On 18 March, a hundred days ago today, the Cuban government began an unprecedented round-up of dissidents. A total of 75 were arrested and then tried and sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years. They included 26 independent journalists who joined the four journalists already imprisoned in Cuba. This has made Cuba the world’s biggest prison for members of the press.
The sanctions against these journalists who challenged the state’s monopoly of news reporting did not just consist of long jail terms. They have also been transferred to prisons hundreds of kilometres from their homes, their right to family visits has been restricted, and they have been subjected to especially poor conditions of detention. They have a special page on the Reporters Without Borders website, www.rsf.org.
Nine of the 26 newly-detained journalists were the editors of news agencies. Does this mean that the independent press is now headless? No, but the pressure on those who were not arrested is so strong that two recently-launched independent magazines have not survived.
To mark the 100th day since this round-up, Reporters Without Borders announces the launch of an awareness campaign targeted at French tourists going to Cuba this summer.
To complete the picture of press freedom violations in Cuba, Reporters Without Borders is releasing the findings of investigations into the working conditions for foreign correspondents in Havana (see the report) and for the Catholic press (see the report), the only privately-owned press tolerated by the government.
One hundred days of solitude (chronology)
The government began its nationwide round-up of dissidents on 18 March, 100 days ago today. Eleven independent journalists were arrested that day. Fifteen others were detained in the course of the next six days. In many cases, their homes were subjected to searches lasting up to 10 hours. Police confiscated equipment (fax machines, computers, typewriters, tape-recorders), files and notes.
Held in the different centres of the state security department (the political police), including Villa Marista, its headquarters in Havana, the journalists were accused of "endangering the state’s integrity and sovereignty" or its "independence."
The trials that took place from 3 to 5 April had all the elements of those held under Stalin: closed-door hearings, summary justice, denial of the right of defence, testimony by undercover agents, depositions by neighbours, cases that had been put together over a period of months, and cases in which the defendants were accused solely of crimes of opinion. The verdicts against the 75 dissidents were issued on 7 April. The sentences passed on the 26 journalists ranged from 14 to 27 years in prison.
But the punishment did not stop there. They were transferred to prisons hundreds of kilometres from their homes at the end of April. Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, for example, was sent to Guantánamo prison, more than 1,000 km from his home in Pinar del Río. Their families regard this as an additional sentence especially in view of the transport problems in Cuba. What’s more, visits have been limited to once every three months instead of once every three weeks as the regulations stipulate. Some wives were even told on arriving at their husband’s prison that their visit had been postponed at the last moment or that their husband had been transferred.
Prison conditions have been another form of punishment. Most are being held in solitary confinement. At least six are reportedly ill. They include Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who has serious liver problems and gastro-intestinal bleeding. After energetic international protests, he was moved from Guantánamo prison to a hospital in Santiago de Cuba. But a niece who is a doctor said the necessary tests have not been conducted and she thinks that, in his present condition, a return to prison would put his life in danger.
Pressure has also been put on families. The wives of several detained dissidents, including journalists, have been threatened with arrest if they continue to hold peaceful protest marches dressed in white after mass at Santa Rita church.
Finally, the courts on 3 June began begun issuing rulings on the appeals that were lodged against the sentences. The Havana people’s supreme court has so far upheld the sentences passed on seven journalists, sending a clear message that there will be no clemency.
Reporters Without Borders has created a page on its website (www.rsf.org) entitled "Cuba, the world’s biggest prison for journalists." Visitors will find regularly updated information on each of the imprisoned journalists (including date of arrest, trial, conditions of detention and biographical information), international reactions to their sentences and, in general, information about news censorship in Cuba. Visitors are invited to sign a petition for their release.
The independent press since the March crackdown
The magazines De Cuba and Luz Cubana (which can be downloaded from www.rsf.org) have been the first victims of the round-up of dissidents at the end of March. Published in December 2002 and February 2003, they have not survived the arrests of their respective editors, Ricardo González Alfonso and Normando Hernández, and the confiscation of the equipment needed for their production. There were the first privately-owned, independent magazines to appear in Cuba since 1959.
Although the detained journalists include nine of the editors of the approximately 20 privately-owned news agencies in Cuba, the independent press has survived. But harassment of those still free has increased. Searches, police "visits" to their homes, summonses for questioning at state security centres, pressure on family members and threats of further trials make up the arsenal used by the authorities to pressure them into stopping their activity. Some 20 journalists have been targeted in this way since 1 May.
The independent journalists who are still free have not been discouraged. But in the absence of clear signs of the intentions of the authorities, they are being prudent. Bylines no longer appear on articles published by the Miami-based cubanet.org website, which carries the material of some 10 independent news agencies.
A new public awareness campaign
More than 120,000 French people choose Cuba as a holiday destination each year, drawn by the sun, beaches and mythical appeal of its bearded revolutionaries.
Reporters Without Borders will conduct a poster campaign from 8 to 22 July to promote awareness of the serious human rights situation in Cuba. The image used is that of the famous May 1968 poster showing a riot policeman with a truncheon in one hand and a shield in the other, but the face has been replaced by Ernesto Che Guevara’s. The caption says: "Welcome to Cuba, the world’s biggest prison for journalists." Underneath it says: "Seventy-five dissidents, including nearly 30 journalists, were arrested at the end of March 2003 and sentenced to long prison terms. Their crime? Thinking differently from the government."
Designed by the Rampazzo agency, the poster aims to tell people that behind the myth of the Cuban revolution, which still draws many tourists, there is a totalitarian regime that uses "Che" as an icon to legitimise repression. The poster also suggests that a myth that fed the dreams of an entire generation in the 1960s has become what that generation hated: a police state. A total of 1,100 posters of 40 cm x 60 cm in size will be displayed in Paris from 8 to 22 July by the Art Vision network.
Five thousand postcards have been printed with the same picture. They will be distributed to tourists leaving on flights for Havana. The text on the back will urge them to take an interest in the Cuba that goes deeper than "the picture postcard clichés."
"Welcome to Cuba"
Have you chosen Cuba because of the charm of its population, its dreamy beaches, its rum and its fast-paced rhythms? You should know where you are going! Behind the picture postcard clichés, the sun doesn’t shine for everyone in the land of the Revolution. "Che" is nowadays just an icon used by the authorities to legitimise repression.
Seventy-five dissidents, including nearly 30 journalists, were arrested at the end of March 2003 and sentenced to long prison terms. Their crime? Thinking differently from the government. As a result, Cuba has become the world’s biggest prison for journalists.
These government opponents, poets, journalists and human rights activists are held in Havana, Ciego de Avila, Camagüey, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba. If you visit these towns, don’t forget those who are not enjoying the sun inside their prison cells.
Find out what is going on and sign the petitions on www.rsf.org
Finally, English and Spanish versions will be produced of a 35-second cinema spot warning tourists that news is censored in Cuba and that 30 journalists are in prison there. They will be screened in Spain, Canada, the United States and Latin America. The French-language version is already being screened in 400 cinema auditoriums in Paris and other major French cities thanks to the Médiavision network.
Press freedom investigations:
the fate of foreign correspondents and the Catholic press
The March arrests were arrests were undoubtedly meant to serve as a reminder that, under the constitution, the state has a monopoly of news in Cuba and only the government press is permitted.
So what are the conditions of work like for the foreign news correspondents present in Cuba and for the 15 or so little magazines published by the Catholic Church, which are tolerated by the authorities? Two Reporters Without Borders surveys have for the first time looked at the room for manoeuvre available to the representatives of these two "alternative" press sectors.
Restrictive visa policies, forbidden topics, constant police surveillance, psychological harassment, official summonses and deportation are some of the weapons the authorities use to control the news that reaches the outside world, according to a dozen foreign journalists who have lived and worked in Cuba. In a report on their experiences called "Living under the regime’s microscope: foreign journalists in Cuba," (see the report) one of them says the government assigns up to 30 people to watch each journalist, which inevitably leads to self-censorship and, says another reporter, allows the regime to "partly hide the extent of the repression in the country."
The Catholic press has neither the resources nor the freedom to rival the official media, says the other report, "Press freedom in Cuba: the exception of the Church." (see the report) Few copies of its magazines are printed and technical resources are few. Except for Vitral, in Pinar del Rio, none criticise the regime openly for fear of being shut down or jeopardising the difficult relations between Church and state.
The two reports, the first by Martine Jacot and the second by Christian Lionet, both of them French journalists, were written before the recent crackdown. Resident foreign journalists and the Catholic media were not targeted, but the blow to press freedom was a warning to them to temper their coverage of events in Cuba.