Broadcast Blunder

When the feds snatched Elian, Radio Martí should have been first with the news to Cuba. Instead its director quit in protest and chaos reigned.

Back in the newsroom everyone panicked. “They knew this was very important information,” the source continues, “and the line of command was broken. [San Roman] was reluctant to give the okay [to put the news on the air]. He didn't give the go-ahead until a little past 9:00 a.m. Radio Rebelde had broadcast one hour after the fact, VOA did a few minutes after it started, and of course all the Hispanic and English-language TV and radio stations. This has no precedent in the history of Radio Martí. Radio Martí has always been characterized as being the first [to air breaking news to Cuba] -- Chernobyl; when Fidel's daughter defected; when the tugboat massacre happened. [In 1994 the Cuban navy sank the 13 de Marzo tugboat filled with citizens trying to flee the country.]

“As far as I know, that whole Saturday and Sunday the radio had no director,” the source says. “Between Sunday and Monday, late at night, Herminio and Estorino were able to convince Roberto not to resign. But Monday morning he went around to Radio Mambí and WQBA and La Poderosa [WWFE-AM 670], and he pronounced a kind of proclamation of his point of view.”

Rodriguez-Tejera called his statement “Sin tregua, pero sin amo” (“Without a truce, but without a master”). It was a rambling, emotional condemnation of both the Cuban and U.S. governments' actions in the Elian case. It also was a roundabout declaration of independence from his employer, the federal government, which he implied had sought to dictate Radio Martí's coverage of Elian. He considered his statement a protest against repression that, he made clear, was comparable to dissident Cubans' stands against the Castro dictatorship. “Radio Martí, because of its mandate from Congress and because of the commitment we have with those who work for democracy [in Cuba],” Rodriguez-Tejera pledged, “will continue to inform truthfully, impartially, and objectively, rejecting every attempt at political manipulation, no matter from where it comes....”

The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was willing to go to bat for Radio MartĂ­'s botched Elian coverage
Bill Cooke
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was willing to go to bat for Radio MartĂ­'s botched Elian coverage

Rodriguez-Tejera, one of only a few people who returned calls for this story, says he is not authorized to talk about the station's Elian coverage or its aftermath. Nor will he discuss his job status, though he insists he hasn't seen or heard anything that might be construed as a complaint about his handling of the news. Herminio San Roman did not respond to several phone calls. Still, neither may be able to ignore indefinitely all the issues raised in the IBB's evaluation of the station's postraid performance.

“Radio Martí's coverage of the raid conducted on the Gonzalez family home in the early morning hours of April 22 was generally biased and anti-federal government, thus echoing the sentiments of the community where the station is located,” the report states. “The raid occurred at approximately 5:10 a.m. and the station first broadcast the breaking news almost four hours later, at 9:02 a.m. Moreover it did not explain to its listeners, who logically would have tuned in at a much earlier hour, the cause for the delay. When it did broadcast the news, it basically described the most negative moments of Operation Reunion -- the seizing of the child “by gunpoint,' the use of tear gas/pepper gas against the crowd outside, et cetera.

“Another noteworthy aspect of the coverage is that Martí did not make attempts to correct inaccuracies in statements made by key participants in the event. During the 5:00 p.m. newscast, there was [a sound bite from] Elian's cousin Marisleysis, in which she said that “a lady put a bag over Elian's head.' The images of this highly photographed and filmed incident, which according to the U.S. media (CNN for instance) had aired on Cuban television and therefore was seen by much of that country's population, proved this statement to be false.

“Cuba's media began broadcasting an event that occurred in Miami at least two hours before Radio Martí, a station based precisely in that city.... By broadcasting the breaking news four hours later, without an explanation as to why, the station involuntarily created a void that was, in turn, filled by the Cuban media. This seems to indicate ... a potential impact on the station's credibility.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors also was troubled about Radio Martí's credibility and asked San Roman for an explanation of the four-hour lapse. In late May the OCB director appeared before the BBG, flanked by aides to U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republicans from Miami, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. San Roman and his escorts, according to sources who later spoke with board members, argued that Radio Martí was justified in delaying news of the raid because the U.S. tactics were similar to those employed by Castro's police and thus reflected poorly on the federal government.

Nonetheless the BBG voted in June to take action against Rodriguez-Tejera, who currently earns $99,423 per year. Sources close to Radio Martí and the BBG assert the board decided to reprimand the Radio Martí director and transfer him to another job within the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Rumors circulated in July that the BBG had actually told San Roman to fire Rodriguez-Tejera but that San Roman had refused to do so. It is likely the scenario was less confrontational. “The BBG decided they would reassign Roberto to a different position inside the OCB,” says a source familiar with the Martí stations. “And then they called Herminio to inform him about that. Then Herminio presented an appeal before the BBG.”

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