The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) opened a civil investigation of journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore following his March 2007 trip to Cuba, according to a May 2 letter sent to Moore by Dale Thompson, chief of general investigations and field operations. The letter notes that “persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States” may only travel to Cuba if they are authorized to do so “through general or specific licenses.” The letter further informs Moore that “the information you provide in response to this letter may serve as the basis of further civil enforcement action by OFAC.”
The film production company Goldflat Productions applied on October 12, 2006, for a license to travel to Cuba on behalf of Moore and others, according to the Treasury Department letter. The Treasury Department did not make a decision on whether to issue a license prior to Moore’s March trip, during which footage was shot for his documentary, “Sicko.”
The Treasury Department letter states that U.S. Code 515.563, which covers journalistic activities in Cuba, allows U.S. journalists to travel to the island under one of two categories of licenses. One category is a general license applicable to “regularly employed” journalists or support personnel. Full-time journalists who fall under the general category do not need to actually apply for a license for travel to Cuba as “they are already covered,” Treasury Department Director of Public Affairs Molly B. Millerwise told CPJ.
A second category is a specific license for travel to Cuba, applicable to freelance journalists. U.S. Code 515.563 paragraph (b) states that U.S. journalists intent on “doing research in Cuba for a freelance article” may apply for a specific license to travel to Cuba. Freelance journalists are further instructed to provide a “resume or similar document showing a record of publications.” U.S. Code 515.563 (b) (3) further states that freelance journalists may apply for a license to make “multiple trips to Cuba over an extended period of time by applicants demonstrating a significant record of freelance journalism.”
The Treasury Department letter to Moore informs him that the Office of Foreign Assets Control “has information indicating that [he] claimed to qualify under the provision for general license for full-time journalists.” Attorneys from the law firm, Boies, Schiller and Flexner, representing the Weinstein Company, which is distributing the documentary film, declined to provide to CPJ a copy of the production company’s original application. They also declined to comment on the matter.
It was unclear why Moore would apply for a general license to travel to Cuba. Individuals who meet the general standard do not need to apply for such a license as they automatically qualify for one, according to both the language of U.S. Code 515.563 and Treasury Department spokeswoman Millerwise.
The Treasury Department letter to Moore demands that the filmmaker, to show that his trip to Cuba “qualifies for a general license for journalistic activities,” provide either “evidence that [he is] regularly employed as a journalist by a news reporting organization or evidence that [he is] regularly employed as a supporting broadcast or technical personnel by a news reporting organization.”
Moore is a journalist with a long record of documentary films, CPJ research shows. He has been regularly engaged in making documentary films since 1989. His previous credits include “Roger & Me,” the Academy Award-winning “Bowling for Columbine,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
A search of the Treasury Department’s Web site indicates that few U.S. journalists or media organizations have incurred civil penalties for unlicensed travel to Cuba. The only posted case involves Harper’s Bazaar, which paid $31,000 to settle allegations that it engaged in unlicensed payments for travel expenses for a 1998 photo shoot in Cuba.
Violations can bring penalties of up to $65,000, Millerwise told CPJ.