April 24, 2003

Reporters Without Borders protesters beaten up by Cuban embassy officials

Reporters Without Borders, April 24, 2003.

Reporters Without Borders activists were beaten by staff of the Cuban embassy in Paris today when they chained themselves to the embassy railings in the presence of several prominent cultural figures to protest against the imprisonment of 26 journalists in Cuba.

A dozen Reporters Without Borders protesters were attacked by Cuban embassy staff today after the ambassador refused to accept a letter demanding the release of 26 journalists recently imprisoned for up to 27 years. Cuba has now overtaken Eritrea, Burma and China as the world's biggest prison for journalists.

After the refusal, the protesters chained shut the entrances to the embassy and handcuffed themselves to the railings outside. Embassy staff then beat up the organisation's secretary-general, Robert Ménard, and the head of its Latin America desk, Régis Bourgeat.

The demonstrators wore masks and t-shirts bearing pictures of the journalists and carried two banners, one reading "Cuba = prison" and the other showing a quote by one of the jailed journalists, Raúl Rivero, saying : "I don't plot, I write."

Among those who came to express support for the jailed journalists were Cuban writers Zoé Valdès and Eduardo Manet, Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, French film director Romain Goupil and French novelist Pascal Bruckner.

Reporters Without Borders also released a letter it sent on 18 April to French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, criticising France for not including in its policy towards Cuba the common stand adopted by the European Union (EU) making closer ties between the EU and Cuba conditional on allowing multiparty democracy and basic freedoms. It asked the minister to step up contacts with the dissidents and their families and give them more support. (Read the letter).

Reporters Without Borders has several times called on the EU to suspend consideration of Cuba's application in January to join the Cotonou Agreement (that gives 77 Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries EU aid and preferential trade terms) until the journalists were freed.

Reporters Without Borders activists had occupied the Cuban tourist office in Paris for several hours on 4 April to call for their release, symbolically turning it into a prison and saying it would take further action if the arrested journalists were convicted.

The Cuban government took advantage of the imminent US invasion of Iraq to launch an unprecedented wave of repression on 18 March, arresting nearly 80 dissidents, including 26 independent journalists, and accusing them of undermining the country's "independence and territorial integrity" in league with the US Interests Section (diplomatic representation) in Havana. They were jailed for between six and 28 years.

Raúl Rivero, 1997 winner of the Reporters Without Borders / Fondation de France Prize and Ricardo González, the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in Havana, received 20-year sentences. All were given sham trials, in secret, at high speed, with no right to defend themselves and involving pre-prepared evidence from undercover agents and neighbours accusing them solely on the basis of their opinions.

Before 18 March, four journalists were already in prison. They were Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, of the Línea Sur Press news agency, who was sentenced in November 1997 to six years imprisonment for "insulting" President Fidel Castro and Vice-President Carlos Lage ; Carlos Brizuela Yera, of the CPIC news agency, and Lester Téllez Castro, head of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña, who were arrested on 4 March last year in Ciego de Ávila while protesting against a police attack on a journalist from the Cuba Press agency ; and Carlos Alberto Domínguez, who has been held without formal charges since 23 February last year.

The Cuban constitution bans any private ownership of the media. Because they cannot publish in their own country, about 100 independent journalists have relied on Cuban exile organisations in the United States to put out their articles, mostly on Internet websites. Nearly 60 independent journalists have been forced into exile abroad since 1995 after being harassed daily by the authorities.


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