As Raúl Castro was formally invested as Cuban head of state in the last week of February 2008, a Reporters Without Borders’ special correspondent was in Cuba examining the state of press freedom, five years after the “black spring” of March 2003. On the eve of the fifth anniversary of this unprecedented crackdown which made Cuba the world’s second largest prison for journalists, the worldwide press freedom organisation - banned from visiting Cuba - releases the report of this visit.
Five years after “black spring” in which 27 journalists were arrested and unfairly sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years in prison, 19 of them are still in jail in very harsh conditions. Among them, Ricardo González Alfonso, former editor of the magazine De Cuba and correspondent for the organisation, sentenced to 20 years, who in January was sent back to his cell in Combinado del Este jail in Havana after a long stay in the jail’s military hospital. Also victims of “black spring” and “adopted” by several foreign media, independent journalist Fabio Prieto Llorente, and Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, of the Havana Press agency - respectively serving 20 and 26 years, continue to suffer, like most of their colleagues in the same situation, solitary confinement, denial of medical care and restrictions to family visits. To the 19 journalists imprisoned in March 2003, four more have been added since 2005, three of them after Raúl Castro succeeded his brother, temporarily at first, on 31 July 2006.
The report also stresses the extreme difficulties for those not in prison to manage to work as journalists in a country in which the state has a monopoly on news, printing and broadcasting. It also reveals however that the independent Cuban press has done better than just survive the “black spring” which almost crushed it. A new generation born out of an emerging civil society, has taken over websites and the very few underground magazines, people like the blogger Yoani Sánchez. These new networks, made up of young people who have only known the Castroist regime, are trying to use their own resources to develop an alternative press addressed directly to their compatriots within Cuba, the independent media only managing to express itself to the Cuban diaspora.
Would these developments be possible without the change at the highest level of state? Probably not. The Raúl Castro presidency has done nothing to improve human rights in the country, but some gestures have been made. The release, on 15 February 2008, of independent journalist Alejandro González Raga and three other dissidents, also imprisoned during the “black spring” constituted a first sign of openness. Another came three days later after Raúl Castro’s investiture, when Cuba on 27 February signed two UN pacts, one on economic, social and cultural rights and the other on civil and political rights. The 13 March announcement of the lifting of restrictions on individual acquisition of computer equipment also represents a very positive step.
Reporters Without Borders notes these first signs of change and supports in this regard talks begun by the Spanish government to secure the release of the 23 imprisoned journalists. The organisation also calls on the US government to life restrictions on communications which obstruct access for Cubans within the country to the Internet and contacts between local journalists and the foreign-based media they work for. Finally, it urges EU embassies in Havana to further open their doors to the dissident press. This request particularly relates to France which takes over the rotating presidency of the EU from 1st July 2008. These recommendations will however get nowhere as long as the Cuban government has not honoured the clauses in the UN pacts which it has just signed.
On the occasion of the publication of this report, Reporters Without Borders wishes to express its deepest sympathy for Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, of the Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental (APLO), sentenced during “black spring” to 20 years in prison, whose former wife and his daughter died in an accident in Guantánamo, eastern Cuba on 12 March 2008.