Two journalists were freed early in 2001 - Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, who had served half his sentence, and Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, a few weeks before he was due to be released. There is now only one journalist imprisoned in Cuba, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón.
But the regime is not really moving towards press freedom. Since the Constitution says that "under no circumstances" can the media be privately-owned, the state still has a complete monopoly on information. To protect its image, President Fidel Castro’s government has instead chosen the path of indirect but just as effective repression of independent journalists, whom it regards as "counter-revolutionaries." Arrests and interrogations of journalists fell in 2001 to 29 (from the previous year’s 39) but incidents of harassment rose to around 100 (from 70 in 2000). The state security department (DES), which is part of the interior ministry, remains the chief agent of repression. The year saw an increase in summonses of journalists, who were interrogated and usually threatened with imprisonment or prosecution. Pressure was also exerted on their families with, for example, a nursery refusing a place to the son of Pablo Pacheco Ávila, of the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes. The authorities also intercepted mail, tapped phones, staged anonymous physical attacks and visited people’s homes to obstruct the work of independent journalists or persuade them to go into exile abroad. When they did get entry visas for foreign countries, the authorities tried to extract information from them about dissidents in exchange for granting the required exit visa.
The government also tried to squash any attempt by independent journalists to organise. The Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists’ Association, set up in 2001, was prevented from giving journalism courses to its 40 or so members. But independent journalists still tried to exercise their right to inform and faxed or phoned their articles to members of the Cuban exile community who put them on Internet websites. This was tolerated by the government as it did not threaten its monopoly on news reaching the carefully-insulated mass of ordinary Cubans.
Cubans were not just "protected" from independent journalists. As part of the campaign against "ideological deviance," further action was taken during the year to remove from the roofs of houses satellite dishes able to pick up foreign TV stations. Reception of foreign radio stations was also jammed. In January, a fierce campaign was launched in the government media against Pascal Fletcher, a reporter for Reuters news agency, after he reported on a controversial parade organised by the Spanish embassy. President Castro then accused "certain journalists" of asking to be punished with "expulsion" and called on their employers to show "common sense." Two months later, Fletcher was transferred to a post in Caracas. The incident was seen as a warning to resident foreign journalists at a time when the US media group Tribune Company and the daily The Dallas Morning News were opening a bureau in Havana. Earl Maucker, one of the Tribune Co.’s editors, said it was the result of 10 years of negotiations with the Cuban government.
The control of information extends to the Internet, to which access is strictly regulated. Those who use it must agree to respect "the moral values of Cuban society and the country’s laws" and only foreign companies and government institutions have full access. But in September 2001, four post offices in Havana began allowing Cubans to have their own e-mail address and access to the Internet. But access is limited to government-approved websites and known as the "Intranet." All state media - radio, TV and newspapers - put out news approved beforehand by the government’s Department of Revolutionary Guidance. The code of conduct for Cuban journalists says their role is to "help promote the constant improvement of our socialist society." Unusually, two state-media journalists went into exile abroad during the year. One of them, Guillermo Morales Catá, had fallen out of favour after criticising government censorship of an official demonstration.
Because of the serious situation in Cuba, President Castro is on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom.
A journalist jailed
The authorities twice refused requests (in April and February 2001) for the release on parole of Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, founder of the independent news agency Linea Sur Press in Aguada de Pasajeros, although normally he should have been granted it in October 2000 after completing half his sentence. He was said to be not yet "politically re-educated." He had been accused of ignoring President Castro’s televised speeches. He had been sentenced on appeal on 28 November 1997 to six years imprisonment for "insulting" the president and Vice-President Carlos Lage. He told a Miami radio station that the two leaders were "liars" for not respecting the democratic principles laid down at an Ibero-American summit. He was beaten up by two state security police in Ariza prison on 11 April 1998, transferred on 15 May 1999 to the Medios Propios labour camp in Cienfuegos province and then to others where he was made to do weeding and cut sugar-cane.
He has since suffered back and heart problems. He wrote a letter in June 2001 to journalist and poet Raúl Rivero describing the El Diamante camp where he was being held as a "concentration camp" plagued by "promiscuity, rats, humiliation, prostitution and lack of drinking water."
Two journalists were freed in 2001
Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, head of the Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes (CAPI) based in the central Cuban city of Ciego de Avila, was freed on 17 January when his prison term was shortened without explanation. He had been arrested on 18 January 1999 and sentenced the next day to four years in prison for being "a danger to society." He was held in the Canaleta jail in Ciego de Avila, frequently complained about bad prison conditions and went on several hunger strikes. His family said he had probably been jailed "to set an example" to local youths not to become independent journalists. Two days after his release, he was summoned before a local court and told that the slightest criminal offence would put him back in prison to serve out the rest of his term. But he decided to resume his journalistic activities. He was detained twice in March and August. The first time, he was released after promising to leave the country. In October, he was summoned by the police twice and on 1 November, he was given a "warning" for not working for the state. It was such warnings that led to his 1999 conviction for being "a danger to society."
Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, 44, correspondent in Holguín for the independent news agency Cuba Press, was freed from jail on 26 February. He had been arrested on 1 October 1998 and sentenced on 6 May 1999 to 31 months in prison for "insulting" President Castro under article 144 of the criminal code. During an argument provoked by the police, he had said Castro was personally responsible for the harassment he was subjected to. He was held at Holguín provincial prison and then transferred on 30 June 1999 to the city’s top security jail, known as the "cemetery of the living." Nine months later he was returned to the provincial prison. On 26 June 2000, he was beaten by Capt. Narciso Ramírez Caballero and placed in solitary confinement for 10 days for protesting at the confiscation of personal documents. He suffered from an umbilical hernia, which he refused an operation for in prison, and also respiratory problems.
During the year, a cyber-dissident was convicted of having "defamed institutions" in an article published on the Internet website.
Antonio Femenías, a journalist with the news agency Pátria, based in Ciego de Avila, and Roberto Valdívia, a contributor to the agency, were arrested on 12 January 2001 by state security police and interrogated for three hours. The previous day, they had met Ivan Pilip, a member of the Czech parliament and a former finance minister, and Jan Bubenik, a former leader of the 1989 Czechoslovak "Velvet Revolution," who were on a private visit to Cuba. After meeting the two journalists, the Czechs were arrested and accused of "association with intent to incite rebellion" and of having met people belonging to "the counter-revolutionary opposition." The Czechs were released a few weeks later. In 2000, the Czech Republic and Poland sponsored a resolution criticising Cuba at the UN Human Rights Commission.
Silvio Herrera Núñez, of the Agencia Fraternal de Periodistas Carlos Piñeiro news agency, was arrested at his home on 26 January by a state security agent, taken to a police station and then to a house outside the city, where he was interrogated and criticised for working as a journalist without a diploma. He was released after seven hours.
The home of Ricardo González, an independent journalist and correspondent of Reporters Without Borders, was closely watched by police on 16 February while several journalists met there to discuss their work. The day before, he had been arrested, interrogated for four hours, told to cancel the meeting, and then released. He was also warned that he might be punished under Law 88, which provides for up to 20 years imprisonment for working with foreign media, for having given interviews to a Miami radio station. Police eventually let him go with a official warning for having met with opposition figures not recognised by the government and with foreign journalists.
Normándo Hernández González (chief editor) and Pablo Pacheco Ávila (reporter) of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camaguey (CPIC) news agency and Pedro Argüelles Morán, of the CAPI news agency, were arrested on 8 March while covering a meeting of an illegal organisation. Police gave them a official warning for "involvement with an illegal association" and "taking part in an unauthorised meeting." It was the third time in a month they had been arrested.
Juan Carlos Garcell, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO) news agency, was arrested by state security police on 29 March as he was about to report on a event organised by dissidents. He was interrogated for several hours before being driven 150 km from his home and abandoned. He was arrested again on 25 July by three policemen who confiscated several articles. A month later, one of them physically attacked him for no apparent reason. Garcell was then barred from using public telephones to send his articles on grounds that he was "a counter-revolutionary who puts out news against the government." During 2000, he had been arrested five times.
Carlos Brizuela Yera, a human rights campaigner and contributor to the CPIC news agency, was arrested on 1 May at his home in Ciego de Avila by a policeman who confiscated papers belonging to him on suspicion that he had produced anti-government posters. He was held for four days and then freed for lack of evidence. Two months later, he learned that he was accused of breaking into the house of the policeman who had arrested him. Despite his protests, he was fined 200 pesos (11 euros) on 7 August. He was arrested again in Havana on 22 August after he had received material from the US Interests Section office there. On 14 November, his fiancée was expelled from a special general meeting of the Union of Young Communists and then briefly detained the next day because of her links with Brizuela Yera, whose mother also was pressured several times to get her to persuade her son to give up his dissident activities.
Dorka de Céspedes, of the Havana Press agency, was arrested on 22 August as she was about to cover an event organised by civil society groups not recognised by the authorities. She was taken from where the protest was to be held and threatened with imprisonment by a dozen state security police before being released. On 4 November, state security police warned her mother that her daughter risked three years in prison.
María Elena Alpizar, of the news agency Noticuba, was stopped in the street on 29 August while on her way to cover the trial of a regime opponent. Police forced her to get into a car, drove her 10 km and then abandoned her. She had been picked up in similar circumstances on 16 January and dumped 90 km from her home.
Mario Enrique Mayo, of CPIC news agency, was arrested on 4 October. During her interrogation, she was threatened with prosecution for "usurping public functions" because she was not officially recognised as a journalist. She was also accused of publishing abroad a story about a case of leprosy in Cuba before being released three hours later.
Jésus Zuñiga, of the magazine Carta de Cuba, Maria del Carmen Leyva Carro and Eduardo Pérez, of the website Cuba Free Press, and Jesús García Leyva, of the Cuba Voz news agency, were arrested on 26 October as they were preparing for a meeting that had been forbidden by the authorities. They were held for three hours and threatened with imprisonment for "illegally practising journalism" and having "links with anti-Castro political movements."
Normando Hernández González, Carlos Brizuela Yera and Joel Blanco García, of the CPIC news agency, as well as Léster Téllez Castro and Misley Delgado Bambino, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Avileña (APLA) news agency, were hit and briefly detained by uniformed and plainclothes police on 25 December while covering the opening of an "independent" library in the central Cuban town of Florida. A network of independent libraries set up by private individuals provides books that are officially banned by the authorities.
Four journalists exiled
Guillermo Morales Catá, a journalist with the state-controlled TV stations Canal 2 and Canal 6, left for Spain in early May 2001. He said he had sharply criticised the government’s information policy at a meeting on 17 December 2000 of the Union of Young Communists at the Cuban Radio and TV Institute, accusing the authorities of lying to the population and imposing censorship. He said he was summoned the next day by three state security police who tried to persuade him to retract what he had said and do a public self-criticism. He was summoned twice more over the next few weeks and got anonymous phone threats. After giving interviews to several Spanish media, he received new phone threats. After he left for Spain, members of his family were pressured, he said.
Luis Acosta, a former journalist with the state-owned radio station CMHW and the state-owned TV station Telecubanacán, in Villaclara province, applied in early June for political asylum in the United States, which he had reached via Mexico. "He was suffocating in Cuba and had been personally and professionally humiliated," said his wife Teresita de Paz, who was already living in Miami. She said he had been sacked by CMHW as a sports journalist for criticising the equipment of a motorcycling racing team. The radio’s management also accused him of criticising the policy of the ruling Communist Party. As he was trying to leave Cuba in a small boat on 24 December 2000, he was intercepted by the Cuban Coastguard. His attempt to leave led to his programme on Telecubanacán being dropped and his transfer to other work.
Luis Alberto Rivera Leyva, head of the APLO news agency, left for the United States on 31 July. He had been arrested four times in 2000 and then again on 31 March 2001 as he was covering the eviction of a woman and her two children from their home. He was prosecuted for criticising the methods of the state security police but then told the charges would be dropped if he agreed to stop being a journalist. The political police also offered him rewards if he gave them the names of other independent journalists. "Everything is done to stop us covering the news," he wrote in an article posted on the Reporters Without Borders website in February 2001.
Gustavo Cardero, a journalist formerly with the Noticuba news agency, left secretly by boat for Florida on 21 August along with two other dissidents. They were intercepted three days later by the US Coast Guard and taken to the US naval base at Guantanamo (Cuba). Cardero had obtained a US entry visa the previous year but the Cuban authorities had refused to give him a visa to leave. His wife and family were already in Miami.