On August 14, Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Cuba in order to celebrate the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
It is the first time since 1959 that the head of American diplomacy takes an official visit to the island. This is a unique opportunity for the United States to put the issues of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Cuba at the top of the agenda. Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to John Kerry asking him to publicly address the issue.
Paris, August 13, 2015
Dear Secretary of State Kerry,
While you are about to embark on a landmark visit to Cuba on August 14, Reporters Without Borders urges you to put the issues of freedom of the press and freedom of expression at the top of the agenda of your discussions with Cuban authorities. As the first highest level U.S. official to visit Cuba since 1959, you have the power and the duty to positively influence Cuba’s policies on these issues.
Cuba represents the Western Hemisphere’s lowest position on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index, ranking 169th out of 180 countries. The Cuban government maintains a complete monopoly on information and will not tolerate any independent voices, ensuring that there is no free media. The only “official” media outlets must be authorized by the government, and the list is very short. Media sources that have not received official recognition are deemed illegal and are censored. Cuba is considered one of the world’s least connected countries.
Cuba’s information monopoly and censorship practices do not apply only to local media – foreign journalists are also subject to restrictions, receiving accreditation only selectively. Furthermore, when foreign journalists cover stories that portray the current regime “too negatively,” they are deported.
In addition to its tradition of censorship, Cuba has a long history of violence and harassment towards journalists. Many journalists working for independent media have received violent threats from the government. Roberto de Jesus Guerra, editor of independent news agency and free speech NGO Hablemos Press, was physically attacked by the Internal Security Department in June 2014. Another correspondent from the same publication was run down by a car that same month. In July of this year, many activists and journalists were arrested at a protest organized by the “Ladies in White” opposition movement, but were never charged. These events served as a reminder of 2003’s Black Spring when 27 journalists were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Unfortunately, these are only several examples of a widespread issue.
Prominent and vocal journalists have recently been arrested and sentenced to long prison sentences for merely doing their job. Writer and blogger Angel Santiesteban-Prats was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment on trumped-up charges of “home violation” and “injuries.” These charges were used as pretexts to arrest him for his outspoken criticism of the government. He was released on July 17, 2015 after completing more than two years of his sentence and is now on parole. During his time in prison, his website editor reported that he was repeatedly mistreated and tortured. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights submitted a formal request last September urging the Cuban government to guarantee Santiesteban-Prats’ physical safety amid these reports. Now that he has been released, he is calling for a retrial. He sees his release as an attempt by the Cuban government to silence him, since he was able to write and express himself from inside his prison cell. But he has no intention of remaining silent and has already published a book entitled “Last Symphony,”a collection of short stories on violence in Cuba, part of which he wrote while in prison.
While Reporters Without Borders welcomes his release, we cannot stress enough the importance of releasing the two remaining journalists in prison, especially in light of Cuba’s dangerous prison conditions. Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García, an independent blogger from the agency Yayabo Press, was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March 2014 on charges of illegally slaughtering cattle, charges he claimed were fabricated due to his reporting. Yoeni has repeatedly been the victim of violence and possible torture by prison staff. José Antonio Torres, former correspondent for Granma, has been serving a 14-year prison sentence since July 2012 for vague charges of spying.
In post-embargo Cuba, barriers to press freedom must be broken. The United States has the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate this change through diplomacy. Now is the time to demand the release of journalists who are still in prison. Now is the time to urge the government to allow independent media to operate without fear of violence or arrest. Now is the time to make sure all of Cuba’s many voices are heard.
I thank you in advance, Secretary Kerry, for the attention you give to this letter.