June 15, 2009
Jan Fischer Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, President of the European Council
The Committee to Protect Journalists urges you, as the president of the European Council and President of the European Commission, to take concrete steps to ensure that Cuba complies with the 2008 EU human rights conditions by immediately releasing the 22 journalists currently jailed and by granting freedom of expression and information to all Cubans.
During the June 2008 meeting of the European Council, the EU agreed to lift the diplomatic sanctions it had imposed on Cuba in 2003, following that year’s massive crackdown on independent journalists and dissidents by Fidel Castro’s regime, provided that Cuba improve its human rights record. A year later, another independent journalist has been jailed, and Cuban authorities have shown unwillingness to soften restrictions on freedom of information, including Cubans’ access to the Internet. In the wake of this week’s meeting of the European Council, CPJ calls on you and the other 26 EU heads of state and government that make up the Council to use verifiable benchmarks for monitoring human rights in Cuba to ensure that Cuba effectively complies with the conditions or requirements imposed by the EU.
From March 18-20, 2003, agents with Cuba’s State Security arrested 75 dissidents, including 29 journalists. Weeks later, Cuban authorities held summary closed-door trials and handed sentences of up to 24 years in prison to the accused, who were declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. As a response to the crackdown, the EU imposed conditions or requirements on Cuba that included a ban on high-ranking official visits by Cuban authorities to EU countries. In June 2008, however, the Council of the European Union agreed to suspend the sanctions under the condition that human rights conditions improve on the island.
Under those conditions, the Cuban government should have unconditionally released all political prisoners. Instead, two other independent journalists have been imprisoned since 2003. In May, Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández, director of the Havana-based independent news agency Habana Press, was sentenced during a summary trial to three years in prison on charges of “disrespect” and distributing enemy propaganda. In April 2007, freelance reporter Oscar Sánchez Madan was convicted of “social dangerousness,” and given the maximum sentence of four years in prison.
Over the past six years, Cuba has freed a small number of journalists and dissidents in exchange for international political concessions, CPJ research has found. However, 22 reporters and editors remain in prison, making Cuba the world’s second-leading jailer of journalists, after China. Imprisoned journalists live in inhumane conditions. Their health is deteriorating, and their families are harassed by local authorities, CPJ research shows.
To date, no international humanitarian organizations have visited any of the imprisoned Cuban journalists. Nor has the Cuban government ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides “the right to freedom of expression,” or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both signed in February 2008 by then-Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque.
In our annual report, Attacks on the Press in 2008, CPJ noted that there are extensive restrictions on Internet access in Cuba. In a recent report on worldwide online repression, CPJ ranked the island as the fourth-worst country in the world to be a blogger. Only government officials and people with links to the Communist Party have Web access. The general population is only able to go online at hotels or government-controlled Internet cafes by means of expensive voucher cards. A small number of independent bloggers detail everyday life and offer criticism of the regime on Web sites that are hosted outside the country and largely blocked on the island. In a country where the government has complete control of the media, independent journalists working for foreign-based Internet news sites continue to be threatened and harassed by Cuba’s secret police.
In 2008, the EU announced that its relations with Cuba would be reviewed annually after an assessment of the progress and commitment made by the Cuban government on issues that included human rights. CPJ sent European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel a letter on June 25, 2008, and a second in March 2009 urging the EU to hold Cuba accountable for press abuses. Michel has not yet responded to CPJ’s concerns.
We urge you to address these issues during the upcoming meeting of the Council of the European Union by creating a set of benchmarks that can be verified in order to ensure that the EU conditions for the improvement of human rights will be effectively met. As part of these criteria, the EU must call on the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz to immediately and unconditionally release all journalists unjustly imprisoned for exercising their basic human right to free expression and grant freedom of information to all Cubans.