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SOUTHERN AIR TRANSP., INC. v. ABC

July 30, 1987

Southern Air Transport, Inc., Plaintiff,
v.
American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. and Karen Burnes, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GASCH

Honorable Oliver Gasch, Senior District Judge

 MEMORANDUM

 I. INTRODUCTION

 On February 25 and 26, 1987, the American Broadcasting Company ("ABC") broadcast an investigative news report describing the efforts of the United States Government to enlist the assistance of the government of South Africa to aid the Nicaraguan Contras by supplying aircraft and flight crews. *fn1" The story was entitled the "South Africa Connection." In an attempt to flesh out the alleged connection, Karen Burnes, an investigative reporter for ABC, highlighted the participation of Southern Air Transport ("Southern Air") in the venture. Plaintiff Southern Air now brings suit against defendants ABC and Karen Burnes for libel and for being placed before the public in a false light. The defendants have submitted motions to the Court either to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The plaintiff has cross-motioned for leave to conduct discovery and for sanctions against the defendants. For reasons provided hereafter, the Court will grant the defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's false light claims and will deny all the remaining motions.

 II. FACTS

 
We are going to begin this evening with the results of an ABC News investigation into what lengths the Reagan Administration has gone to in order to help the Nicaraguan Contras when Congress was against it. This is a story of how the South African government was enlisted to help the Contras with aircraft and flight crews.

 During this introduction, the graphic broadcast was of drilling armed soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms above the words "South Africa Connection."

 After this introduction, Karen Burnes proceeded to tell the promised story. Burnes first noted that "for over three years United States government officials and the South African government have been working together to provide military assistance to the Contras." The operation was said to be run by CIA Director William Casey "outside of all normal channels." During this portion of the broadcast, the television screen was split into three portions: the top portion of the screen showed the word "INVESTIGATION," the bottom left portion of the screen contained the words "South Africa Connection," and the lower right portion of the screen contained the words "The Contras." As Burnes spoke, the image on the screen dissolved into a film of marching troops carrying automatic weapons.

 Burnes next described that the CIA's then Latin American Division Chief, Duane Clarridge, had secretly traveled to South Africa in 1983 in an attempt to solicit aid for the Contras. Burnes stated that,

 
Several months later [after Clarridge's trip to South Africa] Safair Freighter, a South African cargo company, opened an office in the United States. U.S. officials said Safair is involved in covert operations for the South African government. On the same day it incorporated Safair signed a lease with Southern Air Transport, known for its past relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency. Safair provided planes to Southern Air, planes which were used to fly weapons to the Contras.

 The graphic during this sequence showed an airplane bearing the name SAFAIR dissolving into a film showing an airplane bearing the name Southern Air Transport.

 Before the conclusion of the story, Southern Air Transport was mentioned yet again. Burnes stated that in 1984 CIA Director Casey met with officials of Saudi Arabia to discuss covert aid for the Contras in Nicaragua. Moreover, in 1986, Casey was said to have personally visited South Africa to solicit aid. Burnes explained that

 
one month later after Casey's visit to South Africa, retired Air Force General Richard Secord, his deputy Richard Gadd and a man described by others present as Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North met with Southern Air Transport pilots in a safe house in San Salvador. There they were told that third country nationals would fly weapons into Nicaragua. American officials say that some of these nationals were South African.

 The graphics associated with this segment were pictures of Secord, Gadd, and North and a film of an unidentified air strip, purportedly associated with the safe house in San Salvador. ...


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