23 March 2010

IAPA protests suppression of independent journalists, bloggers in Cuba

Miami (March 23, 2010)–The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) during its recent Midyear Meeting in Aruba condemned repressive actions against independent journalists and bloggers in Cuba, the government control of access to the Internet and the deliberate blocking of independent Web sites. The organization also called on the Cuban government for the unconditional release of the 27 journalists in prison, particularly the seriously ill.

It calls for those in prison to be released 

Miami (March 23, 2010)–The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) during its recent Midyear Meeting in Aruba condemned repressive actions against independent journalists and bloggers in Cuba, the government control of access to the Internet and the deliberate blocking of independent Web sites. The organization also called on the Cuban government for the unconditional release of the 27 journalists in prison, particularly the seriously ill. 

The IAPA’s biannual meeting in the Aruban capital, Oranjestad, between March 19 to 22 brought together nearly 300 publishers, editors and reporters from throughout the Western Hemisphere to review how press freedom and free speech has fared in the Americas in recent months. The organization also urged the authorities of that country to treat foreign correspondents working there with respect. 

Attached is the report on Cuba, which is also available in Spanish and Portuguese on the Web site www.sipiapa.org 

Cuba - Report to the Midyear MeetingOranjestad, ArubaMarch 19 - 22, 2010

Two years after Raúl Castro replaced his ailing older brother Fidel as leader, freedom of the press in Cuba remains a distant dream. 

If there is hope for the future, it lies in the work of independent journalists and Internet bloggers who - against all odds - have pierced the once-solid shield of official censorship on the island. 

Guillermo Fariñas, an independent journalist on hunger strike, and Yoani Sánchez, an “alternative'' blogger now with Twitter followers, have emerged as symbols of freedom of expression with their unwavering defiance of the official story. 

Fariñas and Sánchez have drawn international attention to the lack of freedom of expression in Cuba - one of the countries with the largest number of jailed journalists in the world. 

Cyber-critics and independent journalists have at times nudged Havana-based foreign correspondents - many fearful of angering the regime, lest they be expelled - to cover dissidents more systematically for the first time. Regardless of their efforts, however, the official media reigns supreme in Cuba. 

The Cuban government tightly controls the island's mass media - print and broadcast - and strictly requires them to project the official line on domestic and foreign issues. The only independent publications permitted are a handful of church journals. 

None of its newspapers print in color - black and red are the only inks used - and with few exceptions their reports are just as colorless, focused largely on uncontroversial topics such as the economy, the arts and sports. 

But in the past six months there have been some examples of more aggressive coverage, especially when it comes to Cuba's economic crisis, and even some public calls for a freer flow of information. 

A television station in the eastern city of Santiago recently broadcast a video shot during a snap visit to a bakery, showing a mass of cockroaches roaming over tables and equipment. 

The Granma newspaper published a story Nov. 23 by Katia Siberia García asking, “What are those who refuse interviews and photos hiding? What's the fear of those who allude to regulations and authorizations in order to prevent our reporters and photographers from offering information?'' 

And this year there were two cases in which the government appeared to have been forced to publicize politically sensitive events, which had been widely covered abroad and were filtering back into the island. 

On Jan. 15, Cuban officials publicly admitted that 26 patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital had died during a cold snap the week before. The acknowledgement came one day after foreign media reported the deaths. 

And while the official media published nothing on the months-long hunger strike by political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, it carried a report four days after his death on Feb. 23 -- which caused an international uproar -- alleging he had been a common criminal. 

Guillermo Fariñas, one of the growing number of independent journalists on the island, has emerged as a powerful symbol of resistance to official press censorship as he continues a hunger strike begun Feb. 24. 

Fariñas stopped eating and drinking liquids to protest the Feb. 23 death of jailed hunger striker and dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and to demand the release of 26 political prisoners - including several independent journalists - he says are ill. 

The 48-year-old psychologist and founder in 2005 of the independent news agency Cubana Press in his hometown of Santa Clara, Fariñas belongs to nationwide informal network of writers and reporters that grew out of from a handful of activists in the early 1990s. 

Today, there are about 300 Cubans on the island who call themselves independent journalists, the closest thing Cuba has to an opposition press. 

Fariñas's hunger strike, though an extreme measure, is perhaps the most important development in the independent journalist front in Cuba in the last few months. 

At least 27 independent journalists remain in prison, with sentences ranging from one to 28 years, according to Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission. 

One jailed journalist, Darsi Ferrer, was adopted Feb. 26 as the 55th prisoner of conscience in Cuba by Amnesty International - three days after the death of Zapata Tamayo, another AI prisoner of conscience. 

Ferrer, director of the Juan Bruno Zayas Health and Human Rights Center in Havana, has been jailed without charges since July 2009. 

Some of the journalists who remain free are periodically harassed, detained or threatened with internal banishment. 

Carlos Serpa Maceira was physically attacked in December while covering in Havana a demonstration by members of the group Ladies in White whose husbands and sons are political prisoners. 

Serpa, of the Sindical Press agency and the magazine Misceláneas de Cuba, was told by the political police he would be sent to the remote Isle of Youth as punishment if he didn't stop his journalistic work. His cellular phone was seized and he was denounced on a government news program as a “mercenary journalist.'' 

Despite the government's repression of independent journalists and controls on access to the Internet, Cuba continues to experience an expansion of its cyber-space, with some 200 blogs regularly updated by Cubans on the island. 

Even the Catholic church launched a Web site in December, “Believing in Cuba,'' (Creer en Cuba) that describes itself as “a meeting place for those who live, dream, work and hope in Cuba and the Cuban community overseas.'' 

Today, the number of so-called “alternative bloggers'' who are regularly critical of the government but do not want to be called dissidents'' is estimated at 50 -- and growing. 

Another 50 or so belong to a new and also expanding category sometimes described as “autonomous'' -- those who generally support the system but criticize its shortcomings. And 100 more are written by strong government supporters, usually employees of the state media. 

While most of the “alternative'' bloggers once wrote mostly about the annoyances of daily life, some have begun to move toward  more political criticism of the system, and at times even further. 

Yoani Sánchez, author of the popular blog Generation Y -- and one  of the handful of Cubans who recently moved into Twitter -- interviewed the mother of Zapata Tamayo right after his death and posted the video. 

Pro-government bloggers in the last half of 2009 launched strong counter-attacks against the cyber-critics, trying to disqualify and dismiss them as counterrevolutionaries. Half-a-dozen posts referred to the need for a "media war" and to "man the trenches" in "defense of the revolution." 

But even some of the government supporters admitted that it's tough to fight Internet critics like Sánchez. 

“There must be a defense, but how?'' wrote one pro-government  blogger. “If you them, you validate them. If you ignore them, you confirm them. If they are repressed, they are empowered. And if they are not repressed, they are also empowered.'' 

The government blocks the sites of about 50 of its toughest cyber-opponents and has harassed some, but so far it has not cracked down on them as harshly as it has on the independent journalists. Perhaps, said Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, the government believes there's no need to jail any bloggers because they are little known inside Cuba. 

Yoani Sánchez, who has won mayor U.S. and Spanish prizes for her blog, was denied an exit permit despite an invitation and visa to attend a congress on the Spanish language that was to take place in Valparaíso, Chile, March 2-5.  The congress was cancelled because of the earthquake that occurred in Chile.  

Cubans' access to the Internet remains expensive, difficult and slow, however, and the Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2009 that Cuba was among the world's 10 worst countries in which to be a blogger. 

The government claims 13 percent of Cuba's 11.2 million people have access, but some independent experts say the true figure is much lower while others say it is much higher because of the large number of Cubans who have black market access to the Web. 

Cuban government controls on foreign correspondents meanwhile continue to be tough -- and effective in pushing the journalists to avoid stories on sensitive topics that might get them expelled. 

Most of the controls are wielded by the government's International  Press Center, which not only issues the press accreditations required by both resident and visiting correspondents to work legally in Cuba but approves the paperwork when they need goods like refrigerators. 

The IPC is currently a full year behind in the process of renewing credentials for all resident foreign correspondents, apparently a subtle way of keeping on the pressures to soften their stories. Journalists in Havana report the IPC threatened to force one foreign correspondent to leave the country in 2009, but did not follow through, and that the IPC may soon try to reduce the estimated 150 journalists - both foreigners and Cubans -- accredited to work for foreign media. 

Some of the smaller foreign media that employ Cubans on a freelance basis are being pushed to re-hire them through a state-run employment agency, which would increase the costs and likely force the foreign media to simply stop using the Cubans, according to the reporters. 

New evidence that the government pressures on the foreign correspondents to avoid or tone down sensitive topics are effective emerged late last year, when two Spanish journalists formerly based in Havana wrote books on their experiences. 

“Rare is the journalist who does not soften his reports, to avoid being expelled from the country,'' wrote Isabel García-Zarza of the Reuters news agency. 

“Self-censorship is a very common practice ... No one on the island can write the truth of what happens there. Correspondents can only come close to reality,'' wrote Vicente Botín of Spanish television. 

State security agents also are widely believed to electronically monitor the correspondents' phones, cars and home, according to Botín, and track their “political ideas, their preferences, their tendencies and above all their weaknesses like drugs, sex, alcohol.'' 

British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Fernando Ravsberg reported Feb. 4 that after having a coffee with a student he was helping with a university paper, two “specialized police'' agents stopped them, wrote down their personal information and then let them go. 

“It was not the first time this happens to me,'' Ravsberg wrote. 

The pressures don't always work, especially when correspondents decide that the stories are too important to sidestep. 

After the IPC warned correspondents in February to stay away from the funeral of Zapata Tamayo, none covered the ceremony. But after Fariñas launched his own hunger strike later, three foreign news agencies sent reporters to his home for first-hand accounts. 

The Obama administration meanwhile has set Cubans' ability to communicate among each other and with the outside world as one of the key goals of its policy toward the island. 

In March, Washington authorized U.S. companies such as Microsoft and Google to offer Cubans free services such as Instant Messenger and Google Earth, which the companies had stopped in 2009 out of concern they were violating the U.S. embargo. 

Earlier, it had green-lighted U.S. telecommunication companies to negotiate with Cuba and allowed personal shipments of communications and computer equipment to the island. 

But on Dec. 3, Cuban police arrested Alan P. Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor from Potomac, Md., who had gone to Havana to deliver a satellite telephone to Jewish groups so they could communicate among each other and with the outside world. 

The arrest of Gross, who remained detained but without charges as of March 15, underlined the Cuban government's determination to control information -- and punish those who would press for a free flow of information.  

Journalist Carlos Serpa Maceira reported that on March 17 as he was covering a march of the Ladies in White to mark the seventh anniversary of the 2003 Black Spring in which the women were suppressed, he was beaten, wounded in the neck and had his camera broken. The following day, March 18, in another Ladies in White demonstration in Havana he was again attacked by “government mobs.”