Archive for August 10th, 2011

When the government pays journalists to influence the outcome of a trial

August 10, 2011

La Alborada – August 10

If the government is prosecuting a high-visibility criminal case with
international repercussions, is it unethical –even illegal– for the
government, at the same time, to hire journalists to write or broadcast reports
and opinions on that case? What if the reports and broadcasts are directed to an
audience from which will be selected the jury in the case, and in the
jurisdiction in which the trial is taking place, under conditions practically
guaranteed to influence the jury and inflame the community in general?

These are not hypothetical law-school questions. They arise in the case of the
prosecution of the Cuba Five in Miami. As newly-obtained documents show, the
government did in fact pay a number of journalists who were, at the timel,
reporting on the proceedings.

The Cuba Broadcasting Office operates under the Broadcasting Board of Governors
(BBG). That agency is in charge of broadcasting abroad –not domestically–
under the International Broadcasting Act of
1994. The BBG has no authority to contract local journalists for domestic
publications or broadcasts.

Were the journalists at issue required by professional ethics to make full
disclosure of their being paid by the government –the prosecution– when they
wrote about the trial?

This, too, is not a hypothetical question, even if it arises long after the
fact. It is hardly inconsequential: the five men who were convicted in the trial
are still serving prison sentences, long after the fact.

It’s not only a matter of full disclosure; the journalists should have avoided
in the first place the role they undertook. Journalism students learn in school
what to avoid. For example, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism lists this in
the What Not To Do category:

Conflicts of Interest. All students must avoid any conflicts of interest between
their appropriate role as student journalists and any other outside role. Such
conflicts include preparing journalistic assignments on subjects or institutions
in which the student has a financial, family, or personal involvement.

The BBG requires its broadcasts to “Be conducted in accordance with the highest
professional standards of broadcast journalism.”

Was there a financial or personal involvement in this matter? Consider, for
example, this excerpt from an analysis of the documents, regarding one of the
paid journalists:

[Enrique] Encinosa boasted in an Internet radio interview: “I arrived in the
United States in 1961. I became involved in the anti-Castro paramilitary
organizations when I was 16. I participated in a number of military and covert
operations into Cuba as a very young man. I worked cloak and dagger in covert
operations …” The interview was in

Earlier, in 2005, in an interview for the documentary, “638 Ways to Kill
Castro,” Encinosa openly supported the bombings that shook Havana hotels in
1997, one of which killed Italian tourist Fabio Di Celmo. In the film, Encinosa
says: “I personally think it’s an acceptable method. It’s a way of damaging the
tourist economy. The message that you, one, tries to get across is that Cuba is
not a healthy place for tourists. So, if Cuba is not a healthy place for
tourists because there’s a few windows being blown out of hotels, that’s fine.”

The remedy would be to declare the proceedings null and void, and to free the
defendants. Holding a new trial years later would raise difficult issues of
evidence, given the passage of time. The defense team would determine what may
be done, given the grave implications of what took place.

As to the ethical issues involved, the parties involved at the Cuba Broadcasting
Office and the BBG, which issued the contracts, and the journalists involved,
should face official administrative action or disciplinary action before the
appropriate professional bodies. Neither administrative nor disciplinary action
is likely to take place. The other country at issue is Cuba, and the local
jurisdiction is Miami. That means that the government actors and the journalists
involved are guaranteed immunity.

The government payments went to 18 journalists and columnists, including some of
the media personalities best known in Miami and as far as Spain. It would be
hard to measure quantitatively to what degree the paid performances by the
journalists prevented a fair trial in Miami. It is not hard at all, however, to
conclude that US government agencies purposefully recruited journalists whom
officials knew would write articles and opinions favorable to the prosecution,
for purposes of influencing the outcome of the trial.,

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