The Price of Independence  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June 2003

The Price of Independence   

It's not easy being a journalist in Cuba--the country ranks second in the world for jailed journalists and things are only worse after a crackdown this spring.

By Rafael Lorente
Rafael Lorente is a Washington Bureau reporter for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel     


After several years when it appeared they had carved out a small space for themselves, independent journalists in Cuba are now among the most beleaguered in the world.

About two-dozen journalists were arrested in March as part of a crackdown that netted 75 dissidents viewed by the Cuban government as counterrevolutionaries and agents of the United States. Including a previously jailed journalist, Cuba now has 29 reporters in prison, second only to China, with 39, according to statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. China's population is more than 100 times the size of Cuba's population of 11.3 million.

The figures for independent journalists arrested in Cuba are not exact, since many of them also ran independent libraries and are members of various dissident movements. At a press conference in April, a Cuban official actually said his government had arrested 37 people he described as alleged independent journalists.

The journalists and dissidents arrested in Cuba were quickly tried in courtrooms closed to most observers and sentenced to six to 28 years in prison, with journalists getting some of the longest sentences. The prison terms are quite harsh compared with the sentences handed out to reporters in other parts of the world, says Joel Simon, CPJ's acting director.

The organization now ranks Cuba as the second worst place in the world to be a journalist, after Iraq, where 14 journalists were killed covering the recent war.

"A man who has done nothing more than write, I don't understand how they could give him 20 years," says Blanca Reyes, wife of Raul Rivero, a poet and one of the most prominent of Cuba's independent journalists.

At the end of April, Reyes was getting ready to board a train from her home in Havana to Ciego de Avila, about halfway across the island, where authorities transferred her husband to serve his sentence. She was bringing along antilice shampoo, bread and mayonnaise to fortify his diet, and other essentials.

Rivero, 57, was a member of the first class of journalists to graduate from the University of Havana after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. He once worked as Moscow bureau chief for Cuba's official news agency, Prensa Latina. But he became disillusioned with the government-controlled media and in 1995 founded the independent news agency Cuba Press.

Reyes, who attended her husband's trial, says none of his friends was there. His lawyer was harassed and unable to put up a vigorous defense, she says. "They never said that the defense could call witnesses."

Among the other journalists arrested in March were Oscar Espinosa Chepe of Havana, a former government economist who received 20 years in prison, and Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona of Pinar del Rio, who had previously spent time in jail for using money from Cuban Americans in Miami to buy toys for children. This time he received a 26-year sentence.

People like Rivero, Chepe and others worked for a scattered collection of independent news agencies on the island. Their work was published mainly on Web sites based outside of Cuba, including at least one that receives U.S. government money.

They wrote about a variety of topics, including the Cuban economy and health issues. Some reported for Radio Marti, the U.S.-run radio station that broadcasts into Cuba.

Chepe, for example, hosted a frequent news segment on Radio Marti known as "Chatting with Chepe." The program offered economic analysis from the former economist, who not only disagrees with his own government, but also opposes the United States' four-decade embargo of the island.

"The independent journalists in Cuba had gained a foothold--they'd reached something of an accommodation with the Cuban government," Simon says. "And we always thought that could end. But we were somewhat surprised when it happened."

The Cuban government, though, does not view people like Chepe as independent journalists, but as mercenaries of the United States. Angry at what the government calls provocations by American diplomats on the island who regularly meet with the dissidents and offer them support, Cuba struck back.

"[U]sing the title of journalists for these mercenaries who participate in conspiracies to subvert Cuba is something that offends our sensitivity," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said at an April press conference in Havana. Only four of the 37 who claimed to be representatives of independent media had studied journalism, Perez Roque says, as evidence that they were not real journalists.

The journalists, like the other dissidents arrested, were mostly charged with conspiring with U.S. diplomats to destabilize or subvert the Cuban government and its socialist system.

The international response to Cuba's crackdown has been strong, with condemnation coming from Latin America, the Vatican and a number of European countries, as well as the United States. Reporters Without Borders has held demonstrations, including one that turned violent after the group's activists chained themselves to the railings outside the Cuban embassy in Paris. According to Agence France-Presse, embassy staff used sledgehammers to break the chains, sparking a scuffle between the two sides.

Several organizations and governments have asked that the activists and journalists be released, but so far, no response. Cuba has mounted a public relations counter-attack saying the arrests were the fault of the Bush administration. It has even gotten actors and writers in the United States and elsewhere, including Danny Glover, to sign letters of support. But there's been more condemnation than help, albeit with few results.

"Influencing the behavior of the Cuban government," CPJ's Simon says, "is extraordinarily difficult."

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