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World Press Freedom Review
By Charles Arthur
Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the hemisphere. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media, and allows free speech and press only if they "conform to the aims of a Socialist society." Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are firmly under the control of the executive. The country’s criminal code provides the legal basis for the repression of dissent, and in the name of protecting state security, laws criminalising "enemy propaganda" and the dissemination of "unauthorised news" are used to restrict freedom of speech. The 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for jail sentences of 3 to 10 years for "anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media," is aimed at the independent news agencies that send their material abroad.
The few journalists working for independent news agencies, writing articles for foreign websites, or publishing underground newsletters, continued to be routinely monitored, harassed, detained, interrogated, or sometimes imprisoned. Not much changed as a consequence of the hand-over of power from President Fidel Castro to his younger brother, Raúl, in July 2006, but independent journalists told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that official harassment declined in 2007, with fewer detentions and direct threats.
During the year, two journalists were freed from prison, but two more were imprisoned, leaving a total of 24 journalists remaining in long-term detention. Twenty of those in prison were among the 27 journalists arrested in the so-called "black spring" crackdown of March 2003.
The two journalists jailed in 2007 were Ramón Velázquez Toranso and Oscar Sánchez Madan. Velázquez, of the Libertad agency, was sentenced on 23 January to three years in prison under a criminal code provision that allows the Cuban authorities to imprison any citizen as a potential danger to society, even if they have not committed a crime. Sánchez, a Matanzas province correspondent for the Miami-based Cubanet web site, was arrested on 13 April by members of the State Security police. He was given the maximum sentence of four years in prison for contravening the same criminal code. Authorities had warned Sánchez to stop working as an independent journalist after he published articles that attempted to document the actual size of the sugar cane harvest, which was smaller than the government's official harvest figures.
On 27 September, 6 journalists were among some 30 government opponents arrested at a peaceful demonstration to support political prisoners staged in the capital, Havana. They were freed the next day. Three foreign journalists were forced to leave the country in 2007. The Havana correspondent of the US daily, Chicago Tribune, Gary Marx, and the correspondent for the Mexican daily, El Universal, César Gonzáles-Calero, had their press cards cancelled on 22 February and were told to leave the country. Marx, who has been based in Havana since 2002, was told that he and his family must leave the country within 90 days. He told his newspaper: "They said I've been here long enough and they felt my work was negative."
There was a major setback in April when the sole legal outlet for critical commentary and analysis within Cuba first suspended publication and then reappeared with a much less critical focus. Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, the editor of Vitral magazine published by the diocese of the western city of Pinar del Río, announced he was ceasing publication due to a lack of paper and ink. In June, Vitral resumed publication under new editorial management and an editorial stance concentrating on coverage of church events. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a freelance journalist, said: "The end of Vitral’s open viewpoint was the hardest blow to the independent press this year."
More positively, a growing trend is the proliferation of personal independent pages, or ‘blogs’. According to the US State Department, the Cuban blogs, mostly written under pseudonyms, contain "confident and caustic references about today’s situation in Cuba." The authors connect to the web in private cybercafés or using passwords bought on the black market. State control of Internet access remained tight. The general population can only log on from hotels or government-controlled Internet cafés by means of voucher cards that are expensive and often difficult to find, according to the CPJ.
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