Attacks on the Press 2003: Cuba

Unlike previous years, when Cuban authorities were mostly content to merely harass and threaten independent journalists and their families, in 2003, authorities launched an all-out assault against the opposition and the independent press. Officials jailed 29 journalists–about one-third of the island’s independent press–and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. Those who continue to work face systematic police harassment and threats.

The detention of political dissidents and journalists–who are often accused of being “counterrevolutionaries” at the service of the United States–began on March 18, during the first week of the Iraq war, and continued for three days. Police raided and searched the journalists’ homes, confiscating books, typewriters, research materials, cameras, computers, printers, and fax machines.

The journalists were taken to the headquarters of the State Security Department (DSE)–the political police–across the island. Their summary trials were held on April 3 and 4 behind closed doors, after which the courts declared that the cases were ready for sentencing. Many journalists did not have access to their lawyers before the trials. In several cases, the lawyers representing the journalists only had a few hours to prepare their defenses.

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 mandates up to 20 years in prison 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, courts across the island announced prison sentences for the journalists ranging from 14 to 27 years. They remained imprisoned in jails administered by the DSE until April 24, when most were sent to prisons located hundreds of miles from their homes. In June, the People’s Supreme Tribunal, Cuba’s highest court, dismissed the appeals for annulment (recursos de casación), which the journalists filed in April, thus upholding their convictions.

The imprisoned journalists, who are being held in maximum-security facilities and are handcuffed any time they leave their cells, have denounced their unsanitary prison conditions, inadequate medical care, solitary confinement, and lack of access to the press and television. They have also complained of receiving foul-smelling and rotten food.

To demand better conditions, some imprisoned journalists went on hunger strikes several times during 2003. After learning about the hunger strikes, other jailed journalists joined them in solidarity. 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. As punishment for their involvement in the strikes, the journalists have been dispersed and transferred to other prisons.

Throughout 2003, several of the imprisoned journalists smuggled out reports and letters denouncing their situation. Independent journalist and CPJ 2003 International Press Freedom Award recipient Manuel Vázquez Portal wrote a prison diary, which was later smuggled out, describing the harsh conditions in Boniato Prison, in eastern Cuba, where he was being held. In retaliation, prison authorities transferred Vázquez Portal to another prison.

In early July, renowned Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti traveled to Cuba on behalf of CPJ and confirmed the dire situation for independent journalists and their families there. During his stay in the capital, Havana, Gorriti visited the families of several imprisoned journalists to convey CPJ’s concern.

In September 2003, the independent journalists’ association Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling, which lost many of its members in the March crackdown, published the third issue of the association’s magazine, the bimonthly De Cuba. In October, Claudia Márquez Linares, the vice president of the association, was taken to a DSE office in Havana and was warned not to publish another issue of De Cuba.

Facing worldwide condemnation for the crackdown–even from some leftist intellectuals who had previously supported the Cuban government–Cuban officials began using their well-funded, well-oiled propaganda machine, which now relies heavily on government-sponsored Web sites, to counter international pressure. In August 2003, the government launched a new Web site called Cubadebate, which seeks to “destroy the calumnies against Cuba.” The site has been used to promote books and articles that denounce dissidents and independent journalists as “mercenaries.”

To complement the government’s Internet campaign–which mostly targets the international community because the government tightly controls Cubans’ access to the Web–the official press unleashed an intense campaign inside the island to discredit independent journalists and dissidents. Books and radio and television programs portrayed them as “agents” on the U.S. government’s payroll.

The government also stepped up its attacks on the popular quarterly magazine Encuentro de la cultura cubana, which is published by an association of Cuban exiles based in Madrid, Spain. Official media aired charges linking the magazine to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The magazine and the online daily Encuentro en la red, published by the same group, provide a forum for cultural and political debate between Cubans from the island and abroad. Although banned in Cuba, the magazine is passed from reader to reader throughout the island.