CARACAS, Venezuela -- The eye-catching photograph on the front page of a major Spanish newspaper on Thursday showed a man with a shaved head who appeared to be lying on an operating table, with a large tube coming out of his mouth. The caption identified him as Hugo Chávez, the cancer-stricken president of Venezuela, and said he was undergoing medical treatment in Cuba.
If authentic, it would have been a scoop, as Mr. Chávez has not been seen in public for over six weeks. But soon after the paper, El País, hit the streets, the photo was revealed as a fake, prompting an apology from El País to its readers.
The embarrassing mistake brought a barrage of criticism from Venezuelan officials who have long accused the international news media, especially in Spain, of being biased against Mr. Chávez's socialist revolution and eager to report unfounded rumors about his health and cancer treatment.
"Crisis of capitalism is not just economic," the Venezuelan information minister, Ernesto Villegas, wrote in a Twitter post. "It also corrodes the 'independent' press, which long ago abolished limits to attack Chávez."
He called the photograph "grotesque" and asked in another post if El País would print a similar photograph of a European leader or of its editor. Employing a pejorative term used in Spain for South Americans, he added, "Yellow journalism valid if the victim is a revolutionary 'sudaca.' "
He also posted a link to a 2008 YouTube video of a man undergoing a medical procedure that appeared to be the source of the photograph.
A short article that appeared beside the photo was headlined, "The Secret of Chavez's Illness," but that turned out to be misleading, as no secrets were revealed. Quoting unidentified sources, it said the image was taken in Cuba some days ago, but did not elaborate.
In a statement posted on its Web site later on Thursday, El País said that once it had ascertained that the man in the photograph was not Mr. Chávez, it stopped distributing the paper and sent out a new edition with a different front page.
The newspaper said it had obtained the picture from Gtres Online, a photo agency that it had worked with for several years. The Associated Press said Gtres had also offered the photo to it and another Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, but they both declined. El País did not explain how it realized that the photo was fake, but it apologized to its readers and said it would investigate what went wrong.
A person who answered the phone at Gtres Online said no one was available to comment.
It did not say how many copies of the newspaper with the fake photo made it into circulation. But Mr. Villegas posted a picture online of the copy of El País that arrived Thursday at the Venezuelan Embassy in Madrid, with the offending photo on the front page.
El País also said that the photograph appeared on its Web site for about half an hour before it was taken down.
Mr. Chávez has not been seen or heard from since he had cancer surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11, and the Venezuelan government has given few details about his condition. Recently, officials have said his health is improving, but the relative secrecy has led to widespread rumors, especially on social media like Twitter.
Last week, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who is running the government in Mr. Chávez's absence, referred to El País and another Spanish newspaper, ABC, that has printed questionable stories about Mr. Chávez's health as "this garbage press."
"We have had to confront a really miserable media war over the president's life, his health," Mr. Maduro said in an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE. "You can't even call this yellow journalism. This is journalism full of evil that has installed itself around the world, particularly in Spain."
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.