A fired journalist says her propaganda ties were no secret to the boss

by OSCAR CORRAL, Miami Herald

A journalist whose freelance contract with El Nuevo Herald was severed last week says the newspaper's managers have known for years that she got paid by the U.S. government for Cuban cultural shows she hosted for Radio Martí. She said managers never made an issue of it before.

Freelance writer Olga Connor was among three well-known El Nuevo Herald writers -- the others were full-time reporters Pablo Alfonso and Wilfredo Cancio Isla -- who were dismissed or had their contracts severed Thursday for having violated the company's ethics policy for their work for Radio and TV Martí. The government-financed broadcasts are aimed at bringing news, information and entertainment to the communist island in an effort to undermine Fidel Castro's 47-year-old regime.

''At no time did any of the editorial management of the Herald indicate to me that this was considered a conflict of interest, and I continued writing for El Nuevo Herald until today,'' Connor wrote in Spanish in a letter to executives of The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the two newspapers' parent company, The McClatchy Co.

''I have never in my life done anything that would cause a conflict of interest or that could be viewed as a lack of ethics,'' Connor wrote. ``I totally reject the accusation of breach of ethics. My work in Radio and TV Martí was so well known . . . that two articles about this station and my involvement [were published] in 2002.''

A March 31, 2002, article published in The Miami Herald -- and a separate article in El Nuevo Herald on that same date written by another reporter -- identified Connor as a paid contributor to TV and Radio Martí.

El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Humberto Castelló said Monday in an e-mail responding to a reporter's questions that he did not dismiss Connor in 2002 because she was a freelancer.

Asked if he agreed with the company's decision Thursday to terminate her contract, he answered in Spanish: ``I don't agree with the decision taken.''

Jesús Díaz Jr., president of Miami Herald Media Company and publisher of both newspapers, said the decision was his.

``The reason I decided the freelance relationship should be terminated is because many of her assignments are made by us. Most of the articles she writes for El Nuevo Herald appear only in El Nuevo Herald.

''I wasn't aware of the article in 2002, and if I had been this might have happened sooner,'' Díaz said.

The 2002 story published in El Nuevo Herald described Connor as a ''columnist for El Nuevo Herald'' and said she was getting paid $45,770 a year at TV and Radio Martí for two weekly cultural shows.

Since 2001, Connor received about $71,000 from the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees Radio and TV Martí, according to a preliminary review by The Miami Herald of federal payments to dozens of contractors -- among them journalists, university professors, human rights activists and others -- from 2001 to this year.

Ethics experts said journalists who work for private media companies and also receive pay for a government-operated station breach fundamental ethics, particularly if they don't disclose it to readers or viewers and continue reporting on Cuba issues for their newspapers or radio or TV stations.

Connor stated in her letter that her contract with El Nuevo Herald ``allowed me to contribute to publications and media, as long as they were not in competition of this newspaper.''

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, said Monday that freelancers are not always subject to the same rules as staffers. She said it's an editor's job to know where else freelancers work. But working for the government, she said, is unusual.

The Miami Herald published the story Friday after a preliminary review of hundreds of pages of federal documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request first filed July 13, and requested again in an e-mail to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, on Aug. 15. The paper obtained the documents as part of an ongoing two-year examination of federal spending on pro-democracy efforts in Cuba.

Castelló said Monday that he did not know that El Nuevo Herald reporters Cancio Isla and Alfonso had been getting paid for hosting weekly Martí broadcasts. ''It took me absolutely by surprise that they charged for their work,'' he said, adding that he knew they would go there from time to time.

Alberto Ibargüen -- who was publisher of El Nuevo Herald from 1995 to 1998, then became president of both newspapers from 1998 until July 2005 -- said in an e-mail that he did not know ''at any time'' that El Nuevo Herald staffers were getting paid by the government through Radio and TV Martí.

Asked if he knew that they were even participating in Martí programming, Ibargüen said in an e-mail: ``Not specifically, but given that the writers from ENH are so knowledgeable about Cuban affairs, I would expect that they would have appeared, but not for payment.''

''I myself appeared on a Martí [broadcast] once as I appeared on Channel 2's Issues . . . years ago, for commentary, but not for pay,'' Ibargüen said.

Pedro Roig, director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, said some guests and a host on TV and Radio Martí shows choose not to get paid the $75 to $100 fee for a half-hour show. He also said Thursday that Cuba Broadcasting staff are not allowed to do work for media companies -- unless employees first are cleared by their bosses in Washington.

''Our staffers who do an outside job have to get permission,'' Roig said. ``We assume in other workplaces they do the same.''

The U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting, or OCB, runs Radio and TV Martí. It has a $37 million budget and 149 employees this year. It spent more than $2 million of that money for contractors, including journalists already employed in private media companies, syndicated columnists, university professors and others with expertise on Cuba issues.

article originally published at http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/special_packages/5min/15496237.htm?tem....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey