WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Miami handed back to the Cable News Network yesterday the right to make its own news decision about broadcasting tapes of ousted Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega's telephone calls from prison.
Lifting a 20-day-old ban on the broadcast of seven audiotapes, U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler said he had decided, after reading transcripts of those tapes, that there was no need to keep them off the air any longer.
He had imposed the ban at the request of lawyers defending General Noriega in a drug case pending before Judge Hoeveler. The lawyers had said they feared that disclosure of the tapes' contents would impair the Panamanian's right to defend himself.
The order set off a constitutional battle that lawyers for the news media said yesterday had left the impression that "gag orders" on the press -- almost never allowed before -- would now be permissible, at least for a matter of days or weeks.
CNN President Tom Johnson said in a brief statement from Atlanta that CNN would continue covering the story of government-ordered taping of General Noriega's telephone conversations from a federal prison center near Miami.
The network's vice president and general counsel, Steven W. Korn, said in a telephone interview that the "unprecedented" order against CNN had permitted a court "to review a pending news story." He added that CNN hoped such authority "will never again be employed by any court."
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the fact that the order had been issued and had been left in force by the Supreme Court earlier this month "will be cited from here to breakfast" to justify further "gag orders" on the press by the courts.
One of General Noriega's lawyers, Frank Rubino of Miami, appeared to agree with that sentiment, telling reporters in Miami, "Prior restraint [on publication] is in full force and effect."
Mr. Rubino had told Judge Hoeveler during a courtroom hearing yesterday that General Noriega and his lawyers had no objection to lifting the 20-day-old order. The defense lawyer said that CNN already had broadcast the only one of the tapes that included conversations about legal strategy.
"It does no good to close the barn door after the horse is out," he said.
The defense lawyers have asked Judge Hoeveler to hold CNN in contempt of court for broadcasting that tape, contending that it violated the judge's ban -- a charge CNN has denied. The judge has taken no action on the contempt issue.
In lifting his ban on CNN yesterday, the judge did not immediately explain his decision other than to remark that he had come to the conclusion "independently" that "a prior restraint was not appropriate" in this situation.
The audiotapes of General Noriega's calls from prison had been made under standard practice of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. CNN has been insisting that it aired the tapes only as part of the story of whether the government had acted improperly in recording the telephone calls. Mr. Korn of CNN remarked yesterday that "our contention all along is that the focus should have been on the U.S. government taping."
Yesterday, after lifting his order against broadcast, the judge issued a separate order barring the Bureau of Prisons from distributing any recordings of the general's calls to any other government agency without specific approval by the judge.