Freedom of the Press
Cuba has the most repressive environment for the media in the Americas. The Cuban government continues to suppress dissent, including harassing, intimidating, and detaining independent journalists. Despite enthusiasm about the warming of relations between the Cuban and U.S. governments that was announced in December 2014, there have been few notable improvements in Cuba’s human rights or press freedom climate.
- Several independent journalists were fired or subjected to short-term arrests and other forms of harassment as a result of reporting deemed unfavorable to the government.
- Following the July release of one journalist from prison, two reporters remain in Cuban jails for crimes that they claim are retribution for critical reporting.
- Although internet access remains severely limited, during the year the government continued a slow process of broadening access to online information sources by establishing a series of Wi-Fi hotspots.
Legal Environment: 28 / 30
Cuba has the most restrictive laws on freedom of expression and the press in the Americas. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media outlets and allows free speech and journalism only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” Article 91 of the penal code prescribes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy imposes up to 20 years in prison for acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.” Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are firmly under the control of the executive branch. 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 can 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 targets independent news agencies that send their material abroad by authorizing prison sentences of 3 to 10 years for anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, “collaborates with the enemy’s media.”
In recent years the government has undertaken a number of small gestures that indicate potential for a narrow media opening. In January 2013, the country removed exit visa requirements for citizens traveling abroad. Since then, several prominent Cuban opposition journalists and bloggers have traveled out of the country—most notably Yoani Sánchez, who has made multiple trips abroad. Nevertheless, passports are still issued at the government’s discretion and have been withheld from select journalists for state-defined “reasons of public interest.” In particular, journalists who formerly served jail time for alleged antigovernment activities have been denied the right to exit Cuba. Further, some journalists who have traveled abroad, including Roberto de Jesús Guerra, founder and director of independent news agency Hablemos Press, have complained of harassment and confiscation of documents upon their return.
Political Environment: 35 / 40
For years, independent or critical Cuban journalists and bloggers have suffered harassment for their reporting on topics deemed sensitive by the government. However, since the strong international repudiation the Cuban government received in response to a wave of imprisonments in 2003 (known as the Black Spring), such harassment now more often takes the form of arbitrary short-term detentions, beatings, threats against journalists and their family members, internal deportations, house arrest, “public repudiations,” and demotions. Due to their unofficial and short-term nature, these tactics generate less international condemnation.
In October 2013, news editors who were considered less hardline were assigned to head the country’s two major newspapers, the Communist Party paper Granma and Juventud Rebelde, the paper of the Communist Party’s youth wing. This was seen as part of the Cuban government’s self-described process of promoting generational renewal to modernize the papers and reduce media censorship and secrecy. Some state media have recently offered more criticism of problems in the country, including corruption and misuse of resources, although outright criticism of the government or political system does not occur. Self-censorship in the official press is rampant, and investigative reporting is nonexistent. Problems with state policies are often blamed on “social indiscipline” rather than the system or its leaders. Reporting on foreign events is filtered through the lens of the Cuban government’s foreign policy objectives, with governments in countries such as Syria and Venezuela receiving sympathetic coverage in Cuban state media.
A number of publications associated with the Roman Catholic Church are occasionally critical of the government and have emerged as key players in debates over the country’s future, including Espacio Laical, Palabra Nueva, and Convivencia.
Additionally, in recent years Cuba has witnessed incremental growth of citizen journalism, an increase in the number of independent bloggers, and the appearance of a small number of independent, island-based news outlets—including the sites Havana Times, Periodismo de Barrio, On Cuba, and 14ymedio.
Government attempts to silence dissidents continued in 2015, particularly during events that drew international attention to the island. In January, Boris González Arenas, a former professor at the International Film and Television School who also worked with the independent news outlet Diario de Cuba, was fired from his job after his opinion columns were deemed to be “against the Cuban state.” In June, independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca denounced a series of short-term arrests and beatings he had suffered at the hands of Cuban state security for his coverage of marches by the Ladies in White, a group of spouses and relatives of persecuted dissidents. In an interview with 14ymedio, as well as in letters to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and Reporters Without Borders, he described being held for periods of hours or days—without being officially processed—by state security agents, as well as the state tactic of confiscating cell phones, cameras, and flash drives and deleting the data they contain.
Independent journalists reported being temporarily held or deported, having their equipment confiscated, and having mobile phone service cut off. One independent Cuban reporter, Miriam Leiva, was detained for four hours in September to prevent her from meeting with Pope Francis, despite an invitation from the Embassy of the Holy See in Havana. In addition, of the 3,522 prisoners released as a gesture of good will during the pope’s visit, none was a journalist, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
In July 2015, Ángel Santiesteban Prats, a writer and blogger, was released from prison after serving two years of a five-year prison sentence for assault and trespassing. He alleged that the charges were fabricated by the authorities in retribution for his blog, Los Hijos Que Nadie Quiso (The Children Nobody Wanted), which was critical of the government. In November, he was briefly re-detained on charges of alleged armed robbery. The arrest came the day after Santiesteban reported on a hunger strike being carried out by another independent journalist and former political prisoner, Lamberto Hernández Plana.
With the release of Santiesteban, two journalists remained in prison in Cuba at year’s end. Yoeni de Jesús Guerra García of the Yayabo Press agency, first detained in October 2013, was sentenced in March 2014 to seven years in prison on charges of illegally slaughtering cattle—charges he claims were fabricated due to his reporting. The second, José Antonio Torres, a former correspondent for Granma, has been detained since 2011 and was sentenced in July 2012 to 14 years in prison for espionage after he published articles denouncing irregularities in the management of an aqueduct project in Santiago de Cuba and critiquing the installation of a fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela. However, during the year Torres was granted certain privileges, including weekend passes to visit family. Both prisoners claimed they had been subjected to deprivation and violence while in prison.
Economic Environment: 28 / 30
The government owns virtually all traditional media except for a number of underground newsletters. It operates three national newspapers, five national television stations, six national radio stations, and one international radio station, in addition to numerous local print and broadcast outlets. All content is determined by the government. In January 2013, the government permitted the broadcasting of Venezuelan news channel Telesur on the island. While the channel does not criticize the Cuban government, it does give viewers a view into the outside world. Cubans do not have the right to possess or distribute foreign publications, although some international papers are sold in tourist hotels. Private ownership of electronic media is also prohibited. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church’s publications and the few independent outlets that operate do provide some alternative to the government media.
Cuba has one of the lowest internet connectivity rates in the world, despite some improvements in 2015. The majority of users can reach only a closely monitored Cuban intranet consisting of e-mail addresses ending in “.cu” and a few government-controlled and approved websites. The penetration rate for real access to the global internet is estimated to be around 5 percent, and continues to come mostly through outdated dial-up technology. Broadband access is available to an estimated 1 percent of the population; despite the activation of the $70 million ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable project between Cuba and Venezuela in 2013, connection speeds remain extremely slow for all but the most privileged users. Faster internet connections are available at tourist hotels and foreign embassies, and though it is technically illegal, many independent journalists take advantage of the service.
Recent developments have resulted in significantly expanded internet access on the island. By July 2015, the government had opened 35 Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces where users can connect to the internet, and pledged to establish more. These complemented the 118 “internet salons” opened by the government in 2013. In addition, in June the state-owned Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) announced that it would reduce the hourly price of access to $2 an hour, from $4.50. This is still prohibitively expensive in a country where the average monthly salary is $23, but government figures claim that each access point services 55,000 users per day. However, users must show identification and sign a pledge not to engage in “subversive” activities online. The government prefers that internet use be conducted in public locales; home access is available to foreigners and to members of select professions who pay a premium for the privilege. In an important change, in 2014 ETECSA began providing access to e-mail via cell phone and activated 565,000 new mobile lines, although these accounts are monitored by the government. During the year the U.S. government made several policy changes to allow greater engagement between U.S. corporations and Cuba with a goal of facilitating greater internet access on the island, but no concrete infrastructure projects have been announced, given the restraints imposed by the U.S. embargo.
Despite these developments, many users rely on black-market channels to access the internet. These include unauthorized “mesh” networks that use private Wi-Fi networks to communicate and share information, alternative methods of tweeting, and the underground distribution system of digital files known as el paquete (the package); the latter has come under increasing criticism from the authorities, who have attempted to launch state-sponsored alternatives. The regime threatens anyone accessing the internet illegally with five years in prison, and the sentence for writing articles deemed “counterrevolutionary” for foreign websites is up to 20 years. However, the authorities do not have the means to engage in systematic filtering. Twitter is accessible to a small number of Cubans via mobile phones or so-called speak-to-tweet platforms, in which residents may anonymously call a phone number abroad and leave a message that will be turned into a tweet. However, this platform costs about $1.20 per tweet.