FLORIDA — The Cable News Network apologized in late December for violating a federal court order prohibiting CNN from broadcasting conversations between deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and his lawyers. The network will also reimburse $85,000 in legal fees the federal government spent to obtain the network’s criminal contempt conviction in the matter.
Judge William Hoeveler of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, who had issued the original order in November 1990, convicted CNN of criminal contempt in early November 1994. He told the network in his mid-December 1994 sentence that it could broadcast an apology and pay the fees, or face a larger fine. The law does not limit the contempt fine a judge may impose. Judge Hoeveler said that his sentence was meant to reinforce the court’s authority.
CNN broadcast the text on December 19 while an anchor read the apology off-screen. “On further consideration,” the statement approved by Judge Hoeveler said, “CNN realizes that it was in error in defying the order of the court and publishing the Noriega tape while appealing the court’s order.”
The network aired the statement on CNN and its Headline News channel over two days. The air time was meant to approximate the duration of CNN’s broadcasts of the Noriega tapes.
Judge Hoeveler had ordered CNN four years ago not to broadcast jailhouse telephone conversations Noriega had with his lawyers that corrections officials taped. Nonetheless, CNN aired the tapes eleven times between Nov. 9 and 10, 1990, while it appealed the order. Headline News reported 43 times that the network was defying the order. The network said it was intentionally disobeying the court because CNN believed the order was an invalid prior restraint.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) upheld Hoeveler’s order in early November 1990. CNN asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay Hoeveler’s order and review the case but the Court refused in mid-November.
Both courts concluded that Noriega’s right to a fair trial on federal drug charges outweighed the First Amendment interests in publication. Noriega was eventually convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
(U.S. v. CNN; Media Counsel: John Dalton, Atlanta)
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