Cuba's indepedent journalists were hit hard by the "black spring" crackdown of 2003, with some two dozens writers and editors imprisoned as part of the Castro regime's sweep through the dissident community.
Their successors, however, remain undaunted, with increasing numbers of new independent journalists out on the beat to report and write on the reality of Cuba today. The odds are stacked against them, but armed with new technologies and support from overseas, they are as effective as ever in breaking the dictatorship's monopoly on information.
Which, of course, is why the regime is as tireless as ever in its efforts to stifle independent journalists and those brave Cubans who dare to find and tell the stories the Castros would rather stay untold.
Juan González Febles, director of the independent news website Primavera Digital, was running an errand last spring when he came upon a news story: Police were climbing onto his neighbors’ roofs in Havana to remove satellite television dishes that the government considers illegal because they pick up uncensored stations from abroad.
When Febles started taking pictures with his cell phone, officers quickly arrested him and took him to a neighborhood police station, where he was held for seven hours and made to erase all of his photos of the dish seizures, a highly unpopular police activity. Febles, a former librarian who took up independent journalism in 1998 and now runs the overseas-hosted website, told CPJ that he has become accustomed to detentions, which number in the dozens over the years, but that he is still bothered that his phone is tapped and that he’s followed by security agents in the streets. The agents sometimes stop him, Febles said, and relay what they’ve heard in his private phone conversations.
Such is the state of repression in Cuba today. As President Raúl Castro’s government seeks greater international engagement, it has freed in the last year more than 20 imprisoned independent journalists and numerous other political detainees who had been held since the notorious Black Spring crackdown of 2003. Government officials talk of political and economic reform, pointing to a plan to introduce high-speed Internet service to the island this summer. But though the government has changed tactics in suppressing independent news and opinion, it has not abandoned repressive practices intended to stifle the free flow of information.
A CPJ investigation has found that the government persists in aggressively persecuting critical journalists with methods that include arbitrary arrests, short-term detentions, beatings, smear campaigns, surveillance, and social sanctions. Today’s tactics have yet to attract widespread international attention because they are lower in profile than the Black Spring crackdown, but the government’s oppressive actions are ongoing and significant.
CPJ examined government activities in March and April 2011, two months with sensitive political milestones, and found that journalists were targeted in more than 50 instances of repression. The majority of cases involved arrests by state security agents or police officers, according to CPJ research and documentation by the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation and Hablemos Press, a news agency that focuses on human rights. Most frequently, these journalists were detained on their way to cover a demonstration or political event and were held in local police stations for hours or days. In at least 11 cases, the arrests were carried out with violence, CPJ research shows.
During this period, more than a dozen journalists endured house arrest, preventing them from reporting on the Communist Party Congress in April and the eighth anniversary in March of the Black Spring crackdown that led to the imprisonment of dozens of journalists and dissidents. Although no journalists have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the last year, Cuban authorities in May ominously sentenced six political dissidents to prison sentences of two to five years.
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