20.5.2002 - European Union hails Cuban dissidents’ referendum plan
The European Union has said it approves the "Varela Project" petition recently presented to the Cuban national assembly calling for a referendum to show support for democratic reforms.
It said it hoped the action of the dissidents "would be used to open a debate that will lead to a process of peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy and a reconciled Cuban society," according to a statement issued in Madrid on 20 May. Spain currently holds the EU presidency.
The EU called the Varela Project "an important step by Cuban civil society towards introducing the changes Cuba needs and that Cuban society itself wants."
16.05.2002 - Press freedom situation is "serious" in Colombia, Cuba and Haiti
On the eve of the second European Union - Latin American nations Summit in Madrid, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) notes that state of press freedom in three Latin American countries - Colombia, Cuba and Haiti - is serious and that delicate problems have arisen recently in six others - Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Since these 33 countries committed themselves at the last such summit, on 28-29 June 1999 in Rio, to "promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms", RSF calls on European Union member-states to demand that their Latin American partners keep this promise.
RSF notes that Cuba is the last country in the region that systematically imprisons journalists and asks the EU states to persuade the Cuban authorities to hold a referendum on democratising the regime and respecting freedom of expression, as called for by the opposition inside the country. This referendum, known as the Varela Project, has recently received the backing of former US President Jimmy Carter during a visit to Cuba.
RSF also urges the EU heads of government to end the impunity currently enjoyed by the killers of journalists in Haiti with the complicity of the authorities there by imposing individual sanctions (denial of visas and freezing funds held abroad) on Haitian officials who are blocking the judicial process, including President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Serious situation in Colombia, Cuba and Haiti
With five journalists and two media assistants killed over the past 18 months, the plight of the media in Colombia remains dramatic. The main cause is the war between paramilitary groups and communist guerrillas. Things have got worse since the beginning of this year. The main offices of three media outlets have been damaged by bomb attacks, apparently by the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). During the presidential election campaign, at least three journalists have been threatened and a fourth obliged to flee into exile after having investigated the past of candidate Alvaro Uribe. Five journalists in all have gone into exile abroad so far this year.
In Cuba, the Constitution stipulates that the state has a monopoly of the media. Repression of members of independent press agencies the state refuses to legalise is aimed at protecting this monopoly. Cuba, the last dictatorship in the Americas, is also the only country where journalists are systematically imprisoned. Four are currently in jail there. Since the beginning of this year, about 30 arrests or acts of harassment against their colleagues have been recorded and the sale of computers to private individuals has been banned. Access to the Internet is strictly controlled. This sanitised media environment is occupied by the official press, which only puts out material approved by the Department of Revolutionary Guidance.
In Haiti, all state institutions are participating in the climate of impunity. The obstacles encountered by the investigation into the April 2000 murder of journalist Jean Dominique, head of Radio Haiti Inter, are proof of this. The police are suspected of involvement in the death of two key suspects. The senate has refused to lift the parliamentary immunity of the chief suspect in the killing, Sen. Dany Toussaint. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has stepped up reassuring statements but he has covered up for these irregularities. His followers, confident of not being punished either, have increased attacks on journalists who criticise the regime. This culminated last 3 December in the murder of another journalist, Brignol Lindor, and the departure for exile abroad of more than a dozen journalists.
Delicate problems in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela
In each of these countries, except for Panama, a journalist has been killed over the past 18 months. The murder of Parmenio Medina, of Radio Monumental in Costa Rica, a country considered a model of respect for human rights, shows the media is not safe from violence anywhere in Latin America. Costa Rica’s civil society is concerned at the authorities’ silence about the progress of the enquiry into the murder. In Paraguay, the killer of Salvador Medina, who was gunned down in January 2001, was tried and convicted, but those who ordered the killing were not touched.
Three of the five murders in these countries were connected with the victim’s revelations of corruption or supposed links between politicians and the underworld. In Guatemala, a dozen journalists were threatened or physically attacked for such reasons in 2001. In April this year, another journalist was forced to flee the country after investigating abuses committed by the army during the 1960-96 civil war.
The situation has recently deteriorated in Venezuela. Photographer Jorge Tortoza was killed on 11 April this year while covering opposition demonstrations that led to the short-lived soup d’état against President Hugo Chávez. On 10 May, the president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights deplored the climate of insecurity for the media, fed by inflammatory remarks about journalists made by the president and members of his government.
In Panama, using laws that still provide prison terms for "defamation" and "damaging a person’s reputation," state officials who do not like being criticised keep up a constant legal harassment of the media. Ninety suits against journalists for alleged defamation are currently on the books.
RSF calls on European Union countries to persuade their Latin American and Caribbean partner states to respect their commitment made at the previous EU-Latin American summit in Rio to "promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms".
RSF especially asks the EU countries to:
Help fund the programme to protect journalists set up by the Colombian government and press Colombian officials to push ahead in the fight against impunity in the murder of journalists.
Persuade the Cuban authorities to hold a referendum on democratising the regime as requested by opposition groups inside the country. Making use of a clause in the Cuban Constitution, moderate government opponents have delivered to Parliament a petition with the 10,000 signatures required for a referendum to be held. It would be a vote on five points: freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners, recognising the right to own a business, drafting a new electoral law and, if these points are approved in the referendum, holding free elections within nine months. This opposition initiative, known as the Varela Project, received the backing of former US President Jimmy Carter during his recent visit to the island.
Take individual sanctions against Haitian officials, including President Aristide who, deliberately or by omission, is blocking investigations into the murders of Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor. These sanctions should include refusing entry and transit visas to EU countries for these officials and their families and the freezing of funds they hold abroad. The list of 24 officials can be seen on RSF’s website (www.rsf.org).
Ask the authorities in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Paraguay and Venezuela to investigate the murders of Juan Carlos Encinas (Bolivia), Parmenio Medina (Costa Rica), Jorge Mynor Alegría Almendáriz (Guatemala), Salvador Medina (Paraguay) and Jorge Tortoza (Venezuela), so that those who carried out the murders and those who ordered them are punished. RSF also urges that the Panamanian authorities be pressed to abolish laws providing for jail terms for media offences.