MIAMI, NOV. 12 -- Lawyers for Manuel Antonio Noriega and Cable News Network agreed today to back down from their escalating confrontation over CNN's broadcast of taped jail-house conversations by the deposed Panamanian leader, at least until the Supreme Court rules on the issue.
Noriega's lawyers dropped their request in U.S. District Court here that the network be fined for civil contempt for airing the tapes in defiance of the court. CNN agreed to refrain from broadcasting taped conversations between Noriega and his defense team until the high court hears its appeal.
CNN's lawyers in Miami said the network plans to file an emergency appeal at the Supreme Court "within the next day or two," seeking a stay of the district court order Friday barring it from broadcasting the tapes for 10 days.
The stage now is set for a high court showdown over two fundamental legal principles: the right to a fair trial versus freedom of the press.
The wrangling began last Thursday when CNN reported that it had obtained seven tapes containing excerpts of telephone calls made by Noriega from the Metropolitan Correctional Center here and recorded by the government.
The network said Noriega talked on the tapes about transferring sums of money, the political situation in Panama and about prospective witnesses against him. CNN also said one tape included conversations between the former dictator and his defense team.
Although U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler barred CNN from airing taped conversations between Noriega and his lawyers, the network broadcast part of such a conversation Friday evening while its appeal was before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
On Saturday, the appeals court upheld both the stay and an order by Hoeveler that CNN must give him the tapes for review. As part of today's agreement, Hoeveler agreed not to seek the tapes until the high court rules.
In accepting today's agreement, Hoeveler reminded CNN that the appeals court had backed his original order and added, "If you play any tapes in violation of my order, you are violating not only my order but also the appeals court order."
CNN's lawyer, Terry Bienstock, said the network has the right to play portions of its Noriega tapes that do not involve conversations with his defense team. Hoeveler agreed.
In its initial report, CNN aired an excerpt of a conversation between Noriega and an unidentified man about the man's whereabouts in Panama. In another call, Noriega spoke in an apparent code to individuals at the Cuban Embassy in Panama.
Before today's agreement, Noriega's lawyers had asked that CNN be fined $300,000 each time it aired the tapes. In their brief, the lawyers said they were unaware of how much prosecutors knew of their talks with Noriega. Myles Malman, chief government lawyer in the case, has said the tapes' contents are unknown to the prosecution.
After today's court session, John May, one of Noriega's lawyers, said he was glad that CNN backed down.
"Our concern is to keep General Noriega from being denied a fair trial," May said. "I'm not here to squeeze blood out of CNN. I don't have to have CNN being fined millions and millions of dollars for continuously being in contempt at this point. That's not my interest."
When the free-speech issues are dealt with, Noriega's attorneys said, they will seek to have drug-trafficking charges against him dismissed on grounds that the government violated the right of a defendant to confer privately with his lawyers.
But government officials have said that conversations of all inmates in federal prisons are recorded routinely and that Noriega signed a standard consent form acknowledging that he was aware that he was being monitored.
Government spokesmen said the government does not monitor conversations between inmates and their attorneys if inmates inform guards before making such telephone calls that they are calling a lawyer.
Noriega has been jailed here since January on charges that he accepted $4.6 million in bribes from Colombia's Medellin cartel to protect cocaine-smuggling operations through Panama. He had surrendered to U.S. officials after U.S. troops invaded Panama.
CNN has said the tapes were obtained by a reporter for "Noticiero Telemundo/CNN," a Spanish-language nightly news program produced by CNN for Telemundo, an independent Spanish-language network. CNN broadcasts its programs in Latin America.
Once the matter of broadcasting them is resolved, the existence of the tapes may jeopardize the government's case, according to some legal experts.
Frank Rubino, Noriega's primary lawyer, maintains that the government should have known that Noriega was telephoning his lawyers because guards at the federal facility place calls for him, then hand him the telephone receiver.
Apparently, not all calls by Noriega to his lawyers' office are to confer about defense strategy. Noriega sometimes places international calls through Rubino's office to a longtime friend, his family or former cronies in Panama, the Miami Herald reported last month in an article about his life in prison.