Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Cuba
As of December 31, 1998

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Nearly 3,000 foreign journalists traveled to Cuba in January to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II. Yet in a clear demonstration that Cuba uses a policy of selectively granting visas in order to influence coverage, the government denied visas to a handful of foreign journalists who had written stories critical of President Fidel Castro. CPJ protested this policy, as well as a crackdown on independent Cuban journalists that earned Castro a place on CPJ's list of the 10 worst Enemies of the Press.

While reporters covering the pope's visit were allowed to work unimpeded, Cuban journalists reported that State Security agents kept them under constant surveillance.

Although Cuba's communist government controls all media outlets, independent journalists have evaded the restrictions by dictating stories over the telephone to colleagues outside the country. The stories -- which range from political commentaries to reports on human rights abuses -- are circulated on the Internet, published in newspapers in Miami and in Europe, and broadcast into Cuba by Radio Martí, the U.S. government's office of Cuba Broadcasting. Some Cuban journalists describe themselves as disaffected with the Castro regime, but others say their sole interest in joining the independent press is to provide accurate information.

Since the first independent press agency was founded in 1994, many journalists have gone into exile, been jailed, or forced to leave the profession due to constant harassment. In October, Ana Luisa López Baeza, one of Cuba's top journalists, defected and moved to Miami; reporter Jorge Luis Arce Cabrera left for France that same month.

But there are always new journalists to replace those who leave or can no longer work. Currently, there are about 40 independent journalists divided among eight agencies. The newest agency, Cuba Verdad, was founded in January, just prior to the pope's visit.

Working conditions are extraordinarily difficult. Cubans are prohibited from owning a fax machine or a computer, and even typewriters have been confiscated. Journalists' phones are constantly monitored, and lines are often cut off during sensitive conversations. Many journalists allege that they are conspicuously followed at close range, a form of psychological pressure known as the "Japanese check." Journalists have been harassed and shouted down by organized mobs; they are frequently detained and questioned by State Security agents.

The government has an array of repressive laws at its disposal to stifle the independent press. The penalty for publishing "anti-government propaganda" is a year in prison; those criticizing Castro can be penalized with up to three years imprisonment; "aiding the enemy" can be punished with up to 14 years in prison. Three journalists were in prison at the end of 1998; a fourth has been sentenced to a year of forced labor. Conditions for political prisoners are especially difficult. Journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, who is serving a six-year sentence for showing a "lack of respect," was beaten in April by State Security officials, who accused him of writing anti-government posters in prison.

Although the anticipated opening of Cuban society in the aftermath of the pope's visit did not materialize, there was a six-month lull in the systematic repression of independent journalists. It ended in August, when the conviction of dissident Reynaldo Alfaro García for providing false information provoked a vigorous protest. In an effort to quell possible protest, dissidents -- including some journalists -- were detained on the eve of a September 8 religious procession in honor of Cuba's patron saint.

Prior to a December 10 opposition rally on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, State Security officers went to journalists' homes and physically prevented them from covering the event. They used the same tactic to keep journalists from covering the December 16 trial of a dissident who was arrested at the December 10 rally.

Despite these strictures, spaces have been opening in Cuba for both local and foreign journalists. Although Castro had asserted to a visiting delegation from the American Society of Newspapers Editors (ASNE) in June that he would not allow any new U.S. news bureaus in Cuba, he announced in November that he had given permission for the Associated Press (AP) to open a bureau in Havana. AP, which was expelled from Cuba in 1969, joins CNN, which is the only U.S. media organization with a permanent presence in the country.

Cuban journalists say the foreign journalists serve as a strong deterrent against public abuses. For example, the presence of a CNN camera crew outside the courthouse where journalist Mario J. Viera was to be tried for slander on November 27 apparently forced the authorities to show restraint when a protest erupted. After three protesters were arrested, the trial was postponed indefinitely. Writing on May 3, International Press Freedom Day, Raúl Rivero, a poet and Cuba's leading journalist, noted, "Independent journalism without faxes, without computers, with constant telephone interruptions, under harassment and threats ... will serve as a base for a return to a free press, followed by the growth of a democratic society with powerful civil institutions."
Attacks on the Press in Cuba in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
12/29/98 Jesús Labrador Arias, CubaPress Harassed
12/15/98 Jesús Zúñiga, Cooperativa de Periodistas Independientes Harassed
12/15/98 Efrén Martínez Pulgarón, CubaPress Harassed
12/15/98 Marvin Hernandez Monzón, CubaPress Harassed
12/15/98 Orlando Bordón Gálvez, CubaPress Harassed
12/15/98 Lázaro González Valdés, Cuba Verdad Harassed
12/10/98 Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Agencia Nueva Prensa Harassed
12/10/98 Jorge Olivera, Habana Press Harassed
12/10/98 Raúl Rivero, CubaPress Harassed
12/10/98 Efrén Martínez Pulgarón, CubaPress Harassed
10/23/98 Edel José García Díaz, Centro Norte del País (CNP) Harassed
10/01/98 Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, CubaPress Imprisoned
09/16/98 Jesús Labrador Arias, CubaPress Harassed
09/15/98 Mario Julio Viera González, Cuba Verdad Legal Action
09/10/98 Juan Antonio Sánchez Rodríguez, CubaPress Imprisoned, Threatened
07/21/98 All foreign journalists Harassed
05/07/98 Luis López Prendes, Buró de Prensa Independiente de Cuba Threatened
02/27/98 David Adams, St. Petersburg Times Harassed, Expelled
01/30/98 Jorge Luis Arce Cabrera, Buró de Prensa Independiente de Cuba Threatened
01/30/98 Jesús Egozcue Castellanos, Línea Sur Press Threatened
01/21/98 Miami Herald Harassed, Legal Action
01/21/98 Matilde Sánchez, Clarín Legal Action
01/21/98 Rodolfo Pouzá, América TV Legal Action
01/21/98 Mario Pérez Colman, La Nación Legal Action
01/21/98 Telemundo Legal Action
01/21/98 Peter Katel, Newsweek Harassed

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