 2008, clearly shows another patient lying on a treatment table as doctors and nurses insert a tube into his throat.
Would El Pais publish a similar photo of some European leader? Of its director? Yellow journalism valid if the victim is a South American revolutionary, Villegas said in one tweet. He accused El Pais of systematically violating the policies of its own style manual to attack Venezuela.
Pedro J. Ramirez, editor of the Spanish paper El Mundo, said in tweets on Thursday that his paper was also offered the photo. However, he and other editors expressed reservations over whether it was genuine before announcing a unanimous decision to refuse it.
Santiago Lyon, the AP's vice president and director of photography, said the AP turned down the agency's offer of exclusive rights to distribute the photo because of serious concerns over medical privacy issues as well as the authenticity and provenance of the image.
Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.