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For Immediate Release
27 June, 1996

Suzanne Bilello


Free Press Struggles to Establish Itself in Cuba

Castro Remains Greatest Obstacle but U.S. Policies Inadvertently Help, reports CPJ
CPJ Cuba Expert Urges Policies To Support "Marketplace of Opportunities" for Island Nation's Independent Journalists

Washington, D.C. -- A nascent independent press is struggling against great odds to establish itself in Cuba, a Congressional panel was told today by Suzanne Bilello, Cuba expert for the nonpartisan, nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists. Bilello, who was arrested and deported from Cuba last week following several days of meetings with independent journalists there, testified before a joint session of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

"Cuba remains the one country in the Western Hemisphere where there is no press freedom," said Bilello. "There is, however, a small but growing group of independent journalists in Cuba who are trying to work outside the confines of state media.

"The men and women in Cuba who are struggling to establish an independent press face tremendous obstacles," said Bilello. "The problems of a lack of basic supplies, such as pens, notebooks, typewriters, and the need for state permission to own and operate computers and fax machines, are dwarfed by Fidel Castro's campaign of harassment and intimidation against the fledgling free press."

According to CPJ's research, the Castro campaign against the independent press has escalated in recent months. Since February, CPJ has documented at least a dozen cases of press freedom violations including the forced exile of several independent journalists, and the arrest and interrogation of many others.

"These journalists are treated like political agitators even though many of them until recently were employed by Cuban state media outlets," said Bilello. "Their only 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."

According to Bilello, her interrogation and deportation typifies the kind of police-state intimidation tactics to which independent Cuban journalists and their families are subjected. Arrested in her hotel room in Havana at 10:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 19, by Cuban security forces, Bilello was brought for interrogation to Interior Ministry offices. She was questioned for three hours about her activities and contacts in Havana. Cuban police interrogators seized her notebooks, personal papers, and other private documents, along with rolls of exposed film and other possessions. At 2:00 a.m. she was informed that she was being "expelled" for her support of "fomenting rebellion." She was placed aboard a 7:00 a.m. flight to Cancun, Mexico. At no time was she physically mistreated or threatened, Ms. Bilello reported.

"Clearly Fidel Castro is the greatest obstacle to a free press in Cuba" said Bilello. "But the effect of certain provisions of current U.S. policy towards Cuba inadvertently assists Castro's campaign to silence the island's fledgling independent press."

Bilello cited aspects of three specific U.S. policies or programs that undermine the efforts of Cuba's independent journalists and severely restrict the ability of U.S. news organizations to operate effectively in Cuba.

Editorial Content of Radio Marti: Because no nongovernmental news outlets are permitted within the island, independent journalists must work exclusively for clients outside the country. Many of these reporters work as unpaid stringers for the U.S.-funded Radio Marti. In Cuba, however, association with Radio Marti is considered a crime against the state. Increasingly, according to many of the journalists Bilello met with, Radio Marti primary interest are news events that focus almost exclusively on dissident activity and repression by the Castro regime. The station often refuses to run material that does not reflect its hardline political position, say Cuba's independent journalists. Cuba's independent journalists and CPJ are concerned that Radio and TV Marti's imminent move from Washington, D.C. to Florida, the home of many anti-Castro Cuban emigre organizaitons, will further weaken the news agency's editorial objectivity.

U.S. Aid to Independent Journalists: Section 109 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 authorizes the U.S. government to provide assistance to individuals and organizations supporting democratization in Cuba. Those on the island who receive U.S. government funds are labeled dissidents and clients of U.S. interests. CPJ is concerned that this provision will be broadly interpreted to include Cuba's independent journalists. Financial aid from the U.S. will endanger their safety, discredit their effort to establish an independent press, and vindicate Castro's accusations that independent journalists are political agitators for U.S. interests.

Preconditions to Establish and Exchange News Bureaus: Section 114 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act contains several preconditions that must be met before U.S news organizations can set up bureaus in Havana and Cuban news agencies can set up bureaus in the United States. Among the preconditions to be met:

The unintentional effect of these conditions will be to prohibit the operation of U.S news bureaus in Cuba, to the detriment of the struggling independent journalists there and the American public, which will continue to learn next to nothing about Cuba.

"Even if Castro were to unilaterally allow U.S. news bureaus to set up shop in Havana, there would still be U.S. government barriers facing news organizations," said Bilello.

"What the independent journalists in Cuba tell me they need is a îmarketplace of opportunity' where they can learn from and work with U.S. reporters and gain the economic independence necessary to establish their credibility in the eyes of their countrymen," Bilello said.

The opening of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba would bring about a radical improvement for the island's independent journalists, said Bilello. The creation of job opportunities -- for stringers, reporters, editors, cameramen, soundmen, and other newsroom positions -- would give Cuba's independent journalists significant exposure to the workings of free and independent news organizations, and train them to operate as effective and objective journalists. Employment by politically independent U.S. news organizations would also provide Cuba's struggling independent journalists with economic independence. This economic freedom is essential if Cuba's independent journalists are to establish their credibility and political independence in the eyes of Cuba's citizenry.

Bilello urged the members of the Subcommittee to reevaluate those provisions of U.S. policy that threaten the struggling independent press in Cuba.

CPJ's sole mandate is the promotion of press freedom: our job is to document, protest and publicize physical and legal attacks on journalists and other violations of press freedom. CPJ has no position on the broad questions of U.S. policy towards Cuba except to the extent that those policies have an impact on the ability of independent reporters, editors, and broadcasters to do their jobs without official interference or fear of reprisal.

(A full transcript of BIlello's testimony is available here)

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