Press Freedom Problems in Cuba and the United States    

On April 25 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual report with its rankings of press freedom in 180 countries of the world. Overall it said there was “growing animosity towards journalists. Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies.”[1]

Based in Paris, RSF “is an independent NGO with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF). Its foreign sections along with its bureaux in ten cities (including Brussels, Washington, Berlin, Tunis, Rio de Janeiro, and Stockholm) and its network of correspondents in 130 countries give RSF the ability to mobilize support, challenge governments and wield influence both on the ground and in the ministries and precincts where media and Internet standards and legislation are drafted.”

Here are the new report’s sections on Cuba and the United States.

Cuban Press Freedom

Cuba has a ranking of 172 up one from its ranking last year. The headline for the RSF report was “Continuing ordeal for independent media.”

“A self-styled socialist republic with a single party, Cuba continues to be Latin America’s worst media freedom violator year after year. Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 has changed nothing. The Castro family, which has ruled since 1959, maintains an almost total media monopoly and the constitution prohibits privately-owned media. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, threats, smear campaigns, confiscation of equipment and closure of websites are the most common forms of harassment, which is constant and is buttressed by an arsenal of restrictive laws. A gradual improvement in Internet access has made it possible for independent bloggers and journalists to get their voices heard, but many are still forced to leave the island.”

The report also contains links to separate reports on Cuba by RSF during the year.

U.S. Press Freedom

Under the headline, “Trump exacerbates press freedom’s steady decline,” the report drops the U.S. from No. 43 to No. 45 because “US press freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the 1787 constitution, has been under increasing attack over the past few years, and the first year of President Donald J. Trump’s presidency has fostered further decline in journalists’ right to report. He has declared the press an ‘enemy of the American people’ in a series of verbal attacks toward journalists, attempted to block White House access to multiple media outlets, and routinely uses the term “’ake news’ in retaliation for critical reporting. He has even called for revoking certain media outlets’ broadcasting licenses.”

In addition, the report says the “violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the US government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.”

“ It appears the Trump effect has only amplified the disappointing press freedom climate that predated his presidency. Whistleblowers face prosecution under the Espionage Act if they leak information of public interest to the press, while there is still no federal ‘shield law’ guaranteeing reporters’ right to protect their sources. Journalists and their devices continue to be searched at the US border, while some foreign journalists are still denied entry into the US after covering sensitive topics like Colombia’s FARC or Kurdistan.”

The report also contains links to separate reports on U.S. press freedom during the year.

White House Response

The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on April 25 rejected this assessment by saying, ““I certainly would reject the idea that the president or this administration has halted freedom of the press. I think we’re one of the most accessible administrations that we’ve seen in decades. I think by my mere presence of standing up here and taking your questions, unvetted, is a pretty good example of freedom of the press and I think it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”[2]

When then asked if she was claiming the White House was a champion of press freedoms, she responded as follows:

  • “We support a free press, but we also support a fair press, and I think that those things should go hand in hand. And there’s a certain responsibility by the press to report accurate information. I think a number of people in this room do that every single day, they do their very best to provide fair and accurate information. Certainly support that and that’s one of the reason I’m standing here taking your questions. And a lot of times taking your questions in a tone that’s completely unnecessary, unneeded and frankly doesn’t help further the conversation or help the American people get any more information in a better way, which is your job and my job, and that’s what I’m trying to do.” (Emphasis to the conjunction “but” added by Washington Post journalist on the ground that it has no place in an affirmation of free press.)

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[1] Reporters Without Borders, RSF Index 2018: Hatred of journalism threatens democracies (April 25, 2018); Assoc. Press, Hostility Toward Journalists Rising Worldwide, Watchdog Says, N.Y. Times (April 25, 2018); Reporters Without Borders keeps Cuba in the worst Latin American position in terms of press freedom, Diario de Cuba (April 25, 2018).

[2] Wemple, Sarah Huckabee Sanders: ‘We support a free press, but …,” Wash. Post (April 25, 2018).

 

 

Cuba’s Recent Arrests of Journalists

The international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that Cuba currently has arrested and jailed without charges two print journalists.

They are Manuel Guerra Pérez, director of the independent bulletin Cimarrón de Mayabeque, and its editor, Lisbey Lora, who were arrested and detained on November 28, 2016. They were in the process of investigating for articles for their publication, which is part of the network of independent, local publications supported by the Cuban Institute for Free Expression and the Press. Guerra Pérez reported on local issues, including politics, corruption, and health conditions in the Cuban province of Mayabeque.

Earlier this year, September 28, CPJ issued a special report on Cuba that concluded, “Cuba’s press, emboldened by President Raúl Castro’s call for reforms in 2010, are finding more space for critical comment, but harassment and intimidation from authorities, a legal limbo caused by outdated and restrictive press laws, and limited and expensive access to the internet is slowing the island nation’s progress toward press freedom.”

This earlier report coincided with CPJ’s annual report listing Cuba as 10th on its list of the 10 worst censored countries in the world.

 

 

Cuba Gets Low Marks on Press Freedom from Committee to Protect Journalists

On April 27, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual report on the status of press freedom in the world. It ranked Cuba 10th on its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries. Here is what it said about Cuba.[1]

“How censorship works: Despite significant improvements in the past few years-such as the elimination of exit visas that had prohibited most foreign travel for decades-Cuba continues to have the most restricted climate for press freedom in the Americas. The print and broadcast media are wholly controlled by the one-party Communist state, which has been in power for more than half a century and, by law, must be “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” Although the Internet has opened up some space for critical reporting, service providers are ordered to block objectionable content. Independent journalists and bloggers who work online use websites that are hosted overseas and must go to foreign embassies or hotels to upload content and get an unfiltered connection to the Internet. These critical blogs and online news platforms are largely inaccessible to the average Cuban, who still has not benefited from a high-speed Internet connection financed by Venezuela. Most Cubans do not have Internet at home. The government continues to target critical journalists through harassment, surveillance, and short-term detentions. Juliet Michelena Díaz, a contributor to a network of local citizen journalists, was imprisoned for seven months on anti-state charges after photographing an incident between residents and police in Havana. She was later declared innocent and freed. Visas for international journalists are granted selectively by officials.”

“Lowlight: Though the government has for the most part done away with long-term detentions of journalists, author-turned-critical blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats has been imprisoned since February 2013 on allegations of domestic violence. The writer and other local independent journalists maintain that he was targeted in retaliation for writing critically about the government on his blog, Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso (The Children Nobody Wanted.)”

CPJ “is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide. We defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.” The organization “is made up of about 40 experts around the world, with headquarters in New York City. When press freedom violations occur, CPJ mobilizes a network of correspondents who report and take action on behalf of those targeted. CPJ reports on violations in repressive countries, conflict zones, and established democracies alike. A board of prominent journalists from around the world helps guide CPJ’s activities.”[2]

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[1] Gladstone, Press Freedom Weakened Around the World in 2015, Report Says, N.Y. Times (April 27, 2016); Comm. to Protect Journalists, 10 Most Censored Countries (April 2016) The CPJ website also contains its reports on specific incidents in Cuba and other countries.

[2] Comm. to Protect Journalists, About CPJ.

U.S. State Department Announces Free the Press Campaign

On April 26, the U.S. Department of State announced the launching of its fifth annual Free the Press Campaign “to highlight emblematic cases of reporters from around the world who are imprisoned, harassed, and otherwise targeted for doing their jobs, just by reporting the news.” This is a prelude to World Press Freedom Day on May 3.[1]

This year the Department “will highlight journalists and media outlets that we have identified in previous years that were censored, attacked, threatened, imprisoned, or otherwise oppressed because of their reporting whose situations have not yet improved. And we’re going to spotlight these various cases in three ways: one, by raising them from behind the podium at the top of each daily press briefing; two, by spotlighting them on http://www.humanrights.gov and social media; and then third, by using the hashtag #freethepress to spread the word and message on Twitter.”

The “campaign’s goal is straightforward. It’s to call the world’s attention to the plight of these reporters and to call on governments to protect and promote the right to promote – to – let me do that again – call on governments to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression.”

The first case thus highlighted is “Jose Antonio Torres, who’s a journalist for Granma, the official communist daily newspaper in Cuba. And he was arrested in February of 2011, after Granma published his report on the mismanagement of a public works project in Santiago de Cuba, and subsequently [he was] sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly spying.”

“This is the kind of reporting that promotes transparency and makes government accountable to its people. We take this opportunity to call on the Government of Cuba to release him. You can learn more about this case and others involved in Free the Press on our website, again, www.humanrights.gov.”

The subject of this State Department announcement, Senor Torres, apparently published in Granma a 5,000-word article on the mismanagement of an aqueduct project. Afterwards President Raúl Castro reportedly wrote that “this is the spirit that should characterize the (Communist) Party press: transparent, critical and self-critical.” Four months later, Torres published another critical report, this about the installation of fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela. Torres noted that the Vice President Ramiro Valdės was responsible for the supervision of both projects.

On February 8, 2011, Torres was arrested and detained and put through intense interrogations. In June 2012, he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for the crime of espionage. Torres, however, has continued to maintain his innocence, called his imprisonment a “mistake,” and expressed confidence that the government would eventually realize its mistake. Torres reportedly has said that he “trusts in the revolution’s justice, and…does not want any relations with counter-revolutionaries.” [2]

World Press Freedom Day is a project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquartered in Paris, France. It “celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.” The Day also is “a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom” and to “media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics.This special day was first proclaimed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993.[3]

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (April 26, 2016).

[2] Josė Antonio Torres (Cuban Journalist), Wikipedia.

[3] UNESCO, World Press Freedom Day 2016.