IAPA Midyear Meeting 2017

Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala

March 31 – April 3


Press freedom is facing the same challenges and restrictions of always by the government.

While there exists an oppressive legal apparatus to gag and to prevent development of the independent press the government, which is the only enemy of this, opts for a preventive repression of little visibility in order to prevent that there is generated respect for, and public and media solidarity with, press professionals. For that it chooses to use laws of economic control instead of laws of political control, it keeps high the prices of all the resources of the press – Internet, newsprint, cell phones, digital equipments – and employs the security apparatus in harassment of media professionals, theft of their work resources and brief arrests to prevent them from carrying out their work.

The absolute control of the judicial apparatus on the part of the Interior Ministry and the care that the State Security takes in leaving the least possible number of fingerprints of their work against the press hardens the atmosphere of impunity in the aggressions that journalists suffer. That is why often attacked journalists do not know what to do legally to defend themselves, or how they are sure that nothing will be achieved, not even attempting their legal defense.

The most serious events in this period were: Imprisonment of Camagüey journalist and activist Fernando Vázquez Guerra for an economic offense designed for him; imprisonment of politician Eduardo Cardet and graphic artist El Sexto (this one already freed) for expressing themselves in public about the death of Fidel Castro; threats of imprisonment for another predesigned economic offense of Karina Gálvez of the editorial staff of the magazine Convivencia, whose offices are threatened with confiscation; interminable chains of police or labor citations, always promoted by State Security for interrogations of and threats to the majority of members of the staff and stringers of the magazines Convivencia and La Hora de Cuba; criminal charges of "enemy propaganda" to the regional vice chairman for Cuba of the IAPA Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, and threatened with "15 to 20 years in prison" if he does not stop publishing, and an accusation of "usurping legal capacity," which prohibits him from leaving the country.

In addition to the poverty-stricken economy the country continues to be governed by a group of people related by family to the old head of state Raúl Castro Ruz.

During this period there occurred two important events: the death of Fidel Castro Ruz – announced on November 25 – and the elimination of the United States "wet foot, dry foot" policy of Barack Obama on January 12.

Cuban laws contain numerous brakes to freedom of the press and information. But the Penal Code, which dates from 1987 – with subsequent slight modifications – is the most aggressive in this regard. It contains 10 clauses that threaten the work of the press. Article 103 on "Enemy Propaganda" is the strongest threat. The rest of the clauses affect the whole range of work of a normal news media outlet, there being penalized the formal belonging to a work team, the search for information, the identification as a journalist in the event of not having a degree, the publication, printing, distribution and commercialization of the journalistic material. In addition, the Code armor-plates all authorities and the state apparatus from criticisms. Although these clauses have rarely been applied in recent years their mere existence is a latent threat.

The primary legal brake, however, lies in Article 53 of the Constitution, that which recognizes freedom of speech and of the press whenever and always these are used "in line with the purposes of the socialist revolution," while it prohibits private ownership of media.

Other laws that threaten the practice of independent journalism are those on Associations, Foreign Investment and State Secrecy.

The Ministries of Education and Higher Education apply in all centers of learning rules that describe as a very serious offense maintaining attitudes of a nature contrary to the norms of the "revolution." In both cases the sanctions are those most severe that the rules contemplate, going to the point of expulsion from higher education.

Most serious is the case of students of journalism, who are required to be militants of the Young Communists Union (UJC). These students and professors are encouraged by the government to carry out cyber harassment of the Facebook accounts of independent journalists.

Concerning access to information the Penal Code and other regulations restrict the obtaining and publication of information. Those who work in institutions are clear that giving information to an independent journalist puts them at severe risk of being fired and police investigation. Secrecy is the policy of the government, so it is only possible to find data already published by the government itself.

Internet and access to flash reports and reproducers of digital contents have substantially changed the consumer habits of the Cubans. A large number of homes consume materials coming from "El Paquete," a report with digital products mainly in video, organized and commercialized by private networks in the country. The authorities look the other way, but they put pressure so that materials critical of the government are not included.

The cell phone continues being a very expensive service and is commonly spied upon by the authorities, which at times turns it into a danger more than a benefit for the work of the journalist.

The Internet continues to be the prerogative of the state monopoly ETECSA, and now it covers more than a hundred on-air sites in all the cities and towns of the country. Both services require the user to ahead of time provide his or her personal data to ETECSA, which creates the access account and then there is paid 1.50 Cuban pesos, almost $2, in a country where the average salary is $25.

Cuba is one of the poorest societies in the Western Hemisphere. The average monthly salary is $25. Teachers and doctors can earn $20 to $80 monthly and journalists of state media are the only ones legalized to practice the profession, they receive between $12 and $80 a month.

The Internet and cell phone contracts contain warnings to a user that he or she will lose the service if he or she violates "the rules of ethical behavior that the Cuban government promotes" or uses the services "against morality, public order, state security," respectively.

To the absence of privacy, security and the very high cost of Internet service there is added the fact that in recent months there has been an increase in the number of informative Web sites blocked by the authorities, such as the portals, and, added to the list that already included, and, among others.

As regards the Internet in the homes only certain doctors, state journalists, artists and officials, as well as resident foreigners, have that possibility, at higher prices but with the same controls.

There has been a slight increase in the number of companies, schools and other state institutions with free access to the Internet for their workers – free but much more limited in terms of quality and security.

For those few print media the field is even more difficult. Not only for the legal question but for the high prices collected by the state for newsprint (nearly $10 for 500 A4 sheets of regular quality) and print resources. The black market tends to have these goods at better prices and quality, but with greater legal risk for those involved.

The independent press that deals with social content has grown in variety and professionalism, above all during 2016, but equally it has been very much bashed by State Security.

The most frequent means of harassment have been:

—Prolonged imprisonment, accompanied by prefabricated trials: independent journalist Fernando Vzquez Guerra –also a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba and stringer for 14ymedio – is in jail for an offense connected to the vendor activity "for his own account" of food that he was carrying out. His imprisonment was ordered in 2016 amid the trial of other political activists of the city of Camagüey, in proceedings without transparency and clearly prefabricated. Graphic artist Danilo Maldonado, El Sexto, was held in jail for more than a month after the death of Fidel Castro for writing graffiti alluding to the fact and then placing comments on Facebook; and Eduardo Cardet, a political activist, is still in prison since the same dates for having made public statements, and he faces the threat of being put on trial.

—The detentions are for hours or a few days, generally to prevent coverage of some event or fact on the part of the arrested journalist. That is what happened to Maykel González Vivero and a team of the neighborhood journalism project when they sought to report on the effects of Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa, to Reinaldo Escobar of 14ymedio as he was stating opinions during the death of Fidel Castro to a reporter of Televisión Española – who also was arrested, to Anderlay Guerra Blanco and Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina while they were filming video reports for their production company Palenque Visión, to Ignacio González Vidal of El Caliente Prensa Libre as he was interviewing in his studio also arrested journalist Serafín Morán, and to Sol García Basulto and Henry Constantín of La Hora de Cuba, when they attempted to travel to Havana to participate in the awarding of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro by a group of dissidents.

—The summons for questioning and threats, such as those suffered on three occasions by Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, editor of the magazine Convivencia, Karina Gálvez Chiu, Yoandy Izquierdo Toledo and Rosalia Viñas Lazo, members of the newsroom of that magazine, and other collaborators in that project.

—The violent provocations, such as the one suffered by journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca.

—The prohibitions to leave their homes under threat of arrest, such as happened to Sol García Basulto and Henry Constantín during the passage of the ashes of Fidel Castro through Camagüey province, and during the visit there of Antonio Guerrero, one of the five Cuban spies freed by President Obama.

—The thefts, retentions or confiscations of their work tools, especially laptops and cell phones. This has happened to Raúl Risco and other communicators of the bulletins of the Cuban Institute for Press Freedom (ICLEP), to Sol García Basulto of La Hora de Cuba (three times) and to Ileana Hernández, author of the YouTube channel Lente Cubano.

—The inspections and interrogations by Customs, Immigration and State Security officials at airports, as happened to Raúl Risco and Henry Constantín at least four times.

—The raids on homes suffered by the preparers of bulletins of the ICLEP network, Karina Gálvez of the magazine Convivencia and Ignacio González Vidal, among others.

—The threats of various kinds: to throw them out of the country and to break their teeth (to Uruguayan resident in Cuba Fernando Ravsberg, author of the blog Cartas desde Cuba – Letters from Cuba), to Sol García Basulto to take away the custody of her son or put her parents on trial; not letting Laliana González Carmenates of La Hora de Cuba graduate from university; sentencing Henry Constantín to 15 or more years in prison, among others.

—The intimidations of the family that have been received by the parents of Sol García Basulto, Laliana González and Henry Consantín.

—The criminal charges, such as that of "participating in an international provocation" and "enemy propaganda," such as those made to Henry Constantín for having subversive material in his luggage and on his personal computer (these were magazines and articles of his own press), of "disobedience" (that which was received by Sol García Basulto), fortunately both shelved – so far – and the most serious, that of "tax evasion," which hangs over the article writer of economic topics and member of the newsroom of the magazine Convivencia Karina Gálvez, an accusation that led to six days of arrest and isolation and which is pending going on trial, with the threat of at least three years' imprisonment and loss of her own house (which was also the site of the Convivencia project, the motive for the accusation and which is now sealed by the authorities).

Also in this period reporter Vladimir Turró Páez, a stringer for the news agency Hablemos Press, was arrested on at least three occasions. State Security detained him on February 21 along with independent journalist Rosa Avilés Carvallo in Havana near the Czech Republic embassy, a diplomatic center that they had visited to use its Internet service. Turró Páez was released 27 hours later, while Avilés Carvallo remained in detention until February 24. She, who did not live in Havana, was removed to Camagúey and prohibited from returning to the capital.

On March 22 independent journalists Agustín López Canino and Alexis Pérez Lescailles were arrested while they were covering the eviction of 72 Cuban families who were living in an old textile factory in the town of Calabazar, south of Havana. López Canino reported that during the arrest his telephone and a camera were seized.