CUBA

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Journalism in Cuba is undergoing a period of extreme stress and government control. The absence of Fidel Castro from power for almost eight months has not changed in the least the totalitarian framework imposed on the media and news practices for 48 years. The interim ruler, Castro’s younger brother Raul, is intensifying the repression against independent journalists, attempting to silence accredited foreign correspondents and persecuting citizens who decide to seek alternative sources of news and entertainment. The perspective is ever more worrisome for the independent journalists’ movement and the search for public information outside the official boundaries. Since October there has been a notable increase in repression against independent journalists. A total of 47 incidents of coercion were reported, including police threats, arbitrary interrogations, demonstrations by pro-government groups, beatings in public, temporary detentions, fines for disobedience, raids and searches of homes, evictions, confiscation of money and personal possessions, restrictions on travel throughout the nation and indefinite delays of permission to emigrate—even job dismissals as reprisals against relatives of journalists for alleged unreliability. The number of journalists in jail rose to 28, and most of them have serious health problems. There have also been an increasing number of reports of physical suffering and psychological disorders caused by mistreatment, inadequate food and deficient medical care in the jails. The sentences being served by journalists in jails throughout the country add up to 456 years. On November 20, Oscar Mario González of Decoro group was released after one year and four months in custody without being charged with any crime. González, 63, had been held without bail in a prison in Havana since police stopped him near his home on July 22, 2005, on suspicion of leading an antigovernment protest. After being released, González has continued to work actively in his profession. Reporter Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia, of the Jóvenes sin Censura agency, was released on December 12 after nine days of being interrogated in custody in a Havana police station. Rodríguez, 22, was accused of “spreading false news that threatens international peace.” He is forbidden from leaving the city of Havana, the province he lives in. Four other journalists were sentenced for dissident activity: Guillermo Espinosa Rodríguez (Agencia de Prensa Libre Oriental) was sentenced on November 6 to two years for transmitting information about the dengue epidemic in Santiago de Cuba. Raymundo Perdigón Brito (Yayabo Press) was sentenced on December 5 to four years on charges of “pre-criminal social dangerousness.” Ramón Velázquez Toranso (Agencia Libertad) was arrested on January 23 and sentenced in a summary trial to three years for “pre-criminal social dangerousness.” Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez (Nueva Prensa Cubana) was sentenced on February 27 to a year and 10 months on charges of disturbing the peace. A flagrant case of violation of procedural norms is that of Armando Betancourt, correspondent of Nueva Prensa Cubana in Camagüey province. Betancourt has been in custody without bail since May 23, 2006, for trying to report an eviction in a poor neighborhood. Betancourt was detained while taking notes about the incident and interviewing people affected by the housing authorities’ decision. He is accused of disturbing the peace, which carries a three-year jail sentence. The trial has been suspended twice, apparently because of inconsistencies in the testimony and the evidence against him. It is necessary to distinguish the various legal types of repression against the independent journalists’ movement. The use of terms like “house arrest” and “crime of social dangerousness” blurs the true character of the criminalization of press freedom in Cuba. House arrest is not provided as a punishment in the 1987 Penal Code, and the term house arrest only applies to a preventive measure for defendants awaiting trial. But independent journalists are truly deprived of their liberty, rather than a type of limited custody or community service, whether in jail or not. For this reason, in practice, these punishments constitute a jail sentence. The crime of dangerousness also is not in the Penal Code, which implies that the situation of independent journalists is worse than that of citizens in general. Cubans can be declared in a “dangerous state” simply because they behave “in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality.” As a consequence, security measures, rather than sentences, can be applied. These can be up to four years in custody in special work or study centers, that is, disguised jails. Even outside the jail cells, the situation remains hostile for journalists of the so-called Cause of the 75, who benefited from special release for reasons of health. Jorge Olivera, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Carmelo Díaz Fernández and Edel García have received refugee visas along with their relatives to emigrate to the United Status. However, the government keeps them in limbo without responding to their requests. In the past year, Olivera has received three summonses from the Havana municipal court to remind him that he must not attend public activities or leave the city limits and that he is subject to supervision by pro-government organizations in his neighborhood. The other journalists who have been released are under similar restrictions and surveillance. Those remaining in prison, with sentences of up to 27 years, are in a prison system that does not permit international inspections. At least 18 of the journalists in custody are seriously ill with chronic ailments that have been aggravated by their incarceration or illnesses acquired in jail. However, the government refuses to release them for humanitarian reasons, not even in the case of a handicapped man, engineer Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, serving a 26-year sentence. The most alarming cases of imprisonment currently are those of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, serving a 20-year sentence, and Normando Hernández, sentenced to 25 years. Herrera Acosta, 40, who has held several hunger strikes to demand his rights, sewed up his mouth on December 26 to protest the mistreatment he was subjected to in Kilo 8 prison in Camagüey. Because of this. the jail authorities sent him to a punishment cell where he had to sleep on the floor with insects and rodents. Earlier he had been hospitalized for heart problems, hypertension, psychiatric problems, polyneuritis, vitiligo and asthma. Recent reports say he was beaten by guards despite being extremely weak and undernourished. Hernández, 38, in the Kilo 5 ½ prison in Pinar del Río, suffers from intestinal malabsorption syndrome, ulcers and, on several occasions, has had an abnormal tuberculosis test. He was hospitalized for six months in 2005. On March 9, his wife, Yaraí Reyes, confirmed that a test done at the beginning of this month revealed he had tuberculosis. The independent journalists who are still practicing their profession despite material difficulties and police threats, had a particularly tense six months On December 10, International Human Rights Day, government mobs attacked a peaceful demonstration in a park in El Vedado neighborhood of Havana. The demonstrators, including independent journalist Carlos Ríos of Nueva Prensa Cubana agency, were attacked violently and forced out of the park. On January 30, journalist Haydee Rodríguez, 78, was arbitrarily detained and her residence was searched by State Security agents after a brief visit to Havana. Rodríguez, who runs La Voz del Oriente agency, was stopped in the Santiago de Cuba railroad station. Her residence was searched, and books, magazines, two small radios and video equipment were confiscated. The authorities have threatened to evict her from her residence and move her to a nursing home if she does not leave the country. She has obtained Spanish citizenship. Early in the morning of March 2, journalist and sociologist Guillermo Fariñas was beaten by members of the so-called Association of Revolutionary Fighters in Santa Clara. After a political argument, the journalist and two other dissidents were slapped and kicked by six people in civilian clothes. Fariñas, editor of Cubanacán Press, gained international attention last year during a long fast to demand free access to the Internet. Despite the fact that he had been beaten, he was taken to a police station in handcuffs and held for one hour. Cuban authorities revoked the permission to leave the country that they had granted journalist Luis Guerra Juvier on September 15, 2005. He has been accepted in the U.S. refugee program. The restriction also applied to his wife, Virgen Aurora del Toro, who was taken off an airplane on January 17, and her “white card” was taken away. On January 26, the Interior Ministry informed Juvier that both measures were “collegial decisions.” The situation is no less worrisome for foreign journalists accredited in Cuba. In a strategy of entrenchment to deal with crisis situations and special coverage, the government announced new regulations for foreign journalists. The document dated October 28 is called “Regulations for the Work of the Foreign Press in Cuba.” It was distributed at the beginning of December. In this resolution, the International Press Center (CPI) of the Foreign Ministry is authorized to suspend temporarily or revoke permanently the journalistic accreditation of anyone who has taken “actions that are inappropriate or unrelated to his job specifications and content of his work” or when it deems that the correspondent “has violated journalistic ethics and/or does not adhere to objectivity in his or her dispatches.” The regulations are based on rules in existence since 1997 for the work of foreign correspondents on the island. But it is more exhaustive with respect to the restrictions that it imposes for of accreditation and for visiting journalists. Using the new document, CIP authorities proceeded to get rid of correspondents they considered annoying. On February 22, César González Calero of the daily El Universal (Mexico), Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune (United States) and Stephen Gibbs of the BBC were informed that their journalists’ visas would not be renewed because “the way they approach the Cuban situation is not acceptable to the Cuban government.” The government continued its drive against the proliferation of clandestine satellite television signals and unauthorized Internet connections. On February 9 it was announced that a trial had begun against four Cuban citizens accused of illegally making and repairing satellite television antennas and receivers. They were accused of illicit economic activity and could be sentenced to up to three years in jail and fines of 300 to 1,000 Cuban pesos. The announcement of this case, intended to intimidate, showed just the tip of the iceberg of a vigorous clandestine market with 30,000 users in Havana and nearby areas. These people pay fees of $10 to $15 for satellite service, stealing signals that are only received by hotels, tourist centers, foreign residents and authorized institutions. The government drive against parabolic antennas was given a new impetus on December 18 when Radio TV Martí, a U.S. agency that broadcasts to Cuba, rented time on the satellite channels Direct TV and Dish, whose signals are received on the island. Cuba jams Radio TV Martí’s broadcasts because they are considered illegal and subversive. From that date on, there has been an increase in police raids in neighborhoods to locate the redistribution centers for stolen signals, to dismantle the service networks, confiscate equipment and fine the violators. The most recent raid was March 8 in the Havana neighborhood Santos Suárez. The other focus of strategic attention is the Internet, which in Cuba is limited to government agencies, educational and cultural institutions and foreigners who subscribe paying in hard currency. No Cuban can freely access the Web, even paying with hard currency. The Cuban government maintains that limits on individual service are caused by the U.S. embargo which prevents a fiber optic cable connection for broadband and makes it necessary to access the Worldwide Web by satellite. However, it also acknowledges that it intends to regulate the use of the Internet “with measures that contribute to increasing the country’s security,” in the words of Ramiro Valdés, the new information and communications minister, as he inaugurated an international meeting in Havana on February 12. Valdés said at the XII International Convention and Exhibition, INFORMÁTICA 2007 that “the wild horse” of the new technologies must be broken. He added that today they constitute “one of the worst mechanisms of global extermination that has been invented.” For that reason, Cuba advocates social restrictions and controlled use of the Internet, which justifies blocking digital pages considered “harmful” and implementation of a policy to “revise strategies and actions that contribute to a continuous increase in the security” of its networks. During the Informática 2007 convention, Cuba presented as one of the most advanced projects its specialists are working on to guarantee the “massive, orderly and efficient use” of the Internet: a search engine called 2 x 3 with a database of 150,000 pages dedicated exclusively to Cuban sites and a special section to find the speeches of Fidel Castro. Cuba’s immediate expectations of obtaining a fiber optic connection are pinned on an agreement signed with Venezuela on January 24 for the installation in 2008 of a low-cost 1,552-kilometer underwater cable for high-speed access to the Web. Caracas and Havana consider this project vital to advance communications independence and confront the “hegemonic goals” of the United States in this “new battlefield.” On January 13, during the VIII National Festival of the Written Press in Cuba, officials and pro-government journalists agreed to give journalistic content “combative language” and to use the Internet as an area of political and cultural influence against the “disinformation of imperialism,” inspired by Castro’s ideas.

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