By: Mark Fitzgerald

A World Press Freedom Day Special Report

In the nine years since Ral Rivero renounced his job as a state
journalist to become one of the few independent journalists in Cuba, he
has been repeatedly tossed in jail or detained in his Havana home. He’s
been refused visas or told he could leave the island – but not come
back. All his books have been banned and his telephone service is
liable to be cut off at any time, especially after interviews with the
foreign press.

Yet Rivero says he’s never experienced anything like the pressure Cuba
is putting on independent reporters right now.

‘I believe we are living through the darkest hours ever in independent
Cuban journalism,’ Rivero said. The founder and editor of the
independent press agency, Cuba Press, Rivero made his comments over a
telephone hookup at the recent Inter American Press Association (IAPA)
midyear meeting in Cancun, Mexico, because once again his request for a
visa had been denied.

After working for years to eke out a small political ‘space’ in which
to practice free journalism, he said, independents began to be
subjected to a new wave of detentions, harassment, and intimidation
last autumn when the summit of Spanish-speaking nations focused
international attention on Cuba’s human-rights record.

It’s only going to get worse, Rivero added, now that Fidel Castro’s
government is obsessed with the case of Eli?n Gonzalez, the 6-year-old
who last Thanksgiving survived the shipwreck that killed his mother on
their voyage from Cuba to the United States.

Political smokescreen

‘We feel we will continue to have the mass buzzing of propaganda
against us and the Cuban exiles abroad as the government tries to lay a
political smokescreen over independent journalists and to close this
small space we have worked out,’ he said.

Independent journalists in Cuba face every sort of oppression short of
outright assassination. Two journalists, Bernardo Ar?valo Padr?n and
Jess Joel D?az Hern?ndez, are serving jail sentences of six years and
four years, respectively, for ‘criminal contempt’ of Castro. A year-old
press law provides for even more severe punishments. In recent months,
the government attitude seems to be that any law will do for silencing
journalists: Reporter V?ctor Rolando Arroyo was sentenced to six years
in jail for ‘hoarding’ toys he was distributing to poor children in
Pinar del R?o. Another favorite tactic is placing reporters under house
arrest to prevent them from covering events that could prove
embarrassing to the government. Upwards of two dozen journalists were
subjected to that treatment in the past six months, according to
reports gathered by IAPA and others.

Cuban authorities often get physical, too, either by police mistreating
detained journalists or, more often, by turning loose pro-government
thugs on reporters as they work.

‘The darkest stain on freedom of expression in the Americas is Cuba,’
declares Rafael Molina, director of List?n Diario in Santo
Domingo, Dominican Republic, and chairman of IAPA’s committee on
freedom of the press.

Cuba these days is equally hostile to foreign press. Last December, the
government first refused to let anyone from The Miami Herald
join other members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers
(NCEW) on a scheduled visit to Cuba. When the NCEW protested, Cuba
revoked visas for the entire group. IAPA’s current president,
Houston Chronicle Vice President and Managing Editor Tony
Pederson, says Cuban authorities still have not responded to the
association’s request in February to send a delegation to discuss and
investigate complaints of free-press violations.

Despite the difficulties, the work of independent journalists is
finding new venues abroad. IAPA has launched a Web site,
http://cuba.sipiapa.org, that includes a weekly column from Rivero and
dispatches from Cuba Press in Havana. ‘With the power of the Internet,
we’ll help improve the situation of the independent press in Cuba,’
says Ricardo Trotti, coordinator for the IAPA’s press freedom

Publicity helps, independent journalist Rivero said. ‘I know as a
journalist who has been jailed and talks with jailed journalists how
important it is to get solidarity from the IAPA,’ said Rivero, who is
the association’s regional vice president for Cuba.

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