Media took gov’t cash during trial of ‘Cuban 5’
Monday, June 14, 2010
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: After more than ten years in US prisons, five Cuban intelligence agents, known collectively as the Cuban Five, have received shocking new information regarding their trial and conviction.
GLORIA LA RIVA, DIRECTOR, COMMITTEE TO FREE THE CUBAN FIVE: For the first time, today we are revealing the payments made to the Miami journalists by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and the Broadcasting Board of Governors through Radio and TV Martí during the time of the Cuban Five’s detention and trial. What makes a secret payment so egregious is that they were made by the same government that was prosecuting the five Cubans.
FREESTON: The five were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001 on a series of charges and given lengthy prison sentences. They maintain that they were spying not on the US government but on Cuban exile terrorist groups based in Miami. The convictions were controversial due to a perceived lack of evidence and the severity of the sentences. These were joined by concerns that the trial should have never taken place in Miami, home to the world’s largest anti-Castro Cuban exile community. Today the fate of the Five stands intertwined with another famous Miami controversy. In 2006, Miami Herald journalist Oscar Corral broke a page-one story that at least 10 Miami-based journalists were accepting payments from the US government without disclosing those payments to their audiences at their independent outlets. The payments came from Radio and TV Martí, two stations that the US broadcasts into Cuba with the stated goal of promoting a free and open society. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, is the agency under the US State Department that oversees the roughly $40 million budget to the Martí programs.
LETICIA KING, SPOKESPERSON, BROADCAST BOARD OF GOVERNORS: There’s nothing irregular in our hiring independent journalists. This is an industry norm, to have people paid a modest fee for contributing to on-air programs. There’s nothing that we’re trying to hide. And all of that was for on-air contributions. It was unrelated to any domestic coverage.
FREESTON: Professor on media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota Jane Kirtley followed the story closely when it broke in 2006.
JANE KIRTLEY, PROF. OF MEDIA & LAW, UNIV. OF MINNESOTA: The separation between the government and the press in the United States traditionally has been pretty absolute, and particularly when you’re talking about something like Radio Martí, which is—the government itself would say—a propaganda arm, that that’s simply not an appropriate role for journalists to play.
FREESTON: The story resulted in the immediate firings of three reporters at The Miami Herald‘s Spanish language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald. But after loud protest by the Cuban exile community in Miami, the publisher of both papers was forced to resign and the three reporters were rehired. This baffled many outside of Miami.
KIRTLEY: The Cuban-American community in South Florida, at least a good chunk of them, are comfortable with this idea of reporters and commentators working both for independent news organizations and for the government. In many respects, they view their role as advocates, as opposed to disinterested, independent journalists. They think part of their mission is to try to help in undermining the communist regime in Cuba.
FREESTON: Four years since the fallout, and new information shows that the payments go back to at least the arrest and trial of the Cuban Five. During the trial, the defense repeatedly asked for a change of venue, and though it was a decade before these government payments would be known, they cited the lopsided local media coverage as a reason for the change. Their requests were denied.
LA RIVA: Imagine if during the trial’s beginning, when the defense was seeking a change of venue, if this fact of government-paid journalists who have been covering for 26 months before the trial—hostile coverage—imagine if the defense had known. Does anyone really believe that the trial would have taken place in Miami?
FREESTON: Salvador Capote, writing for the CubaDebate site, counted 806 articles related to the case in El Nuevo Herald, of which he classified zero as positive. At least 239 of the articles were written by recipients of government payments, including 96 by Pablo Alfonso, who received at least $58,000 in government funds between the Five’s arrest and conviction, by far the most of anyone.
LA RIVA: Wilfredo Cancio Isla was a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, the newspaper with the highest Spanish-language distribution in Miami. He received $4,725 from September 30, 2000, to September 3, 2001—part of the period of the prosecution of the Five. Keep in mind that the jury was not sequestered. So on June 4, 2001, the very day that the jury began its deliberation on the question of guilt or innocence, Wilfredo Cancio Isla appeared in El Nuevo Herald with the headline: "Cuba used hallucinogens to train its spies". This article claims from an unnamed source—a supposed Cuban spy defector—that Cuba gives its spies LSD or other hallucinogens in order to train them for missions abroad, as if to imply, by mentioning the Five in an article about hallucinogens, that the Five were given drugs to control their minds.
FREESTON: For more than a year, the committee to free the Cuban Five has been demanding to see the contracts that the government signed with these journalists. The Partnership for Civil Justice is representing the committee and these Freedom of Information proceedings.
MARA VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD, LAWYER, PARTNERSHIP FOR CIVIL JUSTICE: This is conduct by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, through its Office of Cuban Broadcasting, that violates domestic law in the United States. It violates the Smith-Mundt Act, under which the US government may not seek to propagandize the domestic population of the United States.
FREESTON: Recent law school graduate Jeremy Berkowitz is one of very few people to have written about the Smith-Mundt Act. He believes that the contracts will need to be seen before a legal violation can be proven.
JEREMY BERKOWITZ, RECENT GRAD, CATHOLIC UNIV. LAW: If there is evidence that’s revealed that could show that there were specific ties between government payments and these journalists writing specific articles on certain topics, then there could potentially be a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: We have gone to court to demand these records. We have filed federal litigation. They will not turn them over. Why are they withholding the contracts? Withholding the contracts makes it clear that the government is now engaged in a coverup of these operations that are being exposed.
FREESTON: The BBG denies the coverup claims.
KING: I can assure you that as an agency we are very mindful about FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] obligations and are happy to fulfill them. So we are not trying to complicate things.
FREESTON: The BBG’s legal filings cite procedural errors on the part of the Committee to Free the Five as the reason for not disclosing the contracts.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Well, it’s not very difficult to withhold information when someone makes a FOIA request.
FREESTON: Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has taken a keen interest in the case of the Cuban Five.
WILKERSON: I’m sure that throughout the bureaucracy, the federal bureaucracy, there are those who labor away every day to fulfill the letter of the law and the spirit of the law with regard to the Freedom of Information Act. But I also know there are people at the highest levels who know how to thwart, or at least thwart for a time, the requirements of that act. And you do it by simply obfuscating; you do it by demanding ever more specific information because you can’t find the information that they’re looking for.
FREESTON: The lawyer in the Freedom of Information case, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, admits that they have low expectations for the contracts.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: Although, realistically, would we expect that the US government would write, "Dear Sir, we’re writing you a contract for you to illegally propagandize the domestic public"? I don’t think so. I think what they do, they pay people, people write articles, people have interest in writing articles, they receive cash, and at no point do they disclose they’re on the payroll of the US government.
HEIDI BOGHOSIAN, EXEC. DIR., NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD: The timing of the paid-for journalism suggests a concerted plan existed to taint the judicial proceedings and to tilt the outcome of the trial toward guilty verdicts, depriving the defendants of our cherished Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.
FREESTON: The convictions were already overturned once on appeal back in 2005.
BOGHOSIAN: The Eleventh Circuit three-judge panel cited the legal standard of, quote, "inflammatory, prejudicial pretrial publicity that so pervades or saturates the community as to render virtually impossible a fair trial."
FREESTON: The attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, appealed that decision, and the convictions were reinstated. All this took place before the payments to journalists were discovered. Trial laywer for the Five Leonard Weinglass believes that the law is on their side.
LEONARD WEINGLASS, LAWYER REPRESENTING THE CUBAN FIVE: Government agents are obligated not to do anything that will increase the prejudice in the venue. And if you read the articles that were put out by these individuals who were being paid by the government, these articles are very damning of the Five and certainly increased the prejudice in the community.
FREESTON: The US attorney’s office in South Florida who originally prosecuted the Five declined to comment on the demand for a retrial. On Monday, June 14, one of the Five, Gerardo Hernández, who is serving two life sentences plus 15 years, will be in court again to demand the convictions be overturned. Come back for part two, when we look into the politics that surround the case of the Cuban Five.
End of Transcript
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