Attacks on the Press 2001: Cuba

During 2001, Cuban authorities continued to wield an assortment of repressive tools to silence independent journalism: harassment and intimidation; prison terms and threats of prosecution; detention; disruption of phone communications; and restrictions on the freedom of movement, among others. In May 2001, for the seventh straight year, CPJ named President Fidel Castro Ruz to its annual list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press. See CPJ’s 2001 Enemies list.

Nonetheless, independent journalists founded the journalists’ association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling (SPMMS). The association, which does not accept funding from any government, hopes to promote freedom of expression, train independent journalists, defend journalistic ethics, and provide moral and financial support to its members. Predictably, state security agents targeted the SPMMS, banning it from giving training courses and harassing some of its members in their homes.

Meanwhile, the international community increasingly recognized the important work of the independent media in Cuba. In early April, independent Cuban journalists and European parliamentarians met to discuss press freedom issues during the 105th Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference, held in Havana.

According to Cuban journalist Raúl Rivero, the independent press “cannot publish in their own country, does not have access to official information, and lives under the pressure of decrees, provisions and laws that allow the Cuban government to jail them with the appearance of legality.”

Because the government controls all mass media and restricts Internet access, independent journalists struggle to transmit news reports abroad. Operators from the state telephone monopoly, ETECSA, frequently refuse to connect their international calls. Likewise, the government routinely taps journalists’ phones, disconnects their phone service, or cuts off international calls. In mid-February, for instance, the government disconnected the phone number of the independent news agency CubaPress for at least 20 days.

In other cases, the government has denied exit permits to journalists who have already obtained a foreign visa to travel to other countries. Some journalists invited abroad are allowed to leave Cuba only if they promise never to return. In September, the SPMMS issued a statement demanding that five journalists who had been granted political asylum be allowed to leave Cuba, but at year’s end, they remained in the country.

Three imprisoned journalists were released in 2001. On January 17, Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández–who was subjected to a sham trial in 1999 and convicted of “dangerousness,” a crime unknown outside Cuba–was released after being imprisoned for two years because of his work. He was held in degrading conditions and denied even the limited rights guaranteed by Cuban law. In 1999, CPJ honored Díaz Hernández with an International Press Freedom Award. After his release, he returned to work as the executive director of the independent news agency Cooperativa Avileña de Periodistas Independientes, but the state security agency continues to harass him.

CubaPress correspondent Manuel Antonio González Castellanos was freed on February 26 after serving the bulk of his 31-month sentence for “disrespecting” President Castro. During his imprisonment, González Castellanos was placed in a punishment cell for at least 10 days. Though he suffered from a severe cold and lost considerable weight, authorities denied him proper medical care.

Journalist and labor activist José Orlando González Bridón was released on November 22 after serving 11 months and seven days in prison for distributing “false information” in an article about a bungled murder case.

But journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón remains imprisoned. He has been jailed since 1997 for “disrespecting” Castro and another Cuban State Council member, Carlos Lage. The charges stemmed from a series of interviews Arévalo Padrón gave in late 1997 to Miami-based radio stations in which he alleged that while Cuban farmers starved, helicopters were taking fresh meat from the countryside to the dinner tables of President Castro, Lage, and other Communist Party officials. The journalist continues to be held in a labor camp despite being eligible for parole, and his health has suffered as a result of his prolonged imprisonment.

Foreign correspondents did not escape government pressures during 2001. In January, President Castro accused several foreign journalists of spreading “lies and insults against the Revolution.” He also hinted that in retaliation, the government might consider closing entire news bureaus rather than expelling the offending reporters. As a result, accused British journalist Pascal Fletcher, a reporter for Reuters, was relocated to Venezuela in order to keep Reuters from losing its license.

Independent Cuban journalists can count on their colleagues abroad to use the Web to disseminate information. The online daily Encuentro en la red (–launched by a group of Madrid-based Cuban exiles that also publishes the popular quarterly magazine Encuentro de la cultura cubana–celebrated its first anniversary in December. The daily showcases the best of the independent Cuban press and provides a forum for debate between Cubans on the island and abroad. Throughout 2001, the government media continued to lash out against the magazine and the Web site, branding them a tool of the U.S. government and Miami-based right-wing exiles.

March 31

Jesús Hernández Hernández, HavanaPress
Jadir Hernández Hernández, HavanaPress

On the eve of an international conference of legislators, state security agents detained and threatened Jesús Hernández Hernández, a reporter for the independent news agency HavanaPress, in the western province of Habana.

The journalist was held for two hours and warned not to cover the activities of dissidents during the 105th Inter-Parliamentary Conference, held in Havana from April 1 to 7, according to HavanaPress. The agency also reported that Jesús Hernández Hernández had been ordered to quit working as a journalist.

The police lieutenant who questioned Jesús Hernández Hernández told him that he and his brother Jadir Hernández Hernández, who is also a reporter for HavanaPress, could be prosecuted at any time and given prison terms of up to 15 years for violating the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy, which is also known as Law 88, or as the “gag law.”

Law 88 mandates prison terms for “supporting, facilitating, or collaborating with the objectives of the Helms-Burton Law [U.S. legislation that imposes sanctions on foreign companies trading with Cuba], the embargo, and the economic war against our people, with the goal of ruining internal order, destabilizing the country, and liquidating the socialist state and Cuba’s independence.”

The lieutenant also threatened to reopen a six-month-old criminal case against the Hernández Hernández brothers. On September 15, 2000, agents from the government’s Technical Department of Investigation (DTI), the criminal police, held the brothers for more than three days at the DTI offices in San José de las Lajas, near Havana. They accused the two journalists of smuggling Cuban immigrants to the United States.

April 9

Ricardo González Alfonso, free-lancer

González Alfonso, 49, a free-lance journalist and the Cuba correspondent for the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters sans frontières (RSF), was placed under house arrest by Cuban authorities.

National Revolutionary Police (PNR) detained the journalist after his former wife filed a complaint alleging that he had threatened her. (Like many divorced couples in Cuba, which suffers a severe housing shortage, González Alfonso and his ex-wife shared the same house.)

González Alfonso was released at around 5 p.m. Apparently, the police only discovered his profession when he was already in detention.

At 10 p.m., two police agents appeared at González Alfonso’s home with a house arrest warrant, which lacked the required signature and stamp. Under Cuban law, house arrest can be imposed for up to 20 days, by which time the district attorney is required to rule on the matter.

It is highly unusual for Cuban police to impose house arrest in a domestic dispute, CPJ sources said. Given that González Alfonso still lived with his ex-wife, it is unclear why police would effectively lock them up together in response to her complaint.

In mid-May, González Alfonso told CPJ that “the police move was so sloppy that within days they had to lift the house arrest order for lack of evidence.” He also told CPJ that he had been threatened with prosecution under the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy (also known as Law 88). [See March 31 case.]

CPJ issued an alert about this case on April 12.

González Alfonso’s affiliation with RSF has exposed him to repeated harassment from Cuban authorities. In February 2001, he was detained for four hours and interrogated about interviews he had given to a Miami radio station. Meanwhile, his house was placed under police surveillance.

August 1

Jesús Álvarez Castillo, CubaPress

Security officials threatened and harassed Álvarez Castillo, a journalist with the independent news agency CubaPress.

State Security Department (DSE) officers stopped the journalist in the streets of Morón, a city in the central province of Ciego de Ávila, and summoned him to the DSE’s Morón headquarters, according to CubaPress. The officers interrogated Álvarez Castillo for two hours and threatened him with prosecution and prison if he continued working as a reporter in the area.

In mid-June, the journalist reported that he was unable to file stories over the phone to the Miami-based Web site Nueva Prensa Cubana because the DSE was disrupting his phone line.

Álvarez Castillo has covered Ciego de Ávila for CubaPress for the last three years. He also represents the independent journalists’ organization Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling in Ciego de Ávila.

August 22

Dorka de Céspedes Vila, HavanaPress

Police and state security agents detained de Céspedes, a journalist with the independent news agency HavanaPress, while she was trying to cover a protest by a human rights group in Havana.

When the journalist arrived at the protest site around 8:30 p.m., National Revolutionary Police and State Security Department agents threatened her with jail and ordered her into a car. She was dropped about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the point where she was detained.

October 12

Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling

State security agents banned the independent press association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling from giving training courses and harassed some of its members, according to local CPJ sources.

On the afternoon of October 12, two Department of State Security (DSE) officers came to the offices of the association and warned its president, journalist Ricardo González Alfonso, that they would not allow the group to offer courses during the 2001-2002 academic year.

The DSE officers also told González Alfonso that the courses were illegal because the journalists did not have a license to teach. The classes, including Spanish grammar, journalism, and English, were scheduled to open on October 15. They are free of charge for association members.

On October 14, the DSE officers visited the homes of independent journalists Jorge Olivera Castillo, Graciela Alfonso, Dorka de Céspedes Vila, and Aimeé Cabrera Álvarez, all of whom are very active in the organization, and warned them that attending the classes was illegal.

To avoid a confrontation with state security forces, the organization canceled the opening ceremony for the school year but confirmed that classes would open at a later date.

On October 16, the organization issued a statement condemning the prohibition. The following day, a lawyer from the Catholic Church’s civic center Centro de Formación Cívica y Religiosa assured the group that the Cuban Penal Code does not bar their classes, and that teachers who give lessons for free do not need to obtain a license. Most teachers at the school do have licenses to teach in the Havana municipality of Playa, where the organization is based, González Alfonso informed CPJ.

The journalism classes, to be taught by respected independent journalist Raúl Rivero, are based on a Florida International University course.

On the morning of October 29, the day the courses were scheduled to start, about six DSE agents prevented journalists from attending classes, González Alfonso said. Rivero, who was already inside the association’s office, was told to leave.

Journalist Carlos Castro was forced into a police car and driven to a neighborhood several miles away, where he was released. The association’s offices were kept under police surveillance.

Although the organization has submitted all the required documentation to register as an association under Cuban law, the government had yet to approve the organization’s application by year’s end.

CPJ issued an alert about this case on October 24.

November 22

José Orlando González Bridón, Cuba Free Press

González Bridón, a Cuban journalist and labor activist who was jailed for 11 months for distributing false information, was released on parole on November 22.

The journalist was first detained on December 15, 2000, and taken to the headquarters of the Technical Department of Investigations (DTI), the criminal police. On December 28, he was transferred to Combinado del Este Prison, where he was held several months without trial.

In early April 2001, a government prosecutor charged González Bridón with spreading false information about the death of a fellow labor activist and asked the court to sentence him to seven years in prison.

An article by the journalist posted to the Cuba Free Press site on August 5, 2000, reported that the Confederation of Cuban Democratic Workers national coordinator Joanna González Herrera had been attacked by her ex-husband, and that Cuban police had failed to prevent her death.

During González Bridón’s trial, which was held behind closed doors on May 24, his lawyer argued that Joanna González Herrera had reported her ex-husband’s threats to the police and was subsequently murdered by him. González Bridón reported these facts accurately, and therefore could not be accused of spreading false news.

González Bridón’s attorney also argued that because ordinary Cubans lack access to the Internet, the journalist could not have caused alarm or discontent among the population through his work, which was published online. He then requested González Bridón’s immediate and unconditional release.

In response, the state prosecutor changed the charges against González Bridón to “defamation of the institutions, heroes, and martyrs of the homeland” under Article 204 of the Penal Code, and requested a one-year prison sentence. The court announced that it would pass sentence within five days.

In early June, despite the new charge, the court found González Bridón guilty of distributing “false information for the purpose of disturbing the international peace, or to endanger the prestige or credibility of the Cuban State or its good relations with another State,” a criminal offense under Article 115 of the Penal Code, and increased the sentence to two years imprisonment.

Under Cuban sentencing regulations, a one-year prison term would have led to González Bridón’s release on June 15, since he would have been eligible for parole after serving half his sentence. In cases involving political dissidents, it is not uncommon for Cuban courts to pass longer sentences than those sought by prosecutors.

On June 8, a prison warden gave González Bridón a written copy of the sentence. On June 13, González Bridón’s lawyer filed an appeal for annulment (recurso de casación) on procedural grounds.