Paris, March 18, 2016
Dear Mr. President,
While you are about to embark on a landmark visit to Cuba next week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges you to make freedom of the press and access to information top priorities. As the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in 88 years, you have the power and the duty to positively influence its policies on these issues, by raising them both publicly and privately with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Cuban people, and during your meetings with the press and Cuban civil society. We must stress how important it is that you meet with journalists and members of civil society to hear first hand how their rights are being restricted.
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. It is almost impossible to broadcast and publish information without authorization from the government. Media sources that have not received official recognition are deemed illegal and are censored.
Foreign journalists are also subject to Cuba’s censorship practices and 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 toward 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 2015, many activists and journalists were arrested at a protest organized by the “Ladies in White” opposition movement, but were never charged. Arrests, confiscation of equipment, and short detentions continue to occur on a regular basis for journalists covering this opposition movement and other events.
While the number of journalists imprisoned in Cuba has dwindled since 2010, the independent blogger from the agency Yayabo Press Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García who was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March 2014 on charges of illegally slaughtering cattle, remains behind bars. He claimed that the charges against him were fabricated due to his reporting. Yoeni has repeatedly been the victim of violence and possible torture by prison staff. RSF advocated for his release as part of the amnesty preceding Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba last September, yet Yoeni still languishes in prison.
Even after the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations last summer, the climate for free media still needs to improve. So far in 2016, the Cuban government has arrested three journalists, detained one, and banned distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Authorities also found journalist and bookseller Ángel Herrera Oviedo murdered last month.
Additionally, Cuba is among the worst nations in the world for Internet Access. Civilian use of the Internet has only been legal since June 2013, and even then it is regulated by the state. According to the United Nations Broadband Commission, less than five percent of households in Cuba have Internet access, which ranks 115th out of 133 countries. American aid worker Alan Gross, who you worked to free in 2014, spent five years in a Cuban prison for working on a project to help provide Cuban citizens better internet access.
In post-embargo Cuba, barriers to press freedom must be broken. Arrests of independent journalists, confiscation of material, and short detentions happen daily or weekly. The United States has the opportunity and the responsibility to facilitate a change through diplomacy. 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, Mr. President, for the attention you give to this letter.
Secretary-General, Reporters Without Borders