Cuban Five advocates say trial journalists moonlighted as pro-US propagandists

05/09/11 Kate Bradshaw
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For thirteen years members of the group known as the Cuban five have been in prison in the US. They were convicted on charges including espionage and conspiracy to commit murder after the Cuban military shot down two US planes in 1996. They were living in Florida at the time, and had allegedly infiltrated a network of anti-Castro Cuban exiles. A group that’s been fighting for the Cuban Five’s release says propaganda impeded their right to a fair trial.

The trial took place in Miami, where Free the Cuban Five spokesperson Gloria LaRiva said was too hostile an environment to be grounds for a fair trial.

"The defense had requested the trial to be held in any city outside of Miami but the judge refused and the trial was held in Miami despite decades of prejudice against anyone who would have been seen as defending the Cuban government."

LaRiva said much of the media coverage of the Cuban Five trial was slanted against the defendants, and most people had no idea what was happening behind the scenes.

"The U.S. government through it's official propaganda agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors which manages Radio and TV Marti, was secretly paying prominent Miami journalists who, at the very same time, were also covering the case of the Cuban Five in a hostile, prejudicial, manner that helped to create this atmosphere of prejudice against the Five."

This story first broke in 2006, but La Riva said the newspaper Liberation has recently obtained another 2,200 pages of government contracts with several Cuban-American journalists. These reporters were writing for publications including the Miami Herald’s Spanish edition at the same time they were contributing to Radio and TV Marti, a US government-sponsored media outlet broadcast within Cuba. She said media coverage of the Cuban Five trial for US outlets was extremely biased against them.

"They were very, very much very one-sided but full of conjecture and lies, absolute lies without any kind of proof. What they were doing was creating a hysteria in the city, in the community for years before the Five were even arrested and after."

She said some stories were far-fetched indictments linking the Cuban five to the Cuban government.

"Wilfredo Cancio Isla was working for El Nuevo Herald which was the most prominent Spanish language newspaper in the country. He received $4700 in the 7 month period of the trial but on June 4, 2001, the day that the jury was going to begin deliberation, his article appeared in La Nuevo Herald in which it says Cuba used hallucinogens to train it's spies. And this article, like many of the others, would make these crazy fantastical claims and then always manage to link them to the Cuban Five without really having any kind of proof."

La Riva said the having domestic reporters on the payroll for a government entity that allegedly aims to spread pro-US materials is a violation of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, the act bars US propaganda from being disseminated on US soil. She said another problem is that the coverage made for an unfair trial.

"It was a constitutional violation of the Cuban Five's rights to due process. That is the right to be tried without prejudice, without harm, and especially when they were not aware of it. We believe that this is grounds for an overturning of their conviction, even short of a new trial. "

Letitia King, a spokesperson for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said paying US-based stringers to create content for the BBG is a pretty common practice.

"We were engaging outside media experts to provide news and information to an audience in Cuba."

She said any allegations that the board was trying to influence the outcome of a trial are baseless.

"You know, it was decided in a court of law. It went to appeal and the court upheld the verdict. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case."

Conservative Cuban-American commentator Humberto Fontova said there weren’t any Cubans on the jury, and that the trial was covered by mostly Spanish newspapers jurors probably weren’t reading. Besides, he said, some of the US’s most prominent journalists – ones often considered liberal – were stringers for state media.

"Edward Murrow, Fred Barnes, among many others were all on record as having received payments from Radio Free, or Radio Liberty I believe was the name, but basically, essentially, Radio Free Europe."

When the story broke, The Miami Herald fired several of the reporters accused of writing anti-Cuba propaganda while reporting on the same issue. The editor, shortly after rehired them before resigning. Kelly McBride is senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. She said newsrooms tend to require reporters to disclose side projects to prevent possible ethics breaches, and the Herald didn’t know what it was taking place. McBride said regardless of whether having courtroom reporters on government rolls impeded the Cuban Five’s right to a fair trial, it looks like the reporters clearly crossed the line.

"That was clearly over the line. There was just no question of, you know, the line is normally drawn for a journalist where you can take a contract from another organization that has a similar set of journalistic standards. So this was clearly outside the line."

Prior coverage:

Two members of Cuban Five resentenced


End the Cuban Embargo - Al Fox Rally - by Seán Kinane




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