Puerto Rican journalist files First Amendment lawsuit against his own paper

Tuesday, October 27, 1998

Veteran journalist and award-winning author Manuel “Manny” Suarez, 68, is one of Puerto Rico's most vigorous investigative reporters.

And in an environment where five dailies vie for dollars from the biggest advertiser — the government — Suarez alleges that he is the victim of a heavy-handed campaign by Gov. Pedro Rossello for favorable press coverage.

Suarez recently filed a lawsuit against his own newspaper, the San Juan Star, contending that a deal between its publisher and the Rossello administration, which prohibited reports critical of the government, deprived him of his First Amendment rights as a reporter and violated his free-expression rights.

In April 1997, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, announced that government ads were being yanked from certain newspapers because of criticism directed at the government. The San Juan Star reporter issued a statement in support of freedom of the press and sent it to major newspapers, two dozen members of Congress and many others interested in free-press issues. Shortly after, he was told by Barbara Le Blanc, the Star's associate editor, that he would not be allowed to cover political issues.

According to Suarez's complaint, this plan to silence him was crafted in order to favorably position the Star for government advertising. In fact, the complaint includes a letter drafted by Rossello's former communications director Alberto Goachet, who later became a consultant to the Star.

The May 1997 letter said that Goachet, who also managed the state's advertising budget, had been in conversations with the Star, and that the paper had agreed to more favorable government coverage in exchange for government ads.

As a result, the suit states, “articles and columns written by Suarez in the exercise of his journalistic responsibilities have been suppressed, based upon a perception that his writings would jeopardize the Star's favorable treatment by the government.” And in some cases, the suit also states, Suarez's copy was substantially altered.

First Amendment attorney Bruce W. Sanford represents the Star's competitor El Nuevo Dia. Last December, that paper filed suit against Rossello, claiming the government engaged in a “systematic campaign of harassment and punishment against the newspaper” and the Puerto Rican Cement Company, 30% of which the newspaper owns.

Millions of dollars in advertisements were withdrawn from El Nuevo Dia in April 1997 because the paper published articles critical of the government, the paper's complaint alleges. Also, government officials investigated the cement company for “unfair practices” and fined it $2.1 million.

Sanford said that Suarez's suit, filed earlier this month, is just “the other shoe dropping.”

“He was taken off of his political beat because [the newspaper] decided to trade favorable news coverage of the government for advertising,” Sanford said. ” I didn't think they'd be so blatant. …He's got a very strong claim.”

Suarez is represented by one of Puerto Rico's most prominent civil rights attorneys, Judith Berkan. “It's a frightening situation in Puerto Rico because the government is taking control of every institution in the country,” said. “It's particularly frightening when government attempts to control the press — which is the one watchdog institution which can make sure that government actions are monitored.

“This has had a horrible effect on journalism and the public,” Berkan said. “People can't find out things about the government because they've neutralized him as a journalist. This has devastated Manny, an elder statesman journalist, who cannot cover the matters he has the background to cover.”

Suarez describes the state of press freedom in Puerto Rico's as “a scandalous situation whereby the government is misusing between $50 million to $70 million in government funds a year to buy misleading ads. …The government is using the government money to fool the public.”

Suarez told said: “One part of the fight is how the government parcels out its advertising budget in such a way that they favor the radio, television and newspapers that handle the administration well. Those who handle them well share the advertising bounty and get the preferential treatment,” Suarez said. “The other part is what the Star is doing to me.”

A 35-year employee of the paper, Suarez finally decided to sue the Star and the government after nearly a year and a half of “a continuing pattern of improper acts against him,” according to his suit.

“He was hoping it would be resolved,” Berkan said. “It's not easy to sue your employer when you're still employed there.”

In September 1997, Suarez began covering the trial of police officers charged with corruption in Vieques, an island on the east coast of Puerto Rico.

After it was announced that the mayor of Vieques, who happened be politically allied with Rossello, would be scheduled to testify at the officers' bail hearing, Suarez was prohibited by his paper from covering the trial.

The Star immediately replaced Suarez, a freelancer for The New York Times for 25 years, with a younger reporter — a former journalism student of Suarez's — who knew little about the case.

As a result of this incident and several others, “the humiliation was intensified because this is a person who should be at the pinnacle of his career,” Berkan said.

“They've taken a newspaper that used to be the best investigative newspaper in Puerto Rico with the best in-depth stories involving what the government is doing and turned it into a virtual house organ for the government and the ruling New Progressive Party,” Suarez said. “It's noticeable and people have been canceling subscriptions even before my suit was filed.”

“My position is that I'm defending a free press, and I'm not going to stop doing it for anybody,” Suarez said.

The Goachet letter detailing the Star deal, Sanford says, is a big help to both Suarez's lawsuit against the Star and El Nuevo Dia's lawsuit against Rossello. “Documentary evidence is so powerful,” he said.

Last March, the Inter American Press Association, the largest press group in the Western Hemisphere, urged the Rossello administration to halt an “ugly campaign of harassment” against El Nuevo Dia and other media.

At its semi-annual meeting in San Juan, the group charged Puerto Rico's government with withholding public information, attempting to intimidate reporters and using advertising to reward and punish newspapers. It also said that government officials attacked the credibility of IAPA officials who investigated the El Nuevo Dia complaint.

Representatives from the San Juan Star have yet to respond to Suarez's lawsuit. Le Blanc, the Star's associate editor, was not available for comment. Pedro Rosario Urdaz, Rossello's press secretary, has not returned phone calls.

Meanwhile, El Nuevo Dia, Inc. v. Rossello is in the discovery process, Sanford said. The trial is set to begin in May.