September 18, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Window-dressing for papal visit

The Cuban government’s announced release of 3,522 prisoners a week before Pope Francis’s arrival today for a five-day visit was a public relations exercise that must not divert attention from the disastrous situation of dissidents and independent journalists in Cuba. Did the announcement nonetheless reflect a government desire to evolve politically or was it just opportunistic? It was certainly timely, coming just days before the papal visit and a few weeks before a visit by US secretary of State John Kerry in the aftermath of the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States. But on close inspection it is hard to find any sign that the regime is loosening its draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and information. The released prisoners included no journalist or blogger. Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García and José Antonio Torres will remain in prison. “The Cuban government has continued to maintain its monopoly on news and information in 2015 and tolerates no independent media outlets,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Latin America desk. “Pope Francis, who plans to meet President Raúl Castro, cannot ignore the issue of human rights and, in particular, freedom of information. After all the regime’s public relations announcements, it is high time that the persecution of journalists and bloggers ended.” Conditions for journalists in Cuba have worsened in recent months. They are still subjected to harassment, which typically takes the form of arbitrary arrest. Dozens of independent journalists covering the marches through the streets of Havana that the Ladies in White opposition movement stages every Sunday have been arrested, held for several hours and then released. “Official” media require the government’s authorization and any unauthorized media are deemed to be illegal and are censored. The independent press is still gagged and the equipment of several reporters working for the unauthorized Hablemos Press news agency was recently confiscated. The state security police have invited opposition journalists and bloggers to stay at work during the pope’s visit or risk imprisonment. Cuba is ranked 169th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.