2001 World Press Freedom Review

World Press Freedom Review

Fidel Castro's Communist government and its intelligence apparatus, the State Security Department (DSE), continue to clamp down on Cuba's beleaguered independent press. The authorities routinely harass, threaten, arrest, interrogate and imprison journalists, often with the goal of "persuading" them to leave the country. One journalist, Bernado Arévalo Padrón, is currently serving a six year prison term for "insulting" the president.

Although several U.S. news organisations – CNN, the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News – operate permanent bureaus in the country, visiting foreign reporters are also harassed, threatened or even expelled.

Cuba's 100-odd independent journalists – who work for some 20 independent news agencies not recognised by the authorities – are generally regarded as "counter-revolutionaries". As they are not allowed to publish or broadcast in Cuba, these dissident journalists are forced to fax their stories to the United States, or dictate them over the telephone, for use in foreign publications or on the Internet. Their phone calls are monitored, they are prevented from travelling freely, and they are routinely put under house arrest to prevent them from covering newsworthy events. Typewriters must be registered and owning a fax machine or photocopier without authorisation is punishable by imprisonment. The Internet is also severely regulated.

Laws against anti-government propaganda and insults against officials carry penalties of three months to one year in prison, with sentences of up to three years if President Castro or members of the National Assembly or Council of State are the object of criticism. Charges of disseminating enemy propaganda, which includes expressing opinions at odds with those of the government, can bring sentences of up to 14 years. The 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for jail sentences of three to ten years for "anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy's media", is aimed directly at the independent agencies who send their material abroad.

Although he has been eligible for a conditional release since October 2000, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, founder of the independent news agency Línea Sur Press, remains in jail. He was sentenced to six years' imprisonment on 31 October 1997 for "insulting" President Castro and Vice President Carlos Lage in a story he had published in which he revealed how a helicopter transported meat from a farm in Aguada de Pasajeros, a town in Ceinfuegos province, to Havana, while the inhabitants in the town went hungry. He continues to be held in the labour camp El Diamante, Cienfuegos province, and his health has suffered as a result of prolonged imprisonment under poor conditions.

Three journalists were released from Cuban prisons this year.

Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, executive director of the independent news agency Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI), was released from prison on 17 January after serving two years of a four year sentence for "dangerousness". He was released without explanation and informed that the rest of his sentence had been suspended, although he could be jailed again if he returns to work as an independent journalist.

Díaz Hernández was arrested on 18 January 1999 in his home town of Morón, in the central province of Ciego de Avila, and sentenced the following day to four years in prison. His conviction was based on the fact that he had received six warnings for "dangerousness" under article 72 of the penal code.

Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, a correspondent for the independent news agency Cuba Press in Holguín, was released on 26 February after virtually completing his sentence. He was arrested on 1 October 1998 on charges of "insulting" the head of state after making critical statements about President Castro to state security agents who had stopped him as he was walking home from a visit with a friend. After awaiting trial in the Holguín Provisional Prison for seven months, he was convicted by the San Germán Municipal Court, Holguín province, on 6 May 1999, and sentenced to two years and seven months in prison under article 144 of the penal code. While the charges against González Castellanos did not arise directly from his work, local journalists believed that the journalist was provoked by state security agents in retaliation for his reporting on the activities of political dissidents.

Journalist and labour activist José Orlando González Bridón, jailed since 15 December 2000 and sentenced on 24 May 2001 to two years' imprisonment for spreading "false information" and "enemy propaganda", was released on 22 November. González Bridón, head of the small opposition group, the Cuban Democratic Workers' Confederation (CTDC), was the first member of the opposition in Cuba to receive a prison sentence for an article published on the Internet.

Since October 1999, González Bridón had been writing articles for the Web site of the Miami-based Cuba Free Press, but his trial centred on a 5 August 2000 article, published on the Web site, in which the labour activist alleged that the CTDC's national coordinator, Joanna González Herrera, who was killed by her ex-husband, had died as a result of "police negligence".

After a one-day trial behind closed doors on 24 May, the court found González Bridón guilty of disseminating "false information" under article 115 of the penal code and sentenced him to two years imprisonment in June, despite the fact that the state prosecution had only requested a one-year sentence.

On 22 November, González Bridón was granted a conditional release. Prison authorities told him he was being released for "good behaviour", but González Bridón believes his release was a "gesture" prior to the Ibero-American Summit, held in Lima on 23 and 24 November, and another meeting between representatives of the European Union and Cuba in Havana. Under the stipulations of his conditional release, in effect until 14 December when his sentence expired, he was prohibited from leaving the municipality where he resides or meeting with members of the opposition.

Throughout the year, state security agents continued to harass independent journalists and their relations.

On 12 January, Antonio Femenías, director of the news agency Patria, and Roberto Valdivia, a Patria reporter and human rights activist, were harassed by state security agents after meeting with the two Czech nationals. Femenías and Valdivia were detained by DSE agents and interrogated for three hours after meeting the previous night with Ivan Pilip, a Czech parliamentarian and the country's former finance minister, and Jan Bubenik, a former student leader in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Accused of holding "subversive talks" and handing over "resources" to dissidents, Pilip and Bubenik were detained for almost a month, embittering already hostile ties between Cuba and the Czech Republic. In 2000, the Czech Republic had co-sponsored a resolution before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva condemning human rights violations in Cuba.

Three journalists, Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, Carlos Brizuela Yera and Dorka de Céspedes, were detained in August.

On 22 August, Díaz Hernández, executive director of the independent news agency CAPI, and Brizuela Yera, a correspondent for the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CPIC) news agency, were detained by state security agents, who confiscated four radios, as well as books. The two journalists were released eight hours later. In May, Brizuela Yera had been detained for four days after police suspected him of being the author of anti-government posters.

De Céspedes of the Havana Press news agency was also detained on 22 August as she was preparing to cover a demonstration.

On 29 August, Milagros Beatón, director of the independent news agency Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), was summoned by DSE agents. According to the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), police agents promised to obtain a permit for her to visit her husband, who is in exile in the United States. In exchange, she would have to stop publishing articles on a Miami-based Web site, hand over her fax machine to the authorities and dissolve the news agency.

According to RSF, Beatón is the third APLO director since May 2000, as her two predecessors were forced to go into exile due to pressure from the authorities. Santiago Santana, her predecessor, left Cuba in May 2000 following repeated cases of harassment. Luis Alberto Rivera Leyva, who replaced him, fled the island on 31 July 2001 after being arrested four times in 2000.

Four days earlier, Juan Carlos Garcell, a reporter for APLO, was attacked by a police agent who insulted and beat him for no apparent reason.

In September, the government denied emigration permission for five independent journalists. According to the Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, an association of approximately 50 independent journalists created in May and named after an early 20th century Cuban journalist, the authorities withheld the exit permits of five of their colleagues – Osvaldo de Céspedes Feliú, Milagros Beatón Betancourt, Ohalis Victore Irribarren, Jorge Dantes Abad Herrera and Manuel Portal – even though U.S. immigration authorities had granted them visas on the grounds of political persecution. A sixth journalist, Gustavo Cardero Rodríguez, whose exit permit was confiscated in September 2000, attempted to reach the United States by sea in August of this year and was picked up the U.S Coast Guard, who brought him to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling was again the focus of persecution in October when state security agents banned the organisation from giving training courses. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, DSE agents came to the offices of the association and warned its president, Ricardo González Alfonso, that they would not allow the group to offer its 2001-2002 courses. The DSE agents also told González Alfonso that the courses were illegal because the journalists did not have a license to teach. The classes, including Spanish grammar, journalism, and English, were scheduled to open on 15 October and are free for association members.

On October 14, DSE agents visited the homes of independent journalists Jorge Olivera Castillo, Graciela Alfonso, Dorka de Céspedes Vila, and Aimeé Cabrera Álvarez, all of whom are active in the Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, and warned them that attending the classes was illegal.

On 29 October, a DSE agent prevented a class from going ahead at the association's offices. The agent ordered one of the association's teachers, Raúl Rivero, director of the Cuba Press news agency and one of IPI's 50 World Press Freedom Heroes, to leave the premises. Journalists Carmelo Díaz Fernández, Pedro Pablo Alvarez and Víctor Manuel Domínguez were also expelled from the association's offices.

Rivero's wife was harassed by the authorities on 8 November. According to RSF, Blanca Reyes Castañon was summoned by the Havana police under suspicion of trafficking in foreign currency. When she arrived at the police station, an official asked her how much money she had received from abroad, if her husband received money from the New Herald, a Cuban opposition newspaper published in the U.S., and if she and her husband distributed dollars to dissidents. "Finally, they suggested that I should leave the country, together with Raúl," Castañon said.

When not persecuting local journalists, Castro's government also lashed out at the foreign press for its "negative" coverage of Cuba.

Pascal Fletcher, in particular, bore the brunt of attacks by the official press. On 6 January, the official Communist daily, Granma, wrote that the British correspondent for Reuters news agency and the Financial Times was "full of venom against the Cuban revolution". Three days later, Fletcher was criticised in a television programme for his "provocative, tendentious and perfidious attitude".

In a speech broadcast on Cuban television on 17 and 18 January, President Castro criticised the foreign press for being "completely unobjective." Although he did not mention any media or journalists by name, he criticised journalists "who dedicate themselves to defaming the revolution" or who "transmit not only lies, but gross insults against the revolution and against myself in particular." Castro also threatened to cancel the operating permits of foreign media. "Rather than expel one reporter, it would be more reasonable to cancel that agency's permit, which allows them to report from Cuba," he said.

2000 World Press Freedom Review

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