Journalism is at an unprecedented crossroads in contemporary history. For the first time after 47 years of absolute control, Fidel Castro is not the nominal leader of Cuba.
The temporary transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Gen. Raul Castro, because of an acute health crisis, so far as brought no sign of change in journalism and freedom of expression. Acts of repression against independent journalists, mistreatment of jailed reporters and very strict government surveillance limiting the people’s access to alternative sources of information are continuing,
Government propaganda has escalated wildly to unheard of levels of triumphalism and censorship, and the number of journalists in jail has risen to 26. Coercion against the movement of independent journalists has not ended, from police warnings, temporary detentions, searches on the streets, evictions and seizures of personal possessions to flagrant violations of the right to information and orchestrated government persecution against clandestine access to foreign television stations, especially from the United States.
The independent journalists who are in prison for exercising their right to press freedom are: Ricardo González Alfonso, Víctor Rolando Arroyo, Normando Hernández González, Julio César Gálvez, Adolfo Fernández Sainz, Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, Mijaíl Barzaga Lugo, Pedro Argüelles Morán, Pablo Pacheco Ávila, Alejandro González Raga, Alfredo Pulido López, Fabio Prieto Llorente, Iván Hernández Carrillo, José Luis García Paneque, Juan Carlos Herrera, Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, José Ubaldo Izquierdo, Omar Ruiz Hernández, José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, Lester Luis González Pentón, Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, Armando Betancourt, Alberto Gil Triay, Odelín Alfonso and Oscar Mario González.
After being sentenced to seven months in prison, Lamasiel Gutiérrez Romero, 37, the only female journalist who remained behind bars was released just hours after the IAPA meeting in March. She was freed on condition that she would give up her profession, but she is still sending reports.
Santiago Du Bouchet, director of Habana Press agency was also freed August 5 after serving one year and seven days in jail for the alleged crime of resistance.
The situation of journalist Oscar Mario González is alarming. He has been in jail since July 22, 2005 in a Havana prison without being formally charged and without bail. González, 62, was arrested near his house on suspicion that he was going to an anti-government protest in front of a French diplomatic site. He could be accused of violating the 1999 Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Security and Economy (Law 88) which was used to sentence dissidents and journalists to long prison terms in the spring of 2003. The authorities rejected an appeal for him to be released last week, despite his health problems.
On June 5, Armando Betancourt of the Nueva Prensa Cubana agency was arrested and he is still being held on charges of disorderly conduct. Betancourt was intercepted by the Camagüey police when he was reporting on an eviction.
On September 16, the political police arrested Odelín Alfonso, contributor to the Cubanet agency at his home in Havana. Allfonso had been detained last May and he was warned that he would be charged if he did not stop acting as a reporter.
The government is still calling for intimidation of the journalists of the so-called Cause of the 75 who have been given special release from jail for health reasons. Special release is a clause based on Decree Law 62 of 1987 which allows for a sentence to be completed under house arrest. It does not provide for the sentence to be expunged and leaves open the possibility that the person benefiting from it may return to jail if the authorities decide that he or she is not complying with the rules of “good conduct.”
Among those granted special release, Jorge Olivera, sentenced to 18 years in jail, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, sentenced to 20, have refugee visas to go to the United States with their families, but the government had not given them exit permits. Two other members of this group, Carmelo Díaz Fernández and Edel José García also have U.S. visa and are waiting for permission to travel. They all suffer from various ailments, and most are elderly.
Not only do the authorities summon them to the courts to give them “rules of social conduct” and restrictions on travel outside their localities, but they are also harassed with searches and threats by pro-government organizations in their neighborhoods.
On September 27, police inspectors made a through search of the home of Díaz Fernández on the pretext of finding a parabolic antenna to receive foreign television transmissions. The search was conducted without a warrant.
The journalist and psychologist Guillermo Fariñas decided to end his hunger strike to demand free access to the Internet on August 31, exactly seven months after beginning the protest. It sparked international interest because of the government’s prohibitions concerning the Internet. Fariñas was fed intravenously, and was diagnosed in critical condition during several months of the fast. He is recuperating from kidney and heart problems in the city of Santa Clara, Villaclara, and has promised to continue his demands using other peaceful methods.
Use of the Internet is limited to central government agencies, educational and cultural institutions and foreigners who subscribe to the service in hard currency. No Cuban can get free access to the Web, even paying in hard currency. The government admits that if has “Internet regulations” and that it blocks pages that it says “harm the country’s sovereignty” because they belong to “counterrevolutionary, subversive and terrorist organizations.” The government blames the United States for blocking the connection to an underwater fiber optic cable which would increase broadband connections possible and reduce the cost of access to the Internet on the island.
The journalists who are still in jail serving terms of up to 27 years endure inhuman conditions. Eighteen have serious health problems, such as chronic ailments and illnesses contracted in jail. The Cuban government has refused to grant them special release. There is also one handicapped man, Miguel Galván Gutiérrez serving a 26-year term.
On August 29, journalist Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, who has held several hunger strikes in prison, was attacked by two guards at Kilo 8 jail in Camagüey. Herrera Acosta, sentenced to 20 years in the Cause of 75, was injured in an eye during the beating and later was dragged through the corridors of the prison. He had protested and demanded his right to family telephone calls, which have routinely been denied.
On September 13, journalist Alberto Gil Triay began a hunger strike in the Valle Grande jail west of Havana. Gil Triay, who was arrested last November, has suffered several heart attacks while detained. He was tried on June 22 on charges of “subversive propaganda,” and could be sentenced to seven years in prison.
The drive to prevent the spread of clandestine satellite television signals, mainly in Havana, was ratcheted up several notches. Raids on neighborhoods to find signal redistribution sites, dismantle the networks and destroy the antennas are more and more frequent
On August 10, the official press issued harsh warnings against the black market in parabolic antennas on the island. The newspaper Granma stressed that receiving satellite signals without authorization is not just a violation of national and international laws, but it offers “fertile terrain for those who would destroy the spirit of the revolution.”
The official warning came after TV Marti, a U:S. government radio station directed at a Cuban audience, decided to expand its broadcasts to six days a week. They are transmitted from an airplane equipped with special technology to prevent the jamming of the signal from the island.
TV Martí is not yet received regularly in Cuba. However, it is estimated that about 30,000 Cubans pay for clandestine satellite service as an alternative to state television for information and entertainment. The government television is characterized by a heavy load of political propaganda promoting the so-called Battle of Ideas. Satellite and cable television is restricted to hotels and foreign residents.
Government control over information has clearly intensified since Fidel Castro’s illness and transfer of power. The leader’s condition has been officially declared a “state secret,” and authorities have rejected hundreds of requests from foreign journalists to travel to Cuba when they heard the news. Several foreign journalists who had entered the country with tourist visas were expelled.
On May 23, Armando Betancourt Reina, correspondent of Nueva Prensa Cubana agency, was detained in a neighborhood in Camagüey where residents had invited him to cover a violent police raid and eviction. It began on May 21, and residents of the area were arrested. Betancourt was transferred to the State Security headquarters in Camagüey, more than 500 kilometers east of Havana and he was charged with disorderly conduct.
On April 23, Roberto Santana Rodríguez, an independent contributor to Cubanet, was visited at his home by the police chief, a member of the Communist Party, the local coordinator of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and a member of the Veterans Association. On that day the journalist had planned to participate in a teleconference at the U.S. Interests Section. State Security agents had approached Santana on February 13 and April 7. They told him that if he did not to give up his journalistic activity they would charge him under Law 88 with a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison. They have also conducted a campaign to discredit him.
On August 18, journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira, director of the bureau of Prensa Puente Informativo Cuba Miami and of Agencia Lux Info Press, was approached by officers of the National Police who searched his work briefcase and identification, took him to the Marianao station in Havana and held him for seven hours saying that he did not have the documents required to move about the capital. Serpa said he had been warned and interrogated by two State Security officers one of whom warned him that he would be fined 3,000 pesos for violating decree law 217 of the Council of State because he was in the capital city without an official residence permit.
Serpa Maceria had reported in May that his family living in Isla de Pinos, where he is from, had been subjected to reprisals by the government because of his work as a journalist. He said that for several weeks electricity has been cut off in their house early in the morning but not at other houses.
In the middle of August, Diana Daniels, president of IAPA, and Gonzalo Marroquín, president of the Committee on Freedom of Press and Information, asked members of the organization to participate in an editorial campaign to demand the release of independent journalists imprisoned in Cuba for crimes of conscience.
In August the news of the temporary handover of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, sparked interest in the international press. But the lack of information about it was obvious, and it was even worse for the independent press in the country. On August 2, Cuban authorities refused to allow six foreign journalists to enter the country and made it more difficult to obtain a press visa. The journalists were interrogated by agents of the Interior Ministry and required to turn back. They were told that they did not have the work visa needed to practice journalism in Cuba. International organizations and media outlets asked Cuban authorities for unrestricted access for foreign journalists to report on the situation.
On September 4, Mirta Wong, wife of jailed independent journalist Oscar Mario González, said that when she visited him in prison she observed that his health had declined and prison authorities had not done anything. González has been plagued with a cough for six months and has hypertension, cervical arthritis, chronic arthritis and a urinary tract infection.
On September 9, representatives of the Communist Party and leaders of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution visited some of the Ladies in White to warn them not to hold political activities during the meeting in Havana of the XIV Summit of the Nonaligned Movement. Among those who were “alerted” are Miriam Leiva, journalist and wife of journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe; Laura Pollán, wife of Héctor Maseda; and Julia Núñez, wife of Adolfo Fernández Sainz, the last two of whom are in jail.
On September 15, Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia, a reporter for the agency Jóvenes sin Censura, was detained for two days in Havana. The 21-year-old was released on September 17 after being behind bars for two days at the police unit of Dragones in Old Havana. His mother, Margarita Albacia, said the chief of the police unit refused to let her see her son and said he was detained because he was being investigated. She added that since the morning he was arrested, their house was under surveillance by a large police operation and a rapid response brigade that shouted threatening insults.
On September 27, journalist Abel Escobar Ramírez was detained for six hours at the Morón police station in Ciego de Ávila province. Two policemen arrested him while he was talking to a friend. The police took three notebooks with addresses and telephone numbers, personal information and other possessions. An official told him he had been detained for disobedience without giving any more details. Escobar Ramírez, 50, is a reporter for Cubanet and the magazine Carta de Cuba.
The most recent example of censorship and government disdain for the news needs of the population is the curtain of silence over a massive epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue. Despite massive fumigations that the government calls the “anti-vector battle against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito,” and the hundreds of people who have been hospitalized throughout the country, the official press has not yet admitted the existence of the epidemic. The number of cases has been growing for at least two months. Only the independent press has reported the presence of this infectious disease in the country’s cities and municipalities.