State control of published or broadcast information has not slackened in Cuba. At a time when their potential audiences are increasing owing to the Internet, about one hundred independent journalists, considered by the authorities to be "counter-revolutionaries", are one of the main targets of repression.
Since 1997 five of them have been sentenced to between six months’ and six years’ imprisonment, and over one hundred arrests and cases of questioning have been reported. These journalists are frequently victims of accusations, attacks, seizure of equipment, house arrests, pressure on families, friends or contacts, and attempts to discredit or divide them.
The relative respite from harassment of all "opponents" after the Pope’s January 1998 visit lasted no more than a year. Attempts by several heads of state or government (at the Ibero-American Summit in November 1999 in Havana) to get the Cuban government to democratize the regime were fruitless. Freedom of expression, of the press and of association are still not established in Cuba .
Yet, despite the difficult conditions in which they work and the large numbers in voluntary or forced exile, the ranks of independent journalists continue to swell. According to the information collected by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), there are currently just over one hundred independent journalists in Cuba, as opposed to a handful in the early 1990s. Formerly with the official media (from which they resigned or were dismissed), the communication sector (editors, translators, archivists, librarians, etc.), the education world or simply technicians, they now work in Havana and in the provinces where police harassment is more intense.
Most independent journalists work for agencies. The first was founded in 1988 by Yndamiro Restano Díaz (Asociación de Periodistas Independientes de Cuba, which in 1992 became the Agencia de Prensa Independiente de Cuba, APIC, still active). Today there are 18 such agencies , four of which are based in the provinces, not counting those that disseminate news on behalf of social actors such as farmers, educators or independent unions. Some claim to have about ten people working for them, with correspondents in the provinces (e.g. Cuba Press, Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes, Centro Norte del País), others have only two or three. About ten journalists work outside these agencies, primarily in the capital.
The French journalist Martine Jacot, sent by RSF to Cuba from 10 to 17 August 2000, met a dozen independent journalists in Ciego de Ávila and Havana, as well as the families of two of the three journalists currently in prison. On 17 August, as she was about to return to France, she was arrested and questioned for one and a half hours at Havana airport by six members of the security police. A video camera, two videotapes and documents were seized. Despite repeated requests by RSF this equipment has not been returned to the organisation.
Internet to the rescue
Whether they are experienced professionals, trained by their peers or self-taught, the possibilities open to independent journalists have widened owing to new technologies to which they themselves have no access. The creation in Western countries of Internet sites which host the news they transmit from Cuba (mostly by telephone or fax, when they have one) has widened the scope for dissemination of news that cannot be published in their own country. The number of their contributions (by telephone) to foreign radio stations, usually linked to exiles, has also increased.
Deprived of direct access to official sources, expelled from government press conferences when they try to attend, they gather their information from all those who are dissatisfied in Cuba: opponents, human rights activists, civil servants (tired of noting that any negative news as regards the government, whether political, economic, social or environmental, is absent from the Cuban media), employees of foreign companies or the man in the street. Rationed for the past forty years, subjected to additional restrictions since 1991, the beginning of the "special peacetime period" after resources from the former Eastern Bloc dried up, the population is disgruntled about the increasing "dollarisation" of the Cuban economy in which it has no access itself to dollars.
Facts such as the arrest of a Cuban opponent, a fit of ill humour by the population or an attempt to organise civil society, formerly unnoticed abroad, at least for some time, are now quickly relayed outside the country. Such information, as well as more global analyses, are heard in Cuba by those able to tune into foreign radio stations, especially Radio Martí (financed since 1982 by the US Congress to broadcast to the island). The jamming of such stations is often ineffective.
New "gagging law"
The Cuban authorities have a new legislative arsenal to gag these independent journalists and stop dissident activities. They were nevertheless reluctant to apply it when several European Union states made the improvement of the human rights situation in Cuba a condition, in the Lomé Convention, for increasing trade that the island sorely needs due to the US embargo.
Promulgated in February 1999, the "88 Law" - soon nicknamed the "gagging law" in dissident circles - weighs like the Sword of Damocles over any person who "collaborates, by any means whatsoever, with radio or television programmes, magazines or any other foreign media" or "provides information" considered likely to serve US policy. The law provides for very heavy sentences: up to 20 years’ imprisonment, confiscation of all personal belongings and fines up to 100,000 pesos (close to 4,800 dollars, while the average Cuban salary is 250 pesos or 12 dollars per month). This law, that no court has taken advantage of as yet, also provides for punishment for "the promotion, organisation or encouragement of, or the participation in meetings or demonstrations".
"Independent journalists are mercenaries: the [US] Empire pays, organises, teaches, trains, arms and camouflages them, and orders them to shoot at their own people" commented the communist youth daily Juventud Rebelde after the law was passed. These were the words of Tubal Paez, president of the Cuban Journalists’ Union, an official organisation. To be allowed to practise, its 2,000 members had to undertake to be "loyal to the principles and values of the revolution and socialism".
In Cuba all the media are "state or social property". The press (the dailies Granma, official communist party organ, and Jeventud Rebelde, the weekly Trabajadores of the official unions and the magazine Bohemia, in particular), the national and regional radio stations and the only two television channels in the country publish or broadcast articles and reports chosen, reviewed and amended to suite the government’s ideological interests. In early August 2000 a host of Radio Morón, a small station in central Cuba, was dismissed after reading over the air a poem by Raúl Rivero (founder and director of the agency Cuba Press).
These media devote a large part of their meagre columns or limited broadcasting time (six hours per channel per day during the week and fifteen hours per day over week-ends) to speeches by President Fidel Castro and official propaganda. The population has no access to other sources of information, except for insufficiently jammed foreign radio stations.
Three journalists jailed
The five independent journalists who were tried and sentenced to jail since 1997 were not clearly charged for disclosing information without authorisation, but for other offences. Three are still behind bars. All are considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of opinion.
Bernardo Arévalo Padrón: beaten up and in unauthorised exile
35-year-old Bernardo Arévalo, founder of the news agency Linea Sur in October 1996 in Aguada de Pasajeros (a town 140 km south-east of Havana, in Cienfuegos province) was arrested on 18 November 1997. He was sentenced by the appeal court on 28 November to six years’ imprisonment for "insulting" President Fidel Castro and Vice-president Carlos Lage, by virtue of Article 144 of the Cuban penal code. This former railway worker had said on a foreign radio station that two Cuban leaders were "liars", after accusing them of not meeting democratic commitments made during a Ibero-American Summit.
In an open letter addressed to the Cuban head of state on 19 December 1998, the prisoner wrote: "I consider that my sentence of six years in jail is unjust and excessive, for in no other civilised country is someone who calls the head of state a ’liar’ sentenced ". Stressing his "admiration" for Fidel Castro’s "struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista" in the 1950s, Bernardo Arévalo Padrón recalled that Fidel Castro himself had benefited from an amnesty when he was a political prisoner. "As for me, I decided in late 1988 to peacefully oppose your ideas", continued the prisoner, who has asked (in vain as of yet) to be allowed to go to Spain, a country whose authorities have reportedly granted him a visa.
In the Ariza high-security prison where he was initially jailed the journalist was beaten up on 23 April 1998 by two security police who accused him of handing out leaflets in the prison corridors. Injured in the head and subject to memory loss since that attack, he was subsequently put in a "punishment cell for his own safety because he could still be attacked or even killed by common law prisoners", explained the prison authorities to his wife Libertad.
On 15 May 1999 he was transferred to the "labour camp number 16", close to Ariza prison. The journalist, a catholic deprived of religious assistance, is regularly threatened by his warden (also responsible for his "rehabilitation") with transferral back to Ariza. He is accused of not filling his "quotas" of work allocated to him, consisting of weeding or cutting sugar cane. His wife has been allowed to take him tools to sharpen his machete because the camp does not have any. Since May 2000 he is allowed one family visit every three weeks and a "matrimonial" visit once a month (a night with his wife in the camp, in a room with bamboo walls in which there is no privacy). He is not allowed to see or enter into contact with his friends. In terms of Cuban law he should be allowed to visit his family every three weeks, especially his aged and ailing mother.
To one of the numerous petitions by RSF for his release, the Cuban foreign affairs minister Felipe Pérez Roque replied on 17 April 2000 that Bernardo Arévalo "was working since 1991 with counter-revolutionary groups with the intention of committing violent acts, even if he was sentenced for insults".
Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández : a trial for "social dangerousness" as an example
For Odencio Diaz, the father of this 26-year-old journalist, the most unbearable thing is the "feeling of powerlessness faced with courts that fabricate ungrounded accusations and refuse to hear witnesses". This former member of the communist party is convinced that his son was jailed to prevent him from sending articles abroad, first from the Pátria agency for which he worked since 1995, then from the Cooperativa avileña de periodistas independientes (CAPI) that he founded in December 1998 in Ciego de Ávila, 300 km east of Havana. He was arrested on 18 January 1999 at 6 a.m. at the family home in Morón, and accused of being "socially dangerous". Article 73 of the Cuban penal code thus describes anyone "who regularly contravenes the rules of social life by acts of violence (...), disturbs the public order, lives as a social parasite, exploits others’ work or practices socially reprehensible vices".
During the trial on the day after his arrest, Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández was accused of no longer working for the state since 1996 (the year in which, those close to him affirm, he was dismissed from his job at the National Institute for Hydraulic Resources in Morón because he had been a human rights activist since 1993). He was also charged with "sometimes consuming alcoholic drinks which made him aggressive and caused him to provoke those around him" and for having "listened to loud music". His lawyer’s plea was soon interrupted by the presiding judge and no witness for the defence was asked to give evidence during the public hearing which lasted several hours. The accused was sentenced to "four years’ deprival of liberty in a study or work centre with internment". Since then he has been detained in Canaleta jail, near Morón, since Ciego de Ávila province does not have such centres, according to the prison authorities.
As soon as the sentence was pronounced the prisoner lodged an appeal and went on a hunger strike which caused him to be put into solitary confinement. On 22 January 1999 when his family visited him they learned that the first hearing of an appeal case was under way. The family’s lawyer had not been advised and had been replaced by one appointed by the court. On 27 January the prisoner was informed in his cell that his appeal had been dismissed. His family then applied for the case to be revised and in early February produced written testimonies from five neighbours. These persons swore (in front of a lawyer) that Joel had never, to their knowledge, abused alcohol nor caused any kind of trouble in public. They received no response from the authorities who even maintain that there never was any appeal against the initial sentence.
Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández denounces the very bad conditions of his internment (with common law criminals). To eliminate the fleas, insects and rodents infesting the cells, he says, the prison authorities fumigate the prison without evacuating the prisoners. When the prisoners protest sedatives are administered. He also denounces the absence of medical assistance. In June 2000 his parents, recently allowed to visit him every three weeks, smuggled a urine sample out of the prison to have it analysed. Viral hepatitis was diagnosed by a laboratory in the region and only then was he given adequate treatment, even though he had been suffering from high fever for a while.
"Joel Díaz is a common law delinquent who associated with anti-social elements involved in drug trafficking, procuring, smuggling and livestock theft", wrote the Cuban foreign affairs minister Felipe Pérez Roque on 17 April 2000. None of these charges is featured on the documents given to the prisoner.
Joel Diaz and his family believe that through this "expeditious" trial and the heavy sentence, the authorities wanted to strike quickly and "make an example of him", in order to dissuade local youths from becoming or continuing their work as independent journalists.
Manuel Antonio González Castellanos : from provocation to the "graveyard of the living"
Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, aged 43, is a professional journalist and correspondent for the agency Cuba Press in Holguín in eastern Cuba. On the evening of 1 October 1998 he was on his way home, where his mother, the daughter of Lidia Doce’s, the famous "messenger of the Che" during the revolution, also lives, when he was shouted at and insulted by an Interior ministry official and two state security agents. The journalist lost his temper and ended up holding Fidel Castro personally responsible for such incessant harassment.
Manuel Antonio González Castellanos was immediately accused of "insulting" the president. His family was given no news of him and their telephone line was cut the next day, while outside the house an "act of repudiation" (a crowd of communist party members shouting insults and throwing stones) was going strong. Leornardo Varona González, the prisoner’s nephew and correspondent for the agency Santiago Press was also arrested for protesting against his uncle’s arrest by writing "Down with Fidel!" on the walls of the family house. On 6 May 1999 he was sentenced to 16 months in jail (he was released in January 2000) and his uncle to 31 months in jail.
Two months after his trial Manuel Antonio González Castellanos was transferred to the Holguin high security prison "Cuba sí", nicknamed the "graveyard of the living" because of the deplorable conditions of detention. He has since been suffering from respiratory problems which persist despite his transfer to another prison in the province. He was forced to sleep on the ground for several days.
On 26 June 2000, protesting against the confiscation of his notes in his cell, the prisoner was severely beaten and put into solitary confinement for ten days. His family, constantly harassed, fear that his respiratory problems will degenerate into tuberculosis, a disease from which several prisoners in the same prison are suffering.
In his case the Foreign affairs minister wrote on 17 April 2000 that he had been sentenced for having "caused serious disturbances to the public order".
Accused of "enemy propaganda"
Other journalists released on parole are have still not been tried, in some cases after several years. Apart from "insulting" the President and "social dangerousness", the charges most often made against them include:
illicit association: In 1995 most news agencies filed applications for the legalisation of their status by the Cuban Justice minister, in compliance with the constitution of the country. None of them have received a reply.
enemy propaganda or collaboration with the enemy: These offences, which existed before the 88 Law, are aimed at collaboration with US radio stations.
espionage: This offence is often referred to when journalists have made contact with the US interests Section in Havana, with a view to obtaining a visa.
spreading false news.
Among the accused are 55-year-old José Edel Garcia Diaz, director of the agency Centro Norte del País (CNP) who is awaiting trial for five of these offences ("insulting the President", "illicit association", "collaboration with the enemy", "spreading false news" and "espionage") and Oswaldo de Céspedes, a former hospital assistant, now manager of the agency Cooperativa de periodistas independientes (CPI), who has been accused since 1995 of "illicit association" and "enemy propaganda". They both wrote articles on "sensitive" subjects such as pollution, nuclear energy and the risks of radioactivity, and new epidemics.