Freedom of the Press
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Despite significant government restrictions and the continued imprisonment of 24 journalists, there was a slight decrease in the governmental harassment of journalists, and the growing number of blogs in Cuba provided some new space for free expression. Nevertheless, Cuba continued to have the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the hemisphere. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media and allows free speech and press only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are firmly under the control of the executive. The country’s criminal code provides the legal basis for the repression of dissent, and laws criminalizing “enemy propaganda” and the dissemination of “unauthorized news” are used to restrict freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. Insult laws carry penalties of three months to one year in prison, with sentences of up to three years if the president or members of the Council of State or National Assembly are the objects of criticism. The 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for jail sentences of 3 to 10 years for “anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media,” is aimed at independent news agencies that send their material abroad.
While there was a decrease in governmental harassment of journalists, state security agents continued to threaten, arrest, detain, imprison, and restrict the right of movement of local and foreign journalists throughout the year. Media watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres reported an estimated 80 physical attacks, threats, arrests, and unannounced searches of journalists in 2007. During the year, 2 journalists were freed from prison, but 2 more were imprisoned, resulting in a total of 24 journalists remaining in long-term detention. In January, Ramon Velazquez Toranso, of the Libertad agency, was sentenced to three years in prison under a criminal code provision that allows Cuban authorities to imprison any citizen deemed a potential danger to society, even if they have not committed a crime. In April, Oscar Sanchez Madan, correspondent for the Miami-based Cubanet website, was sentenced under the same criminal code by a court in Matanzas province and received the maximum penalty of four years in prison for “social dangerousness.” Sanchez had questioned governmental figures on the actual size of Cuba’s sugarcane harvest in his reporting. On September 27, 6 journalists were arrested along with an estimated 30 activists at a peaceful demonstration in support of political prisoners staged in the capital, Havana; they were released the next day. Three foreign journalists were forced to leave the country in 2007. Gary Marx, the Havana correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and Cesar Gonzales-Calero, correspondent for the Mexican daily El Universal, had their press cards cancelled in February and were told to leave the country. British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Stephen Gibbs was denied a visa to reenter the country the following day and was forced to leave his post.
The government owns all media except for a number of underground newsletters. It operates three national newspapers, four national television stations, six national radio stations, and one international radio station, in addition to numerous local print and broadcast media outlets. All media content is determined by the government, and there is no editorial independence. The Catholic Church weekly Vitral, which had a reputation for being one of the only periodicals to offer independent opinion and critical commentary, suspended publication in April, citing lack of resources. The paper resumed publication in June, but under new editorial management and with a much less critical focus. Cubans do not have the right to possess or distribute foreign publications, although some international papers are sold in tourist hotels. Satellite television is forbidden. Up until legislative changes on June 1, it was a criminal offense to possess a DVD player.
Cuban officials strictly regulated and monitored internet use, with the threat of 5 years in prison for connecting to the internet illegally and 20 years for writing “counterrevolutionary” articles for foreign websites. Many websites were blocked during the year. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the general population could access the internet from hotels or government-controlled internet cafés by purchasing expensive and difficult-to-obtain voucher cards, while others purchased passwords on the black market for a high price that allowed them less restricted access. On a positive note, the growing number of blogs allow Cubans to more freely express their opinions; according to the U.S. State Department, these are posted mostly under pseudonyms and contain “confident and caustic references about today’s situation in Cuba.” Less than 2 percent of Cuba’s population accessed the internet in 2007.