• Vibrant blogging culture emerges despite severe Internet restrictions.
• Jailed journalists suffer amid inhumane conditions.
22: Reporters and editors in jail as of December 1.
Cuba was hit hard by the global economic crisis and endured an upheaval in its highest offices, but state-controlled news media delivered superficial and skewed coverage. Human rights conditions, including press freedom, remained at a standstill: Independent journalists faced ongoing harassment, and more than 20 reporters and editors remained in jail. But offering a flicker of hope for freedom of expression on the island, a growing community of independent bloggers maneuvered around legal, economic, and technological limitations to describe everyday experiences and express opinions that challenged the regime’s perspective.
THE PRESS: 2009
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Big Brother is watching reporters
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Cuba was one of the 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger, according to an April analysis by CPJ. But because the government so harshly represses other media, the Internet has become the one means by which Cubans are able to exercise free expression. The government estimates Internet penetration at 13 percent, although independent estimates are much lower.
Regardless, the Internet in Cuba is extremely slow and expensive, and legal restrictions are among the toughest in the world. An inter-ministry commission has authority to regulate “the information that comes from worldwide information webs,” purportedly to ensure the country’s security and defense. A government agency approves all Internet connections, leaving only foreigners and a handful of intellectuals, high-ranking officials, doctors, and academics with personal access to the Web. Other Cubans went online at government-run cybercafés, hotels, embassies, and highly monitored student centers. Cubans were not allowed to purchase consumer electronics, including personal computers, until 2008. Computers remained difficult to find.
For all those difficulties, Cuba became home to a small but vibrant blogging community, one that CPJ described in a September special report, “Chronicling Cuba, Bloggers Offer Fresh Hope.” CPJ found that at least 25 independent, journalistic, and regularly updated blogs were being produced by Cuban writers in 2009. Most bloggers interviewed by CPJ were under age 35 and defined themselves as part of the post-revolutionary youth. Like the independent press, they reported on everyday experiences, pinpointing food shortages and problems in education, housing, and health.
Bloggers wrote at home, sometimes on computers cobbled together from black-market parts. Although they occasionally posted directly to their blogs from island cybercafés, they more generally e-mailed their information to friends living abroad who then posted their entries. Bloggers, frequently unable to read their own posts online, were aware that their Internet audience was predominantly overseas. So they saved their work to CDs that were distributed to independent libraries on the island, or they printed hard copies of their entries and bound them into impromptu publications that were passed from hand to hand.
Although it might seem surprising, Cubans have a long tradition in online journalism. The roots of online Cuban journalism can be found in the independent press movement that flourished from the mid-1990s into this decade. Using basic journalistic tools for their reporting, these independent reporters have long made a practice of phoning, faxing, or e-mailing their stories to foreign-based news Web sites. But the new generation of bloggers differed from their predecessors in the independent press movement, most of whom were opposition activists with strong political views. Bloggers generally avoided links to dissident groups, and tended not to criticize the Castro regime directly, CPJ research showed. As a consequence—or perhaps due to a generational disconnect between the young bloggers and the country’s aging leaders—authorities have not cracked down as hard on the blogging community as they did on the independent press. Twenty-nine independent journalists were jailed in a massive 2003 crackdown on dissent; most of them remained in prison in 2009.
Nonetheless, a number of bloggers told CPJ that they had been summoned by authorities for questioning and threatened with sanctions, including imprisonment, if they did not stop writing. In November, state security agents detained, assaulted, and harassed Yoani Sánchez, an internationally recognized blogger, and two fellow bloggers, Claudia Cadelo and Omar Luís Pardo Lazo. Authorities also revoked Sánchez’s permission to travel outside the country.
Bloggers and independent journalists filing to overseas news outlets continued to cover issues that were ignored by the official media. As some of Cuba’s most powerful officials and well-known Fidel Castro loyalists—including Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage—were removed from office in March, the news was briefly reported at the end of an official TV newscast. A day later, the official dailies, the only ones available in Cuba, printed the resignation letters without comment or context. Bloggers questioned the reasons behind the decision and the repercussions these changes would have on the island. Independent writers such as Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a formerly imprisoned journalist, discussed the developments in opinion pieces.
In July, President Raúl Castro spoke about the severe impact of the global fiscal crisis on the island, and announced spending cuts to revitalize the economy. The island’s official press responded with superficial editorials calling on Cubans to “save” and “be understanding.” Bloggers and independent journalists reported on citizens’ varied responses. Many stories, CPJ found, were critical of the regime’s policies and the possible repercussions on daily life.
Bloggers developed strong global connections and created new means of getting information out of Cuba, allowing them to highlight problems that would otherwise go unreported locally and internationally, CPJ research found. International outlets sought out their opinion and, at times, published their work. In September, the blogging community hit another milestone. An association of Cuban bloggers sent Twitter messages for the first time from the island announcing the winners of the first local blogging contest, according to a report in The Miami Herald. This kind of international attention could provide bloggers (and independent reporters) with some protection from harassment and imprisonment.
In April, U.S. President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on visits and the sending of money to Cuba by Americans with family on the island, but he ruled out termination of the decades-long U.S. embargo. Obama said his administration was willing to talk to Castro’s government, and he urged Cuba to reciprocate with human rights improvements, The Associated Press reported. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Cuba should “open up to outside opinions and media.” President Castro responded swiftly, stating that Cuba was willing to discuss the issues but calling as well for the release of five Cubans imprisoned in the United States on espionage charges, according to AP. Later that week, an opinion piece by former President Fidel Castro in the state-owned daily Juventud Rebelde seemed to row back the Cuban response. Fidel Castro said Obama had “misinterpreted” his younger brother, and he asserted that all political prisoners in Cuba were actually “mercenaries at the service of a foreign power.”
Before the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of the Americas in April, CPJ lobbied the Obama administration to ensure that human rights in Cuba, including the release of political prisoners and free press conditions, would be part of the agenda. CPJ did much the same before a March visit by Louis Michel, European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid. CPJ urged Michel to call on Cuban leaders to improve human rights, ensure humanitarian organizations can visit Cuban prisons, and release all jailed journalists. In June, as the Council of the European Union passed a resolution calling for a results-oriented dialogue with the island state, CPJ reiterated its call on European leaders, underscoring that the Cuban government must grant all Cubans freedom of information and expression, including uncensored access to the Internet.
But regional and international organizations had only limited success in linking human rights to improved relations with Cuba. In June, the Organization of American States (OAS) lifted its 47-year suspension of Cuba as a member. The reincorporation, regional leaders warned, would not be immediate but would happen through a mechanism that would require Cuba to improve its human rights record, international press reports said. The Castro administration responded by declining OAS membership. In January, Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment, announced that following an invitation from the Cuban government, he would visit the island before 2010, according to the Spanish news service EFE. Nowak told reporters that he planned to meet with all kinds of prisoners and their families, as well as members of the dissident movement and government officials. By year’s end, though, a visit had not been scheduled.
Twenty-two journalists remained jailed in 2009 in Cuba, making it one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. Among the imprisoned were 20 journalists detained during the 2003 crackdown. In May, Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández was given a three-year sentence on charges of disrespect and distributing enemy propaganda. Du Bouchet Hernández had previously spent a year in jail.
Imprisoned journalists in Cuba continued to live in inhumane conditions, inside tiny, windowless cells or alongside dozens of common criminals in gigantic warehouses. Food was often rotten and sanitary conditions were poor. Many jailed journalists suffered from significant ailments, including heart, lung, and skin diseases, which had developed or worsened during their imprisonment. CPJ research found that at least 10 had engaged in lengthy and dangerous hunger strikes in 2009 to protest the poor conditions of their imprisonment. Many sought greater access to priests and doctors, along with better food.
Among the reporters who remained behind bars was Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, who in 2008 was awarded CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. Maseda Gutiérrez, 66, a founding member of the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, was arrested during the second day of the massive government crackdown in 2003. Despite several appeals from his family to Cuban authorities, the journalist was being held at the maximum security Agüica Prison in western Matanzas province without medical attention for high blood pressure and a worsening skin condition, his wife, Laura Pollán Toledo, said. Maseda Gutiérrez continued to smuggle reports from prison describing poor conditions and human rights violations.
Outside prison walls, journalists’ families continued to be harassed. In August, 72-year-old Graciela González-Degard, whose brother, Ricardo González Alfonso, was being held at Havana’s Combinado del Este Prison, described to CPJ a two-week trip to Cuba. González-Degard said state security agents questioned and threatened her, while prison authorities denied her planned visits and rebuffed family requests to provide the journalist with clean clothes. She said Cuban authorities had blacklisted her brother’s wife and two teenage sons from working, and routinely revoked González Alfonso’s privileges as punishment for his protests. Other families whose members are vocal human rights activists told CPJ that secret police agents follow them, tap their phones, and hack into their e-mail accounts.
Independent journalists reporting from the streets were similarly targeted by local authorities. State security officers repeatedly detained and questioned Roberto de Jesús Guerra Perez, director of the Havana-based Hablemos Press. After a four-day detention in March, Guerra Perez told CPJ that he had been continuously and aggressively threatened before being released. His wife, Ismari Salomón Carcases, said her husband had been detained at least 50 times in 2008.
Other independent reporters in Havana and the provinces were briefly detained during the year. In May, state security agents warned independent journalist Julio Beltrán that if he continued writing, he would be imprisoned, the Miami-based news Web site Cubanet reported. A month earlier, Yudelmis Fonseca, a 25-year-old reporter in Havana for the independent news agency Centro de Información de Derechos Humanos de Cuba, was fired from her state job without explanation, Cubanet reported. Fonseca said she had previously been detained several times.
Nonetheless, like the young independent blogging community, other Cubans continued to express their dissatisfaction by posting messages online that at times were heavily critical of the Castro regime. The case of Juan Carlos González, known as Panfilo, a Havana man who was caught on tape screaming that the Cuban people were dying of hunger, gained international attention after his video received thousands of views on YouTube. In August, a Cuban court sentenced Panfilo to two years in prison for “social dangerousness.” He was released three weeks later after a rare successful appeal.