CNN found in contempt for broadcasting Noriega tapes in violation of court order
FLORIDA — A federal district court found CNN guilty of criminal contempt in early November for willfully violating the court’s order prohibiting the airing of recorded conversations between deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and his lawyers. CNN aired the tapes in early November 1990.
Judge William Hoeveler of the U.S. District Court in Miami granted a motion in early November 1990 by Noriega for a restraining order temporarily prohibiting CNN from airing conversations between Noriega and his lawyers that were taped by prison officials.
Hoeveler issued the order to give him time to determine whether airing the conversations would impair Noriega’s right to a fair trial on then-pending federal charges for cocaine trafficking. Hoeveler ordered CNN to provide him with the tapes so that he could make that determination.
Without providing the tapes to Hoeveler, CNN appealed the restraining order to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) that same day, arguing that the order placed an unconstitutional prior restraint on publication of newsworthy material. Without waiting for the appellate court’s decision, CNN aired the tapes eleven times between the evening of Nov. 9 and the afternoon of Nov. 10, 1990.
The appellate court upheld Hoeveler’s temporary injunction on Nov. 10 and ordered CNN to provide Hoeveler with the tapes. CNN then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay Hoeveler’s restraining order and to review the entire case. The Supreme Court refused on Nov. 18.
CNN announced on Nov. 19 that it would allow Judge Hoeveler to review the seven tapes.
Noriega’s attorney withdrew the motion for injunction on Nov. 28, however, stating that the broadcasts mooted the issue. The government said it had no objection to the broadcasts. Hoeveler vacated his restraining order after reviewing transcripts of the tapes, agreeing that further restraints on publication served no purpose.
Nonetheless, CNN was charged in late March 1994 with criminal contempt for violating the restraining order before Hoeveler lifted it. Hoeveler conducted a three-day, non-jury trial in mid-September on the matter.
His early November 1994 decision acknowledged the importance of a free press, but stressed that willful violation of court orders cannot go unpunished. Hoeveler said that his order had been specific and clear, and CNN had no excuse for violating it.
CNN must return to the court in early December for sentencing. It could be fined up to $100,000.
(U.S. v. CNN; Media Counsel: John Dalton, Atlanta)