Friday, September 08, 2006

Miami Herald fires three reporters who took U.S. government money

Los Angeles Times

By Associated Press
11:56 AM PDT, September 8, 2006

MIAMI -- Ten South Florida journalists, including three with The Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister paper, received thousands of dollars from the federal government for their work on radio and TV programming aimed at undermining Fidel Castro's communist regime, the Herald reported Friday.

Pablo Alfonso, who reports on Cuba and wrote an opinion column for El Nuevo Herald, was paid almost $175,000 since 2001 to host shows on Radio and TV Marti, U.S. government programs that promote democracy in Cuba, according to government documents obtained by The Miami Herald.

Olga Connor, a freelance reporter who wrote about Cuban culture for El Nuevo Herald, received about $71,000 from the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and staff reporter Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who covered the Cuban exile community and politics, was paid almost $15,000 in the last five years, the Herald said.

The newspaper said Alfonso and Cancio were fired and Connor's freelance relationship was severed.

Alfonso and Cancio declined to comment to the Herald. They and Connor did not respond to e-mails seeking comment sent by The Associated Press.

Jesus Diaz Jr., president of the Miami Herald Media Co. and publisher of both newspapers, said the individuals violated a "sacred trust" between journalists and the public.

"I personally don't believe that integrity and objectivity can be assured if any of our reporters receive monetary compensation from any entity that he or she may cover or have covered, but particularly if it's a government agency," Diaz said.

The Herald said it reviewed articles by the three, including several about TV and Radio Marti, and found no mention of the payments.

Pedro Roig, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, said he made a point to hire more Cuban exile journalists as contractors hoping to improve the news content of the shows. He said it is up to each journalist to follow his or her own ethics and rules.

"We consider them to be good journalists, and people who were formed inside that system who got out (of Cuba) and adapted and made good," Roig said. "In reality, I feel very satisfied."

Other journalists who received payments included Diario Las Americas opinion page editor Helen Aguirre Ferre and reporter/columnist Ariel Remos.

Ferre said she didn't see a conflict of interest, and Remos said he enjoyed the freedom to speak his opinion on the stations.

The journalists are among several accused in recent years of taking money from the government without making those connections clear.

Last year, congressional auditors concluded that the Education Department engaged in illegal "covert propaganda" by hiring columnist Armstrong Williams to endorse the No Child Left Behind Act without requiring him to disclose he was paid.

Another columnist, Maggie Gallagher, had a contract with the Health and Human Services Department to help promote a marriage initiative.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Pentagon paid a consulting firm and Iraqi newspapers to plant favorable stories about the Iraq war and rebuilding efforts.

The Cuban government has long accused the United States of paying South Florida journalists to promote anti-government propaganda.

In an interview broadcast at a Hispanic media convention in June, the head of Cuba's parliament denied that more than two dozen journalists had been imprisoned in his own country for speaking out against the Communist government, saying they were not independent journalists but U.S. agents.

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