LATIN AMERICA

Cuban press makes moves to open up, but crackdowns on journalists continue

Castro government officials announce major policies for media but dissidents remain unconvinced

A Cuban man holds up a copy of state newspaper Granma.
A Cuban man holds up a copy of state newspaper Granma.EFE

The headlines in the official Cuban press continue to trumpet the good news of Cuba’s economy, but the Communist government’s new public policy is now allowing some room for criticism.

The official Granma and Juventud Rebelde dailies have new editors-in-chief, who have both been on board for less than a week, and the editorial lines at the two newspapers appear to be gradually changing. Recently, both dailies heralded the victory of Cuban welterweight boxer Yasniel Toledo at the World Boxing Championship in the Kazakh city of Almaty – marking one of the first times the Cuban media has covered sporting achievements.

On Cuban television, the newscasts continue to praise the Revolution but also spare some airtime for viewers’ complaints on what isn’t working well on the Caribbean island.

This is a slight shift on the government’s part toward a new policy of openness, which is taking place while the arrests of independent journalists who denounce the Communist regime continue.

You cannot hope to debate and reform everything while continuing to resort to censorship"

Rolando Alfonso Borges, head of the Ideology Department of the Communist Party's Central Committee, said that the government is striving to become more open. “The country needs this as well as it needs a balance,” he said before a meeting of the Cuban Journalists Union on Saturday in Havana.

In July, Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s first vice president, also invited journalists to inform the public about “everything” that is happening on the island, but failed to give them any direction on what can and cannot be published or broadcast.

Now, it seems, the Cuban press is gradually becoming more critical of what is happening on the island: for example, social indiscipline, economic, political and moral problems, and the way the government is run. Over the past few months, President Raúl Castro has publicly criticized Cuban society, attacking what he is calling abundant alcoholism, the proliferation of garbage on the streets, and the shortcomings of the public-school system.

Earlier this month, the Cuban Communist Party decided to shuffle the editorial boards at the official dailies Granma and Juventud Rebelde. Pelayo Terry Cuervo, a journalist who was editor-in-chief at Juventud Rebelde, was appointed editor at Granma. He replaces Lázaro Barredo Medina, who had been at the newspaper for eight years.

Marina Menéndez Quintero, who was managing editor at Juventud Rebelde, now becomes editor-in-chief.

Regardless of the changes and editorial shifts, independent dissident journalists have little faith that there will be major changes in policies, or major allowances for more freedom of expression. In the past four days, there have been new arrests of independent journalists – five in all – who publish their work on the web. Mario Echevarría Diggs, who runs the news portal Misceláneas de Cuba, was arrested when he held a protest in front of the National Palace legislative building.

Driggs, along with David Águila Montero and William Cacer Díaz, who were also arrested last week, was freed on Monday.

Two correspondents for the Hablemos Press news center, Denis Noa Martínezand Pablo Morales Marchán, were also arrested on Sunday, but were freed at the same time.

In a statement, the NGO Reporters without Borders said that the practice by Cuban authorities of arresting independent journalists “is incomprehensible in the light of Cuban civil society’s growing debate about information.”

“You cannot hope to debate and reform everything while continuing to resort to censorship, brutality and arbitrary measures, the organization said.

Two other journalists remain in prison. Ángel Santiesteban-Prats, an author who wrote for the blog Los hijos que nadie quiso (or, The children that no one wanted), was jailed on February 28 and sentenced to five years in prison on supposed trumped up charges of domestic violence.

He was put in solitary confinement at the San Miguel de Padrón prison in Havana where he went on a hunger strike in April. Last September, he received the prestigious Franz Kafka Novels from the Drawer International Prize for his book about Cuban “balseros” trying to escape the country on rafts, El verano en que Dios dormía (or, The summer when God slept).

In July 2011, a Granma correspondent in eastern Cuba, José Antonio Torres, was also sentenced to 14 years in prison after he was convicted of “espionage.” Specifically, Torres was charged with leaving information in the drop-box at the US Interests Section in Havana after filing a report on irregularities in the construction of an aqueduct in his province.