As of December 31, 1998

Nearly 3,000 foreign journalists traveled to Cuba in January to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II. Yet in a clear demonstration that Cuba uses a policy of selectively granting visas in order to influence coverage, the government denied visas to a handful of foreign journalists who had written stories critical of President Fidel Castro. CPJ protested this policy, as well as a crackdown on independent Cuban journalists that earned Castro a place on CPJ's list of the 10 worst Enemies of the Press.

While reporters covering the pope's visit were allowed to work unimpeded, Cuban journalists reported that State Security agents kept them under constant surveillance.

Although Cuba's communist government controls all media outlets, independent journalists have evaded the restrictions by dictating stories over the telephone to colleagues outside the country. The stories – which range from political commentaries to reports on human rights abuses – are circulated on the Internet, published in newspapers in Miami and in Europe, and broadcast into Cuba by Radio Martí, the U.S. government's office of Cuba Broadcasting. Some Cuban journalists describe themselves as disaffected with the Castro regime, but others say their sole interest in joining the independent press is to provide accurate information.

Since the first independent press agency was founded in 1994, many journalists have gone into exile, been jailed, or forced to leave the profession due to constant harassment. In October, Ana Luisa López Baeza, one of Cuba's top journalists, defected and moved to Miami; reporter Jorge Luis Arce Cabrera left for France that same month.

But there are always new journalists to replace those who leave or can no longer work. Currently, there are about 40 independent journalists divided among eight agencies. The newest agency, Cuba Verdad, was founded in January, just prior to the pope's visit.

Working conditions are extraordinarily difficult. Cubans are prohibited from owning a fax machine or a computer, and even typewriters have been confiscated. Journalists' phones are constantly monitored, and lines are often cut off during sensitive conversations. Many journalists allege that they are conspicuously followed at close range, a form of psychological pressure known as the "Japanese check." Journalists have been harassed and shouted down by organized mobs; they are frequently detained and questioned by State Security agents.

The government has an array of repressive laws at its disposal to stifle the independent press. The penalty for publishing "anti-government propaganda" is a year in prison; those criticizing Castro can be penalized with up to three years imprisonment; "aiding the enemy" can be punished with up to 14 years in prison. Three journalists were in prison at the end of 1998; a fourth has been sentenced to a year of forced labor. Conditions for political prisoners are especially difficult. Journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón, who is serving a six-year sentence for showing a "lack of respect," was beaten in April by State Security officials, who accused him of writing anti-government posters in prison.

Although the anticipated opening of Cuban society in the aftermath of the pope's visit did not materialize, there was a six-month lull in the systematic repression of independent journalists. It ended in August, when the conviction of dissident Reynaldo Alfaro García for providing false information provoked a vigorous protest. In an effort to quell possible protest, dissidents – including some journalists – were detained on the eve of a September 8 religious procession in honor of Cuba's patron saint.

Prior to a December 10 opposition rally on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, State Security officers went to journalists' homes and physically prevented them from covering the event. They used the same tactic to keep journalists from covering the December 16 trial of a dissident who was arrested at the December 10 rally.

Despite these strictures, spaces have been opening in Cuba for both local and foreign journalists. Although Castro had asserted to a visiting delegation from the American Society of Newspapers Editors (ASNE) in June that he would not allow any new U.S. news bureaus in Cuba, he announced in November that he had given permission for the Associated Press (AP) to open a bureau in Havana. AP, which was expelled from Cuba in 1969, joins CNN, which is the only U.S. media organization with a permanent presence in the country.

Cuban journalists say the foreign journalists serve as a strong deterrent against public abuses. For example, the presence of a CNN camera crew outside the courthouse where journalist Mario J. Viera was to be tried for slander on November 27 apparently forced the authorities to show restraint when a protest erupted. After three protesters were arrested, the trial was postponed indefinitely. Writing on May 3, International Press Freedom Day, Raúl Rivero, a poet and Cuba's leading journalist, noted, "Independent journalism without faxes, without computers, with constant telephone interruptions, under harassment and threats ... will serve as a base for a return to a free press, followed by the growth of a democratic society with powerful civil institutions."

Attacks on the Press in Cuba in 1998

12/29/98Jesús Labrador Arias, CubaPressHarassed
12/15/98Jesús Zúñiga, Cooperativa de Periodistas IndependientesHarassed
12/15/98Efrén Martínez Pulgarón, CubaPressHarassed
12/15/98Marvin Hernandez Monzón, CubaPressHarassed
12/15/98Orlando Bordón Gálvez, CubaPressHarassed
12/15/98Lázaro González Valdés, Cuba VerdadHarassed
12/10/98Omar Rodríguez Saludes, Agencia Nueva PrensaHarassed
12/10/98Jorge Olivera, Habana PressHarassed
12/10/98Raúl Rivero, CubaPressHarassed
12/10/98Efrén Martínez Pulgarón, CubaPressHarassed
10/23/98Edel José García Díaz, Centro Norte del País (CNP)Harassed
10/01/98Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, CubaPressImprisoned
09/16/98Jesús Labrador Arias, CubaPressHarassed
09/15/98Mario Julio Viera González, Cuba VerdadLegal Action
09/10/98Juan Antonio Sánchez Rodríguez, CubaPressImprisoned, Threatened
07/21/98All foreign journalistsHarassed
05/07/98Luis López Prendes, Buró de Prensa Independiente de CubaThreatened
02/27/98David Adams, St. Petersburg TimesHarassed, Expelled
01/30/98Jorge Luis Arce Cabrera, Buró de Prensa Independiente de CubaThreatened
01/30/98Jesús Egozcue Castellanos, Línea Sur PressThreatened
01/21/98Miami HeraldHarassed, Legal Action
01/21/98Matilde Sánchez, ClarínLegal Action
01/21/98Rodolfo Pouzá, América TVLegal Action
01/21/98Mario Pérez Colman, La NaciónLegal Action
01/21/98TelemundoLegal Action
01/21/98Peter Katel, NewsweekHarassed

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