TV Martí under scrutiny following controversial report and two employee suspensions

Tomás P. Regalado, director of the Office of Cuban Broadcasting, which runs Radio and TV Martí station, during a press conference in August on human rights violations in Cuba.
Tomás P. Regalado, director of the Office of Cuban Broadcasting, which runs Radio and TV Martí station, during a press conference in August on human rights violations in Cuba. el Nuevo Herald

A report that led to the suspension of two Radio and TV Martí staffers has again shined a spotlight on the controversial U.S. government-funded media outlet with a mission to transmit uncensored information to Cuba.

The staffers were suspended after Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, complained about a report — aired five months ago — in which George Soros was identified as a “multimillionaire Jew” and “architect of the financial collapse of 2008.”

The report, produced by journalist Isabel Cuervo, was first broadcast in three parts in late May by the station’s Antena Live news program. It accuses Soros of “financing anti-establishment movements that fill his pockets,” arranging electoral fraud in Venezuela and supporting Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and the Cuban government. He is described as a “nonpracticing Jew of flexible morals.”

“This is very worrying because, first of all, it looks like an anti-Semitic report,” said Tomás P. Regalado, director of the Office of Cuban Broadcasting, which runs the Martí stations. The former Miami mayor, who was appointed to head the OCB in June, after the Soros report aired, said station staffers will get training on issues of diversity.

Cuervo and former Martí news director Wilfredo Cancio were put on administrative leave Monday and were escorted by guards out of the building. Cuervo’s immediate supervisor was not suspended, according to an employee who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals.

Cancio and Cuervo declined to comment to el Nuevo Herald.

“Two Martí staffers were taken away by guards. Very sad. In part, it reflects the negative atmosphere in the office,” said the station employee. “If they do a deep investigation, they could close the Martí stations because they have moved far from the principles of the VOA [Voice of America] and are broadcasting political propaganda instead of true and objective information.”

The story on Soros was proposed by Cuervo and approved by Cancio, Regalado said. Emails show that they “are the only two people who had anything to do with the report coming out on the air.”

While the report has been branded as anti-Semitic, several Martí employees said it also fails to meet the journalistic standards of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM, formerly called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the OCB’s parent agency) or the Voice of America.

After Flake sent a letter demanding an investigation, the head of the USAGM, John F. Lansing, issued a statement saying that the staffers responsible for the report would be immediately put on administrative leave and could be fired.

The investigation, started Monday, will last 10 days and Lansing will make the final decision on the course of action.

“I am personally and professionally offended by this example of unprofessionalism, and I am committed to ensuring that we develop processes and structures to prevent this from happening again,” Lansing said.

The report makes several mentions of Judicial Watch — an organization that has repeatedly criticized Soros, a Democratic party donor — but its only on-camera source for the allegations is a former FBI agent. And that interview, like others included in the report, was taken from YouTube videos, Regalado said.

“We’re going through the tapes. We’re going through the scripts. Through the email chains because apparently this went on for several weeks and there was a lot of communication between the reporter and the news director,” Regalado said.

He said he had not seen the broadcast until Mother Jones magazine published a story about it on Friday.

The broadcast “had a lot of flaws, beginning with the fact that no sources were interviewed by the reporter. She just took from here or there,” Regalado said. “I don’t know why that ever got on the air because it wasn’t researched. It wasn’t produced with in-house material. It was just taken from here or there. I’m puzzled.”

Although the report was broadcast months ago, it is making headlines amid the current political polarization of the U.S. midterm elections, bomb threats against Soros and the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Some saw the current climate as an opportunity to criticize Radio and TV Martí.

Phil Peters, an analyst at the Cuba Research Center and consultant for companies that want to invest in Cuba, said the Soros report had caught his eye months ago. After Soros was sent one of the mail bombs last week, Peters transcribed and translated the report and posted it on his blog, The Cuban Triangle.

“When the bomb threats against Soros took place last week, I decided it was important to … publish it. I did not like the idea of remaining silent before the repugnant anti-Semitism produced by our government,” said Peters, a regular critic of Radio and TV Martí.

“Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer money, when you have the internet and travel to Cuba,” Peters said.

Peters’ blog post was picked up by Mother Jones and then by Flake, who has pushed to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba and shut down Radio and TV Martí.

“I have long argued that TV Marti is a waste of taxpayer money,” wrote Flake. “This kind of anti-Semitic programming is unbecoming of any entity affiliated with the government of the United States.”

The controversy focused renewed attention on Radio and TV Martí, which has had three directors in the past three years and seen its editorial stance become a battleground for staffers and Cuban exiles in Miami.

The White House appointed Regalado to head the OCB following the exit of interim director André Mendes during an internal struggle at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The previous director, Malule González, resigned in June 2017 amid a campaign organized by Miami Cuban lawyer Marcell Felipe, president of the Inspire America Foundation, accusing her of turning the stations into “a Castro propaganda arm” and banning staffers from referring to the Cuban government as a “dictatorship.”

Felipe later took public credit for the departure of González and her replacement with Regalado, a member of Inspire America’s board of directors.

Regalado inherited problems from stations where one employee described the work environment as “tense, full of taunting and bullying.” Some of its Cuban employees opposed the Obama administration’s policy of engaging Cuba.

Regalado, a former radio journalist, tried to increase the radio and TV programming. But the Martinoticias digital site, which at one point grew exponentially, has been weakened by the dismissal of several reporters who contributed to the site.

“We had all arrived recently from Cuba, four or five years. We had studied in Cuban schools, we were journalists and not activists and we had gone to work there during the Obama administration,” said one of the people dismissed, who asked to remain anonymous.

Regalado disputed that version as the reasons for the dismissals.

“The reason is the past administrations had decided to put enormous resources on the web page and we had a budget deficit of almost $1 million. It was an economic problem,” he said, adding that the seven people dismissed were contractors hired through intermediary companies that drove up their costs.

Because of the budget problems, OCB also decided to eliminate its contracts with several companies in the United States and abroad that handled payments to a network of independent journalists on the island, leaving the stations without island-produced content.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres