Six Cuban journalists jailed in a crackdown that began in March 2003 were released in 2004, but with 23 members of the media still behind bars, this Caribbean nation remains one of the world's leading jailers of journalists, second only to China. During 2004, Cuban authorities continued their systematic harassment of journalists and their families.
Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression and of the press, as long as they are "in keeping with the goals of the socialist society." However, under the guise of protecting national sovereignty and state security interests, Cuban legislation—including the Penal Code and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba's National Independence and Economy—effectively bars free journalism. Moreover, the judiciary lacks independence, being subordinate to the legislature and the Council of State, which is headed by President Fidel Castro Ruz.
The government arrested 29 journalists in March 2003, while the world's attention was focused on the war in Iraq, and summarily tried them behind closed doors on April 3 and 4. Many of the journalists did not have access to lawyers before their trials. Most of the defense lawyers had only a few hours to prepare their cases.
Some journalists were tried under Article 91 of the Penal Code, which imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against "the independence or the territorial integrity of the State." Other journalists were prosecuted for violating Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba's National Independence and Economy, which calls for imprisonment of up to 20 years for anyone who commits acts "aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system."
On April 7, 2003, courts across the island announced prison sentences for the journalists ranging from 14 to 27 years. In June 2003, the People's Supreme Tribunal, Cuba's highest court, dismissed the journalists' appeals for annulment (recursos de casación) and upheld their convictions.
Most of the journalists are being held in maximum-security facilities, and they have denounced their unsanitary prison conditions and inadequate medical care. They have also complained of receiving rotten food. Unlike the general prison population, most journalists are only allowed family visits every three months and marital visits every four months. Their relatives have been harassed for talking to the foreign press, protesting the journalists' incarceration, and gathering signatures calling for their release.
Those journalists who were ill before being jailed have seen their health worsen in prison and have been transferred to hospitals or prison infirmaries. Others have developed new illnesses because of prison conditions. Some went on hunger strikes during 2004 to protest. Because prison authorities refused to allow outside contact with the strikers or to disclose information about them, their families were unable to check on their health. Some journalists managed to write articles or poems and smuggle them out of jail, and several were harassed for denouncing their situation.
In June 2004, imprisoned journalist Carmelo Díaz Fernández was granted a medical parole. At the time, he was warned that he would be sent back to prison if he recovered from his illnesses or did not maintain "good behavior." Also in June, Manuel Vázquez Portal, one of CPJ's 2003 International Press Freedom Award winners, was released without explanation. Upon his release, two state security officers suggested that he leave the country. In October, Vázquez Portal was given a document indicating that he had been granted a medical parole.
In late November and early December, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Raúl Rivero Castañeda, Edel José García, and Jorge Olivera Castillo were released on medical parole. During the same period, all of the 23 journalists who remained jailed were transferred to prison hospitals in Havana, ostensibly for checkups. The transfers, coupled with Cuba's resumption of formal diplomatic contacts with Spain in a possible precursor to normalizing relations with the European Union, fueled speculation that additional releases were imminent. However, all 23 were returned to their prisons.
During 2004, the Cuban government repeatedly attempted to justify the legality of the incarcerations. Discussing the summary trials of journalists and opposition activists in a March 25 press conference with the official media and foreign correspondents, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said that Cuba, like any other nation, had the right to defend itself and punish "those who collaborate with a foreign power that attacks their country."
The international community, however, has increasingly recognized the work of independent Cuban journalists. On February 24, UNESCO awarded its prestigious Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for 2004 to imprisoned journalist Raúl Rivero Castañeda. The Cuban government reacted virulently, saying that granting the award to a Cuban citizen who had been "acting as a mercenary at the service of a foreign power called into question the legitimacy of the Press Freedom Prize."
Despite the 2003 crackdown on the independent press and the fact that many journalists have left the island, others have stayed and continue to work under harsh conditions. In some cases, relatives of imprisoned journalists and dissidents have begun writing reports about their incarceration and sending the reports abroad. Although their articles cannot circulate inside Cuba, where the government owns and controls all media outlets, independent journalists have been informing the Cuban community abroad and the world at large about local developments that the official press ignores through Web sites such as the Miami-based Nueva Prensa Cubana (New Cuban Press) and CubaNet, and the Madrid, Spain–based online daily Encuentro en la Red (Encounter on the Net).
Cuban authorities continued their systematic harassment of journalists in 2004. In April, state security officials came to the home of independent journalist Fara Armenteros in Havana and took her away for questioning. She was allowed to make one phone call, which she used to tell her son to go home and take care of his elderly father. The agents, who took turns questioning her, wanted to know about her work as an independent journalist and about her reporting on imprisoned journalists. They warned her that they had enough evidence to prosecute her. The agents brought Armenteros back home several hours later.