- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

See if any of this sounds familiar: An oppressive dictator who's an international pariah; a totalitarian regime with an abysmal human-rights record; secret police who harass and imprison local journalists; and the ubiquitous presence of CNN cozily ensconced in the capital, blandly repeating the government's pronouncements, while doing little to highlight the plight of repressed citizens.

Thinking of Iraq under Saddam Hussein? How about Fidel Castro's Cuba, the only communist dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere. In 1997, CNN became the first U.S.-based news organization with a fulltime news bureau in Cuba in nearly 30 years. As an independent news organization, CNN had a chance to show Americans the reality of Mr. Castro's dictatorship. On her first day, incoming Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman promised viewers that "we will be given total freedom to do what we want and to work without prior censorship."

Mr. Castro shouldn't have lost much sleep worrying whether CNN would reveal the awful details of his dictatorship. Last year, Media Research Center Senior News Analyst Geoff Dickens and I reviewed five years of CNN's Cuba news, from March 17, 1997, the date the Havana bureau was established, through March 17, 2002. Instead of exposing the regime, CNN had allowed itself to become another component of another dictator's propaganda machine.

Rather than promoting a diversity of opinion, CNN mainly gave the communists a chance to promote their agenda to an international audience. Yes, the network aired a few sound bites from Catholic church leaders (a total of 11 on-air quotes) and peaceful dissidents (12 quotes), but these voices were swamped by quotes from Fidel Castro and smooth English-speaking propagandists like National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, the Tariq Aziz of the Caribbean (76).

CNN's audience also heard from everyday Cubans, but few were shown saying anything disagreeable to Mr. Castro. CNN showed 61 Cuban citizens praising the communists, compared with only 11 who dared to dissent. To give the misleading impression that Castro's regime is hugely popular among the Cubans is intellectually dishonest, but there it was.

Only once did we notice CNN acknowledging the consequences of candor. On December 13, 1998, reporter Susan Candiotti showed a communist youth rally. A bystander complained to CNN: "Cuba means one party. You see how fanatic the people are." Ms. Candiotti related what happened next: "As he spoke with CNN, a crowd gathered around him. Moments later, as he tried to leave, a group swept around him. Then, two men hustled him down the street. We were prevented from following by several who waved the Cuban flag and chanted, 'Fidel.' " CNN's pictures showed the man being whisked away, his feet barely touching the ground. Ms. Candiotti followed up, but to no avail: "A government spokesperson said he knew nothing of the incident and insisted all Cubans are guaranteed fundamental human rights made possible by the revolution."

CNN broadcast almost nothing about Mr. Castro's awful human-rights record, a deliberate and shameful omission. Just seven of 212 stories (or 3 percent) focused on the regime's treatment of dissidents; only four stories (2 percent) concerned themselves with the lack of democracy; and only two stories (less than 1 percent) spotlighted the intimidation of journalists. So much for the "truth."

Instead, CNN's coverage focused on everyday life, giving the sense that Cuba is just a normal country. In stories that could have originated from Cleveland or Atlanta, CNN profiled a promising young ballerina, interviewed a 94-year-old guitar player and toured a historic hotel. One August day in 1998, reporter John Zarrella talked to Cubans waiting for hours in the sun: "The eventual reward, way up at the head of the line, is a bowl of summer-heat-quenching, palate-pleasing, cover-your-face-in-it ice cream."

This month, Cuban authorities held sham trials for 28 independent journalists arrested in a crackdown that began March 18. For the "crime" of trying to report the true story of Castro's thugocracy, the Cubans were sentenced to between 14 and 27 years in prison. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the new repression "despicable." Although CNN did report Cuba's quick execution last Friday of three men who hijacked a boat, the network has not reported the imprisonment of these journalists.

CNN's presence in Cuba could have bolstered local reporters. CNN could have used its unique bureau to dig out stories that revealed the brutal nature of the regime. CNN could have embarrassed Mr. Castro by frequently demanding access to imprisoned dissidents. But rather than exposing Mr. Castro, CNN gave him an international platform.

Given the awfulness of the secrets we now know CNN was hiding for Saddam, it's fair to ask whether CNN is doing the same for Fidel.


Rich Noyes is research director at the Media Research Center in Alexandria.


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