Cuba's Independent
Journalists struggle to Establish a Free Press

by Suzanne Bilello

The following is an excerpt from the testimony of CPJ Americas program coordinator Suzanne Bilello before the U.N. Human Rights Commission on Aug. 27. She offered similar testimony at a joint hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on June 27.


AN INDEPENDENT PRESS IS STRUGGLING to establish itself in Cuba. Dozens of independent journalists who were fired from their official jobs because of irreverent thinking about the revolution and its future are behind Cuba's struggling free press movement.

In just over a year, five upstart news agencies have been formed in Cuba. These agencies market stories about Cuba to news outlets in the United States and Europe. Since their founding, many of the agencies' journalists have endured waves of harassment. Several have been detained on charges ranging from "dangerousness" and "disrespect" to spreading "enemy propaganda." These are journalists whose sole aim is to carve out a livelihood that is independent of state-controlled media yet a comfortable distance from organized factions at home and abroad.

The catalyst for Cuba's fledgling independent press movement was the release of Yndamiro Restano from prison in June of 1995. A decade earlier, in 1985, Restano had challenged the concept of state-controlled media and was banished from official journalism, forcing him to work in menial jobs. He went on to found Cuba's first non-official journalism organization in 1987. He later founded a human rights movement seeking peaceful political change and was sentenced to prison for distributing information about it. A campaign by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations, and the direct intercession of Danielle Mitterrand, wife of France's former president, led to Restano's release. At the annual meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) on Oct. 15, 1995, leading Latin American and U.S. publishers accepted the journalists' application for membership.

Those in Cuba who are trying to establish a free press face significant internal obstacles, including a lack of rudimentary supplies, such as pens and notebooks, inadequate financial resources and virtually no exposure to the workings of independent media. In addition, fax machines and modems are illegal unless authorized by the state. And most important, independent journalists face the absolute opposition of Fidel Castro.

Since the beginning of this year, the Castro government has intensified its campaign of harassment and intimidation of these independent journalists. We have repeatedly expressed our outrage at these incidents. Mr. Castro's stepped-up anti-press campaign coincided with a crackdown on the dissident group Concilio Cubano and the shooting down of two planes piloted by the Miami-based, anti-Castro organization Brothers to the Rescue. In a visit to Cuba in June, I was able to learn more about these problems firsthand in discussions with the independent journalists there, and in my own encounter with Cuban authorities.

I traveled to Cuba on June 16 to speak with representatives of all five news agencies. Four days after I arrived, however, I was arrested in my hotel room by Interior Ministry and immigration officials and taken in for interrogation. During the eight hours I was detained, I got a taste of the Kafkaesque ordeal that many independent Cuban journalists have experienced. It was chilling. One of my captors said, "We will never allow to happen here what happened in Eastern Europe when groups of a so-called civil society brought down those regimes."

CPJ is also very troubled by what is emerging as a pattern of forcing independent journalists into exile. The Cuban government earlier this year issued verbal ultimatums to Rafael Solano of Havana Press and Roxana Valdivia of Patria, to leave Cuba or face jail sentences for their activities as independent journalists. This Solzhenitsyn-style solution for silencing independent journalists by effectively expelling them from the country resulted in Solano's exile to Spain and Valdivia's departure for the United States.

One of the most formidable barriers facing the Cuban journalists currently struggling to establish an independent press is that they have been labeled dissidents by political forces in both the United States and Cuba. And their effort has become a tool in the arsenal of both political sides. It is important to keep in mind that most of Cuba's independent journalists do not think of themselves as dissidents. The willingness of these men and women to sacrifice so much stems from their desire to establish a free, objective, independent, uncensored press in their island-nation.

Fidel Castro Presents Greatest Obstacle to Free Press in Cuba

Castro remains the chief obstacle to freedom in Cuba for local and foreign journalists alike. Today, Cuba stands alone in the hemisphere as the only country that tolerates no independent newspapers, magazines or news broadcasts. That brings frequent criticism in international human rights forums, and it has earned Castro a spot on the Committee to Protect Journalists' enemies list of world leaders who pose the gravest threat to press freedom.

Under increased international scrutiny and sorely in need of economic partners, Cuba is poised for historic change. Whether the transition is to democracy hinges largely on whether Cuba has a free press that gives it citizens the basis for informed decisions about how they want to be governed.

CPJ works to support the efforts of Cuba's independent journalists and news operations. In addition to our letters of protest regarding individual cases of censorship, harassment, imprisonment or expulsion, we continue to appeal to the Cuban government to reform its policies toward journalists. We have called on President Castro to allow:

U.S. Policy Inadvertently Limits Growth of Free Press in Cuba

Ironically, the United States has become an unlikely ally in Castro's efforts to justify keeping independent journalists isolated and vulnerable, subject to the whims of the state and cut off from potential foreign patrons. Essentially, independent journalism and its practitioners in Cuba are being held hostage to the political conflicts between the United States and Cuba. CPJ is concerned that America's policies are doing more harm than good in the fight to establish the most fundamental democratic institution of all-a free press.

In our efforts to promote the spirit of Article 19 we have been vigilant of all parties in the Cuba debate. In July CPJ reproached the U.S. State Department for its decision to deny travel visas to two members of the state-owned Cuban media who were invited to participate in a conference in Puerto Rico.

U.S. policy should support independent Cuban journalists in their struggle to be autonomous, unfettered by the political demands of any government. To this end, in an appeal to the U.S. Congress in June, CPJ urged policy-makers to ensure that U.S. policy:

Makes it easier for Western journalists and news organizations to work in Havana and employ Cuban citizens;

Recognizes that Cuba's independent journalists are not dissidents and should not be supported by U.S. aid.; and

Ensures that Radio and TV Martí's editorial content not compromise Cuban journalists' credibility and independence.

Reexamine Section 114 of the Cuba Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (Libertad Act)

In October of 1995, following a major campaign by CPJ and other news organizations and press freedom groups, the Clinton Administration rescinded the 26-year-old ban on Cuban news bureaus in the United States and lifted Treasury Department restrictions on expenditures in Cuba by U.S. news-gathering organizations. CPJ urged President Castro to follow suit and permit U.S. news organizations to reopen bureaus in Cuba.

We urged President Clinton to take this action because, in the words of CPJ Honorary Chairman Walter Cronkite, "It could lead to huge dividends in the most valuable of all commodities-information, in this case about a neighbor on the brink of fast and far-reaching changes."

Unfortunately, a little-noticed provision in The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 overrides President Clinton's executive order.

Section 114 of the law authorizes the president to establish and implement an exchange of news bureaus between the U.S. and Cuba, if certain conditions are met:

The exchange is fully reciprocal;

The Cuban government agrees not to interfere with the establishment of news bureaus or with the movement in Cuba of journalists of any U.S.-based news organization, including Radio Martí or TV Martí;

The U.S. Department of Treasury is able to ensure that only accredited journalists regularly employed by a news-gathering organization travel to Cuba; and

The Cuban government agrees not to interfere with the transmission of telecommunications signals of news bureaus or with the distribution of publications of any U.S.-based news organization that has a news bureau in Cuba.

Under the rubric of "reciprocity," The Cuba Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 allows President Clinton to authorize a mutual reopening of news bureaus only if Cuba permits "distribution" on the island of all print or broadcast reports by news organizations stationed there. Since President Castro will not likely allow the distribution of all these materials as long as he is in power, the ultimate impact of this condition will be to prohibit the operation of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba.

As a further assurance that an exchange of reporters would be "fully reciprocal," the law sets as a precondition the opening of a Cuban office of the U.S. government's Radio and TV Martí. For Mr. Castro, this is unthinkable, given that he believes the ultimate goal of Radio and TV Martí is to destabilize his government. The law's supporters contend that Radio and TV Martí are the only functional equivalents of Prensa Latina, Cuba's official international news agency. But in the U.S. system, as a matter of principle as well as law, it is the private media, not state-run information services, on which we rely for news.

Another facet of Section 114 that hinders the advance of press freedom in Cuba is the requirement that U.S. Treasury officials determine which bona fide "accredited" journalists will be allowed to work in the island-nation. Only people "regularly employed with a news-gathering operation" need apply. This provision excludes free-lancers, including the distinguished writer Tad Szulc, Castro's biographer. This sets a dangerous international precedent. In Latin America and elsewhere, leftist media unions backed by Cuba have fought for years for similar state licensing procedures, failing only because of the effective resistance of private journalism organizations backed strongly by the U.S. government.

Whatever the broader merits or demerits of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, the inadvertent impact of Section 114 is to hinder the exposure of Cubans (journalists and non-journalists) to the peaceful workings of a free and independent media, and to limit the information about Cuba available to Americans.

Many of the Cuban journalists I spoke with in June agreed with CPJ's position that the establishment of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba would bring about a radical improvement for the island's independent journalists. The creation of job opportunities-for stringers, reporters, editors, cameramen, and other newsroom positions-would give Cuba's independent journalists much-needed training in how to operate as effective and objective professionals.

CPJ has urged the U.S. Congress to reevaluate Section 114 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 in light of our analysis of its impact on the establishment of a free press in Cuba.

Ensure Editorial Independence of Radio and TV Martí

The Committee to Protect Journalists does not take a position on the political content of Radio and TV Martí. We recognize that Radio Martí fills a void in providing news and information to citizens of Cuba. Our fundamental concern is for the independent journalists in Cuba who work as stringers for Radio Martí.

In my meetings in Cuba, journalists raised several concerns about Radio Martí. It should be noted that the station does not pay any of these independent journalists for news reports. Several complained to me that Radio Martí is almost exclusively interested in news about detention of dissidents. In fact, they said they experienced outright censorship from the station's editors. Others remarked that they felt the tone of some of the broadcasters was patronizing, making fun of the daily plight of Cubans.

Anthony DePalma of The New York Times correctly characterized the political dangers for Cuban stringers for Radio Martí in an article published on April 17, 1996. DePalma writes, "The Cuban Government considers Radio Martí an American attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Cuban officials said men like Mr. Solano (one of Cuba's leading journalists who formed Havana Press, an independent news agency, in May of 1995) are subversives, not journalists, and their association with Radio Martí constitutes a crime against the state."

The journalists I met with expressed fear that, in its pending move from Washington, D.C., to Miami, Radio and TV Martí could become more overtly political. If so, Cuba's independent journalists who provide stories for the news organization can expect even greater vilification by Castro's government.

From CPJ's perspective and that of many of the independent journalists I met with in Cuba, Radio and TV Martí will be a more effective agent of democratization if its editorial content remains balanced. We urge Congress to closely examine the current editorial control policy of Radio and TV Martí to ensure that, following the move to Miami, the station continues to provide credible, professional information to the citizens of Cuba. This is more important than ever since Radio Martí is virtually the only source of information for Cubans about events in Cuba as well as the world.

Forego U.S. Aid to Independent Journalists

Section 109 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 authorizes the U.S. government to furnish assistance, financial and other support, for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba. The intention of this provision is to support the dissemination of information in Cuba on democracy, human rights, and market economies, and to support the individual dissidents and their families, and dissident groups, which circulate this information.

CPJ is concerned that this provision will be broadly interpreted to include Cuba's independent journalists. It would be a serious mistake-and one with significant consequences-to consider these men and women dissidents and therefore eligible for U.S. aid. CPJ urges the United States to refrain from offering this type of assistance to independent journalists.

As I learned firsthand on my recent visit, Cuba's independent journalists do not consider themselves dissidents. Their aim is to carve out a livelihood that is independent of state-controlled media yet a comfortable distance from organized factions at home and abroad.

Financial assistance from the United States government to Cuba's independent journalists will endanger their safety and discredit their effort to establish an independent press. Moreover, these payments would compromise the small press freedom gains already attained.

I personally learned how grave a matter this is. I carried with me a modest amount of cash, raised exclusively from private funds, as well as reporters' notebooks, pens and medicine, to distribute to the journalists I met with. After my arrest, however, my Cuban interrogators seized on the donations. Again and again, I was asked about their source and purpose. Despite what I told them, they were of the unshakable belief that these donations came from U.S. government funds, and that the recipients of those funds are clients of U.S. interests. Some critics of CPJ's position may argue that Cuba's independent journalists do not have to accept these private donations if offered. But given the state of Cuba's economy and the difficulty people face in trying to make a living as independent journalists, the offer of financial assistance is hard to turn down.

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