A second chance to get it right

Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Mohammed Al-Douri is going home.

Iraq’s Ambassador to the United Nations left on April 11. After planned stops in Paris and Damascus, he says, “I will be the first to enter my country as a free country.”

Before heading out for what may be the final time, Al-Douri spoke to reporters. When he finished, he walked over to thank Richard Roth, CNN’s long-time United Nations reporter. The men exchanged kisses on the cheek.

Roth’s buss came at an especially bad time -- just hours after a controversial op-ed by Eason Jordan ran in The New York Times. Jordan, CNN’s chief news executive, admitted he’d withheld information about Iraq’s regime for at least a dozen years. He did this, he said, in order to protect CNN employees. Combined with Roth’s smooch, critics had little trouble proving CNN has been kissing up to the Iraqi government.

In his Times piece, Jordan detailed beatings, assassination threats and even executions he was aware of but chose not to report on CNN. Jordan wrote, “I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me.”

It’s too late for those stories to do any good. But Jordan does have a second chance to get it right. In Cuba.

CNN opened a Havana bureau in 1997, and the network still brags it’s the only U.S. network with a bureau on the island. And “being there” is critical to Jordan and CNN. Last year, he explained to Franklin Foer of the New Republic why he worked so hard to keep reporters in Baghdad: “First, because it’s newsworthy; second, because there’s an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN.”

Replace “Iraq” with “Cuba” and Jordan’s answer would probably be exactly the same. In his eyes, CNN has to be there, because it has to be there.

But as Jordan unwittingly proved in his op-ed, the quest for access can cause a reporter to withhold critical information if he’s afraid he’ll lose that access. It happened in Iraq. Why not in Cuba as well?  The CNN Havana bureau could be closed overnight if it files a report that offends Fidel Castro.

Bad things are happening in Cuba. The government is cracking down on civil liberties. In the last month, 75 dissidents -- including journalists and peaceful protesters -- have been sentenced to as much as 27 years in prison. We know these things because of Associated Press dispatches -- but according to a Lexis search, since March 1, CNN has aired no independent reporting on the crackdown.

Meanwhile, some are doing anything they can to escape the island.  Hijackers have recently seized two airplanes and a ferry and tried to make it to the United States. At least three of the hijackers have already been executed.

There’s no defense for hijacking. It’s a serious crime that puts many people in danger. But there’s a trend here. Some people are so desperate to escape Cuba, they’ll do whatever it takes. Why, exactly, is that?

CNN’s in a unique position to answer that question. It has a staff that’s familiar with the island; Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman has been there since 1997. If they are willing to go out among the people -- without government supervision -- and do some reporting, maybe the network can explain why Cubans are so unhappy with their dictator.

If they do that, Fidel Castro will probably be angry. He’ll probably order CNN to leave Cuba, and probably ban them from ever returning.  But as Jordan’s op-ed makes clear, what good is being there if you won’t tell the important stories?

Several days after his op-ed, Jordan told The Washington Post that CNN’s coverage of Iraq had nothing to do with access. “To me it was about one thing and one thing only -- saving lives of innocent people,” he said.

If that’s true, he should order CNN’s Havana bureau to do what its Iraq bureau failed to do -- report the sometimes-awful truth from inside a dictatorship. It’s likely innocent people are being jailed and even executed on the island. CNN can, and must, find out what’s happening and report it.

Eventually Fidel Castro will die or be deposed. It would be a shame if we have to wait for that to happen before CNN will tell us what’s really going on inside Cuba.