By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Committee to Protect Journalists has asked President Clinton to take the first step toward lifting the ban on Cuban correspondents in the U.S.; CPJ has also written to Castro sp.
FOR 25 YEARS there have been bans on U.S. and Cuban journalists working in each other's countries, and now the Committee to Protect Journalists has asked President Clinton to take the first step toward lifting those restrictions. The CPJ also has written to Cuban President Fidel Castro, asking him to permit U.S. news bureaus to post correspondents in his country. In September 1969, the last U.S. correspondent permanently based in Havana was expelled, although U.S. journalists still are able to travel to Cuba on special visas for specified periods of time. In retaliation for the expulsion, the Nixon administration imposed a ban on Cuban correspondents in the U.S. Journalists from Cuba are allowed to cover the United Nations, but must restrict their movement to a limited area around New York City. "This tit-for-tat diplomacy may have had a purpose in the Cold War environment," wrote CPJ honorary chairman Walter Cronkite in an op-ed appearing in the Washington Post the same day the letters were sent. "It sent a message to Havana that Castro couldn't act against any U.S. interest without expecting a counteraction. "It also may have served a security purpose; some individuals operating with journalists' credentials could well have been Cuban, i.e., Soviet bloc, spies," the former CBS News anchorman continued. "These considerations are now pass?, and it is our understanding of Cuba that suffers." Cronkite called on the State Department to "take the initiative in getting rid of the outdated restrictions," adding that "Such a move would rob Havana of any rationale for denying permanent access to our news organizations." CPJ executive director William A. Orme Jr., who signed both letters, said it is important for organizations such as his to keep the issue in the forefront and help ward off journalistic and bureaucratic inertia. "Few people are aware this ban is still in place," he pointed out, adding that a story like Cuba can only really be covered by having someone there. Even though U.S. journalists have been granted visas for travel to Cuba, Orme said the Cuban policy towards reporters tends to be erratic, with periods of opening followed by periods of closure. When asked whether operation of Radio and TV Marti could impact this issue, Orme said, "Our intent here is to separate this issue from the separate question of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and the broader issue of U.S.-Cuban relations. To us, this is a press freedom issue, pure and simple. Given the fact that Radio Marti is part of the U.S. government's foreign policy machine against Cuba, we would not think it's relevant to this question of whether the U.S. should" lift the restrictions. Orme said he also believes the "political reaction is an important part of this story" and asked, "Why wouldn't the Clinton administration allow this? What do we have to fear from a Prensa Latina bureau in New York or Washington?" Reasons for a continued ban could be that no one wants to take the heat from critics of any change in policy that might be welcomed in Cuba and from those who want to keep the pressure on Castro, Orme noted. Also, "there is no pressure in any visible, public, concerted way by U.S. news organizations to change this policy. So what we are trying to do here is raise the visibility of the issue." Conceding that a U.S. easement of restrictions is no guarantee that Cuba will reciprocate, Orme noted that "is a step we should be prepared to take. This is inherent in our system. We believe in the free exchange of ideas." Inter American Press Association vice president David Lawrence, publisher of the Miami Herald, agreed with the proposal to lift the ban and said he has been pushing the issue for years. "I start from the basic position that we are all better off in this world with the freest flow of information," Lawrence said. "We've got nothing to hide in this country . . . . Frankly, I think it would be healthier." When he was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1991-92, Lawrence said he and Edward Seaton of the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury discussed this very issue with State Department officials and Cuban diplomats in Washington. "Our position then and now is that we ought to be able to travel freely to Cuba and they here," he said. "The point is made, and I'm respectful of that, that calling oneself a journalist does not necessarily mean you are . . . . It may be quite a different sort of a creature than those in our own democracy." However, he said, "In a democracy, I think you take some risks. You end up ahead in the long term by being the freest." ?( I start from the basic position that we are all better off in this world with the freest flow of information. We've got nothing to hide in this country....Frankly, I think it would be healthier.") [Caption] ?( -David Lawrence, Miami Herald publisher) [Photo]