Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 7 News List

US government paid journalists to comment on Cuba

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MIAMI

The Bush administration's Office of Cuba Broadcasting paid 10 journalists in Miami to provide commentary on Radio and TV Marti, which transmit government broadcasts critical of Cuban President Fidel Castro, a spokesman for the office said on Friday.

The group included three journalists at El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister newspaper of the Miami Herald, which fired them on Thursday after learning of the relationship.

Pablo Alfonso, who reports on Cuba for El Nuevo Herald, received the largest payment -- almost US$175,000 -- since 2001.

Other journalists have been found to have accepted money from the Bush administration.

But while the Castro regime has long alleged that some Cuban-American reporters in Miami were paid by the government, the revelation on Friday, reported in the Miami Herald, was the first evidence of that.

In addition to Alfonso, the journalists who received payment include Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who writes for El Nuevo Herald and received about US$15,000 since 2001; Olga Connor, a freelance reporter for the newspaper who received about US$71,000; and Juan Manuel Cao, a reporter for Channel 41 who received US$11,000 this year from TV Marti, according to the Miami Herald, which learned of the payments through a Freedom of Information request.

When Cao followed Castro to Argentina this summer and asked him why Cuba was not letting one of its political dissidents leave, Castro called him a "mercenary" and asked who was paying him.

Cao refused to comment on Friday except to say on Channel 41 that he believed the Cuban government knew in advance about the Miami Herald story.

Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a commentator on the popular Radio Mambi station in Miami, said she had received a total of US$1,550 from the government to do 10 episodes of a documentary-style show on TV Marti called Atrevete a Sonar (Dare to Dream), and saw nothing wrong with it.

"Being Cuban," Perez-Castellon said, "there's nothing wrong with working on programs that are on a mission to inform the people of Cuba. It's no secret we do that. My face has always been on the shows."

But Al Tompkins, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St Petersburg, called it a conflict of interest for journalists to accept payment from any government agency.

"It's all about credibility and independence," Tompkins said. "If you consider yourself a journalist, then it seems to me it's an obvious conflict of interest to take government dollars."

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