On 11 May, François Hollande will become the first French president to visit Cuba since 1959 and the first western leader to do so since the United States and Cuba announced on 17 December that they planned to restore diplomatic relations. An historic visit requires historic responsibility, that of “telling the truth,” as Hollande rightly said in the headline of an op-ed in Le Nouvel Observateur in 2003. Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to Hollande asking him to press Cuban leader Raúl Castro to dramatically improve freedom of information on the island.
President François Hollande
Palais de l’Elysée
55 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré
Paris, 7 May 2015
Dear President Hollande,
Before your trip to Cuba, Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends freedom of information, would like to draw your attention to the still very critical situation of journalists, both professional and non-professional, in that country.
Year after year, Cuba has had the western hemisphere’s lowest position in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. It is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in the 2015 index. This position reflects the glaring lack of pluralism and the difficulties and dangers that independent journalists and bloggers encounter when trying to circumvent censorship and publish freely-reported information.
An historic visit requires historic responsibility. In a 27 February 2003 op-ed in Le Nouvel Observateur, headlined “Telling the truth,” you got straight to the point when you said: “Silence by Cuba’s friends would be a form of complicity with a system we would criticize anywhere else.” You said we should, “Give full support to the Cuban people and tell the truth about the inhumanity of the embargo and the Cuban regime – both are unjustifiable.” You were also clear about the role France should play: “We must demand the release of all political prisoners and the abolition of censorship.” So, for the sake of these principles, France cannot remain silent now.
Despite demonstrating a desire for an opening at the diplomatic level, the Cuban government maintains an almost complete monopoly of news and information and tolerates no independent news media on the island. Both the traditional and online media continue to be censored and the Internet is subject to close surveillance.
The one exception is the website of Hablemos Press, an independent news agency. Its website had been inaccessible in Cuba since 2001, but Reporters Without Borders unblocked it on 12 March as part of an anti-cyber-censorship operation. This exception, with which the Cuban government had nothing to do, should be the rule.
You, as France’s president, must point out that no opening will be real and benefit the population unless Cuba also opens up to pluralist and independently-reported news and information.
Independent journalists and bloggers continue to confront hardships and risks. Their equipment is confiscated. Their mobile phones are disconnected. They are summoned by the department for internal security and told to change their editorial policies. They continue to be exposed to death threats, intimidation, smear campaigns, arrest, arbitrary detention and physical violence.
Even the most recent World Press Freedom Day, on 3 May, was used to crack down. Three independent journalists were arrested in Havana while covering a march by the Ladies in White at which copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were distributed. You, as France’s president, cannot remain silent about the arbitrary imprisonment of journalists.
The Cuban authorities seem increasingly inclined to use arrests of short duration to silence independent news providers and prevent them doing their work. But some are still serving long sentences. They include Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García (a Yayabo Press blogger sentenced to seven years in prison in 2014), José Antonio Torres (a journalist with the government daily Granma, who was given a 14-year sentence in July 2012) and Angel Santiesteban-Prats (who was given five years in 2013 for criticizing the government in a blog called Los hijos que nadie quiso).
And what were their alleged crimes? Circulating information regarded as “counter-revolutionary” or “defamatory.” Santiesteban-Prats was convicted on a trumped-up charge of a non-political nature in a bid to limit the international impact of his imprisonment. He has been subjected to mistreatment and torture since his arrest and his current legal status is unclear.
You, as France’s president, cannot fail to request the immediate and unconditional release of Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García, José Antonio Torres and Angel Santiesteban-Prats.
France has no choice but to urge the Cuban authorities to end the harassment and censorship of independent news providers. France must also intercede with the Cuban authorities to request access to Cuba for international NGOs such as Reporters Without Borders that defend human rights, free speech and freedom of information – always keeping in mind the goal you hold dear: “telling the truth.”
I thank you in advance for the attention you give to this request.