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Testimony of Suzanne Bilello

Program Coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists
June 27, 1996
House Committee on International Relations
Joint Subcommittee Meeting
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere


Introduction

My name is Suzanne Bilello. I work for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in New York City. Our board of directors includes some of the most distinguished figures in the U.S. news business and is dedicated to the defense of the professional rights of journalists around the world, regardless of ideology or nationality. We are funded entirely by private donations, and accept no funds directly or indirectly from any government.

CPJ’s sole mandate is the promotion of press freedom: Our job is to document, protest and publicize physical and legal attacks on journalists and other violations of press freedom. Our organization has no position on the broad questions of U.S. policy toward Cuba, or indeed toward any other country, except to the extent that those policies have an impact on the ability of independent reporters, editors and broadcasters to do their jobs without official interference or fears of reprisal.

As CPJ’s program coordinator for the Americas, I am responsible for all our research and advocacy projects in the United States and Latin America. Before joining the CPJ staff , I have written about Latin America for several U.S. news organizations, including Newsday and The Dallas Morning News.

As you would expect, Cuba is a priority for me, as it remains the one country in the Western Hemisphere where there is no press freedom at all. There is, however, a small but growing group of independent Cuban journalists who are trying to work outside the confines of state media. Because no nongovernmental news outlets are permitted within the island, these journalists must work exclusively for clients outside the country.


SECTION I: Cuba’s Independent Journalists Struggle to Establish a Free Press

An independent press is struggling to establish itself in Cuba. Dozens of independent journalists who were fired from their official jobs because of irreverent thinking about the revolution and its future are behind Cuba’s struggling free press movement.

In just over a year, five upstart news agencies have been formed in Cuba. These agencies market stories about Cuba to news outlets in the United States and Europe. Since their founding, many of the agencies’ journalists have endured waves of harassment. Several have been detained on charges ranging from "dangerousness"and "disrespect"to spreading "enemy propaganda."These are journalists whose sole aim is to carve out a livelihood that is independent of state-controlled media yet a comfortable distance from organized factions at home and abroad.

The catalyst for Cuba’s fledgling independent press movement was the release of Yndamiro Restano from prison in June of 1995. Back in 1985, Restano had challenged the concept of state-controlled media and was banished from official journalism, forcing him to work in menial jobs. He went on to found Cuba’s first nonofficial journalism organization in 1987. He later founded a human rights movement seeking peaceful political change and was sentenced to prison for distributing information about it. A campaign by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations, and the direct intercession of Danielle Mitterrand, wife of France’s former president, led to Restano’s release. At the annual meeting of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) on Oct. 15, 1995, leading Latin American and U.S. publishers accepted the journalists’ application for membership.

Those in Cuba who are trying to establish a free press face significant internal obstacles, including a lack of rudimentary supplies, such as pens and notebooks, inadequate financial resources and virtually no exposure to the workings of independent media. In addition, fax machines and modems are illegal unless authorized by the state. And most importantly, independent journalists face the absolute opposition of Fidel Castro.

In recent months, the Castro government has intensified its campaign of harassment and intimidation of these independent journalists. We have repeatedly expressed our outrage at these incidents. Mr. Castro’s stepped-up anti-press campaign coincided with a crackdown on the dissident group Concilio Cubano and the shooting down of two planes piloted by the Miami-based, anti-Castro organization Brothers to the Rescue. In a visit to Cuba last week, I was able to learn more about these problems firsthand in discussions with the independent journalists there, and in my own encounters with Cuban authorities.

I traveled to Cuba on June 16 to speak with representatives of all five news agencies. Four days after I arrived, however, I was arrested in my hotel room by Interior Ministry and immigration officials and taken in for interrogation. During the eight hours I was detained, I got a taste of the Kafkaesque ordeal that many independent Cuban journalists have experienced. It was chilling. One of my captors said, "We will never allow to happen here what happened in Eastern Europe when groups of a so-called civil society brought down those regimes.”

All of my personal notebooks, phone lists, business cards and personal letters that journalists had given me to mail in the United States were confiscated. In addition, the names, addresses and phone numbers of members of the five news agencies as well as the names of people who are collaborating with these agencies but still work for state print and broadcast media were also taken. Although my trip was cut short, I did manage to meet and talk with dozens of the country’s independent journalists, their families and colleagues. I appreciate the opportunity to testify today to pass along the thoughts and concerns of these brave and beleaguered journalists.

One of the most formidable barriers facing the Cuban journalists currently struggling to establish an independent press is that they have been labeled dissidents by political forces in both in the United States and Cuba. And their effort has become a tool in the arsenal of both political sides. It is important for U.S. policy-makers to keep in mind that Cuba’s independent journalists do not think of themselves as dissidents. The willingness of these men and women to sacrifice so much stems from their desire to establish a free, objective, independent, uncensored press in their island-nation.


SECTION II: Incidents of Harassment and Intimidation Against Cuba’s Independent Journalists on the Rise

As I mentioned earlier, incidents of harassment and intimidation against Cuba’s independent journalists have increased since February, when the government initiated a crackdown against an internal dissident group and shot down two planes flown by the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue. The following list, which unfortunately includes my own experience, contains the cases that were reported to the Committee to Protect Journalists and then verified by our own independent research.

June 20, 1996, Suzanne Bilello, Committee to Protect Journalists

Cuban Interior Ministry officials detained, interrogated and deported from Cuba a visiting staff expert from the Committee to Protect Journalists, accusing the U.S.-based press freedom organization of "fomenting rebellion"through its support for Cuba’s independent journalists. Suzanne Bilello, CPJ’s program coordinator for the Americas, was arrested in her hotel room in Havana at 10:30 p.m. June 19 by two plainclothes Interior Ministry officials and a uniformed Immigration officer. She was brought for interrogation to Interior Ministry offices, where she was questioned for three hours about her activities and contacts in Havana. Cuban police interrogators seized all of Bilello’s notebooks, personal papers, and other private documents, along with rolls of exposed film and other possessions.

June 4, 1996, Roxana Valdivia, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Valdivia, a BPIC reporter, arrived in Miami with her family after being forced to emigrate. (See March 1, 1996, case.) The Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Cuban President Fidel Castro, protesting what it considers to be the defacto expulsion of independent journalists from Cuba.

May 31, 1996, Joaquin Torres Alvarez, Havana Press

Torres, president of the independent news agency Havana Press, was threatened by two members of the state security police who went to his home and told him that he would be incarcerated if he continued to write for that agency. The police had initially informed him that he had received authorization to emigrate and should prepare to leave the country. However, Torres said that he never sought to emigrate, and told authorities that he had no intention of leaving Cuba.

May 24, 1996, Lazaro Lazo, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Lazo, interim president of the Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC), was arrested in Havana by two agents of Cuban State Security. He was detained for four days in Villa Marista, the main prison of the State Security. Upon being released, Lazo was warned to vacate his position at BPIC and to leave Cuba.

May 2, 1996, Yndamiro Restano, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

State security agents detained the father of Yndamiro Restano and held him for approximately 10 hours at Villa Marista, the central prison of Cuban State Security, before releasing him. Suarez was ordered to stop letting his home be used as the office of BPIC and was told that BPIC should cease its work immediately. Restano’s father, who is in his 70s, is not involved in any journalistic or political activities.

April 26, 1996, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Nine policemen ransacked the BPIC office for about four hours. They searched the office and confiscated files, correspondence, two typewriters, an antiquated word processor, a computer printer, and office supplies. In a letter to Cuban President Fidel Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that it considered the action tantamount to shutting down the news operation of BPIC and requested that all confiscated property be immediately returned to BPIC.

April 23, 1996, Olance Nogueras, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Nogueras, a reporter for BPIC, was detained by agents of the political police in the city of Cienfuegos, where he planned to meet with Danielle Mitterrand, president of the French human rights organization France Liberté. In a letter to President Fidel Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists requested that Nogueras be released immediately. He was released two days later, after Mitterrand had left the country.

March 13, 1996, Maria de los Angeles González, Omar Rodriguez, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

De los Angeles, a journalist and office worker for BPIC, and Rodriguez, a photographer for BPIC, were arrested and detained for seven hours. Both journalists were going to interview dissident Vladimiro Roca Antuñez of the Democratic Socialist Movement.

March 6, 1996, Bernardo Fuentes, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Fuentes, a reporter for BPIC, was arrested by State Security agents on his way to attend a mass for the pilots who were killed when two planes from the United States were shot down by Cuban authorities on Feb. 24. The journalist was held for over three hours and released on the outskirts of Camaguey. State Security had detained Fuentes twice on Jan. 15 , saying independent journalism had no business in Camaguey. They also threatened him with arrest for "enemy propaganda" if he did not cease his journalistic activities.

March 1, 1996, Roxana Valdivia, Bureau of Independent Press in Cuba (BPIC)

Valdivia, a BPIC reporter, was given a verbal ultimatum by Cuban authorities at the beginning of March warning that if she did not secure a visa to emigrate by the end of the month she would be incarcerated on charges of refusing to obey orders to stop her work as an independent journalist. On March 20, she was granted a visa by the U.S. government, and on June 4, she left for the United States. During the three weeks in March that Valdivia was seeking a visa, her phone lines were frequently cut, at one point for as long as a week. On March 19, State Security agents surrounded her home. In October 1995, she was detained for one day by State Security in Havana and then was forced to return to her home in Ciego de Avila. After that, she was kept "confined"and under police surveillance, unable to leave her province without securing official permission. She was also not allowed to have any form of communication with BPIC. In a March 12 letter to Cuban President Fidel Castro, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the harassment of Valdivia and urged Castro to allow independent journalists to operate freely without the threat of harassment and imprisonment.

(During the same time that Valdivia was kept under police surveillance, three other journalists were also "confined" in other provinces: Olance Nogueras in Cienfuegos; Hector Peraza in Pinar del Rio; and Bernardo Fuentes in Camaguey.)

February 27, 1996, Rafael Solano, Havana Press

Solano, president of the independent news agency Havana Press, was arrested by State Security on charges of alleged "association with persons with the intent to commit a crime." A request by his lawyer to free him on bail was denied by Cuban State Security even though, according to his lawyer, there were no legal grounds for his imprisonment. During Solano’s detention, his health deteriorated seriously. He lost a considerable amount of weight and was running a high fever. On March 12, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to President Fidel Castro to express its concern about the continued incarceration of Solano and the pattern of harassment against Cuba’s independent journalists. On April 8, a day after the New York Times ran an article on his case and the challenges facing the Cuban independent press, Solano was freed, but the case against him was still pending. The Committee to Protect Journalists sent another letter to President Castro, welcoming the release but urging him to drop the charges against Solano and to close the case. Solano said that upon his release from jail he was given an ultimatum; emigrate or face a possible prison sentence. On May 8, he left Cuba for exile in Spain.

February 21, 1996, Independent Journalists in Cuba

In the week preceding the meeting of Concilio Cubano scheduled for Feb. 24, more than a dozen independent journalists were detained and held for interrogation. Among them were Ana Luisa Lopez Baeza, Juan Antonio Sanchez, Norma Brito, Rafael Solano, Maria de los Angeles, Hector Peraza Linares, Orlando Fondevilla, Lazaro Lazo, Nicolas Rosario Rosabal, Luis Solar Hernandez. All were released the same day or shortly after.


SECTION III: Fidel Castro Presents Greatest Obstacle to Free Press in Cuba

While there are as many personal opinions about Cuba and Fidel Castro as there are people in this room, we all share one core belief: we are all proponents of democratic change in Cuba. The Committee to Protect Journalists sees establishment of a free and independent media as a fundamental first step in that process.

Castro remains the chief obstacle to freedom in Cuba for local and foreign journalists alike. Today, Cuba stands alone in the hemisphere as the only country that tolerates no independent newspapers, magazines or news broadcasts. That brings frequent U.S. criticism in international human rights forums, and it has earned Castro a spot on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ enemies list of world leaders who pose the gravest threat to press freedom.

Under increased international scrutiny and sorely in need of economic partners, Cuba is poised for historic change. Whether the transition is to democracy hinges largely on whether Cuba has a free press that gives it citizens the basis for informed decisions about how they want to be governed.

CPJ works to support the efforts of Cuba’s independent journalists and news operations. In addition to our letters of protest regarding individual cases of censorship, harassment, imprisonment, or expulsion, we continue to appeal to the Cuban government to reform its policies toward journalists. We have called on President Castro to allow:


SECTION IV: U.S. Policy Inadvertently Limits Growth of Free Press in Cuba

It is clear that Fidel Castro is the major obstacle to a free press in Cuba. Ironically, the United States has become an unlikely ally in Castro’s efforts to justify keeping independent journalists isolated and vulnerable, subject to the whims of the state and cut off from potential foreign patrons. Essentially, independent journalism and its practitioners in Cuba are being held hostage to the political conflicts between the United States and Cuba. CPJ is concerned that America’s policies are doing more harm than good in the fight to establish the most fundamental democratic institution of all -- a free press.

U.S. policy should support independent Cuban journalists in their struggle to be autonomous, unfettered by the political demands of any government. To this end, CPJ urges Congress to ensure that U.S. policy:

A. Reexamine Section 114 of The Cuba Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, (Libertad Act).

In October of 1995, following a major campaign by CPJ and other news organizations and press freedom groups, the Clinton Administration rescinded the 26-year-old ban on Cuban news bureaus in the United States and lifted Treasury Department restrictions on expenditures in Cuba by U.S. news-gathering organizations. CPJ urged President Castro to follow suit and permit U.S. news organizations to reopen bureaus in Cuba.

We urged President Clinton to take this action because, in the words of CPJ Honorary Chairman Walter Cronkite, "It could lead to huge dividends in the most valuable of all commodities‹information, in this case about a neighbor on the brink of fast and far-reaching changes.”

Unfortunately, a little-noticed provision in The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 overrides President Clinton’s executive order.

Section 114 of the law authorizes the president to establish and implement an exchange of news bureaus between the U.S. and Cuba, if certain conditions are met:

Under the rubric of "reciprocity,"The Cuba Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 allows President Clinton to authorize a mutual reopening of news bureaus only if Cuba permits "distribution"on the island of all print or broadcast reports by news organizations stationed there. Since President Castro will not likely allow the distribution of all these materials as long as he is in power, the ultimate impact of this condition will be to prohibit the operation of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba.

As a further assurance that an exchange of reporters would be "fully reciprocal,"the law sets as a precondition the opening of a Cuban office of the U.S. government’s Radio and TV Marti. For Mr. Castro, this is unthinkable, given that the ultimate goal of Radio and TV Marti is to destabilize his government. The law’s supporters contend that Radio and TV Marti are the only functional equivalents of Prensa Latina, Cuba’s official international news agency. But in the U.S. system, as a matter of principle as well as law, it is the private media, not state-run information services, on which we rely for news.

Another facet of Section 114 that hinders the advance of press freedom in Cuba is the requirement that U.S. Treasury officials determine which bona fide "accredited"journalists will be allowed to work in the island-nation. Only people "regularly employed with a news-gathering operation"need apply. This provision excludes free-lancers, including the distinguished writer Tad Szulc, Castro’s biographer. This sets a dangerous international precedent. In Latin America and elsewhere, leftist media unions backed by Cuba have fought for years for similar state licensing procedures, failing only because of the effective resistance of private journalism organizations backed strongly by the U.S. government.

Whatever the broader merits or demerits of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, the inadvertent impact of Section 114 is to hinder the exposure of Cubans (journalists and non-journalists) to the peaceful workings of a free and independent media, and to limit the information about Cuba available to Americans.

Many of the Cuban journalists I spoke with last week agreed with CPJ’s position that the establishment of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba would bring about a radical improvement for the island’s independent journalists. The creation of job opportunities‹for stringers, reporters, editors, cameramen, soundmen, and other newsroom positions‹would give Cuba’s independent journalists much-need training in how to operate as effective and objective professionals.

CPJ urges Congress to reevaluate Section 114 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 in light of our analysis of its impact on the establishment of a free press in Cuba.

B. Ensure Editorial Independence of Radio and TV Marti

The Committee to Protect Journalists does not take a position on the political content of Radio and TV Marti. We recognize that Radio Marti fills a void in providing news and information to citizens of Cuba. Our fundamental concern is for the independent journalists in Cuba who work as stringers for Radio Marti.

In my meetings in Cuba, journalists raised several concerns about Radio Marti. It should be noted that the station does not pay any of these independent journalists for news reports. Several complained to me that Radio Marti is almost exclusively interested in news about detention of dissidents. In fact, they said they experienced outright censorship from the station’s editors. Others remarked that they felt the tone of some of the broadcasters was patronizing, making fun of the daily plight of Cubans.

Anthony DePalma of The New York Times correctly characterized the political dangers for Cuban stringers for Radio Marti in an article published on April 17, 1996. DePalma writes, "The Cuban Government considers Radio Marti an American attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Cuban officials said men like Mr. Solano (one of Cuba’s leading journalists who formed Havana Press, an independent news agency, in May of 1995) are subversives, not journalists, and their association with Radio Marti constitutes a crime against the state.”

The journalists I met with expressed fear that, in its pending move from Washington, D.C., to Miami, Radio and TV Marti could become more overtly political. If so, Cuba’s independent journalists who provide stories for the news organization can expect even greater vilification by Castro’s government.

From CPJ’s perspective and that of many of the independent journalists I met with in Cuba, Radio and TV Marti will be a more effective agent of democratization if its editorial content remains balanced. We urge Congress to closely examine the current editorial control policy of Radio and TV Marti to ensure that, following the move to Miami, the station continues to provide credible, professional information to the citizens of Cuba. This is more important than ever since Radio Marti is virtually the only source of information for Cubans about events in Cuba as well as the world.

C. Forego U.S. Aid to Independent Journalists

Section 109 of The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 authorizes the U.S. government to furnish assistance, financial and other support, for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support democracy-building efforts for Cuba. The intention of this provision is to support the dissemination of information in Cuba on democracy, human rights, and market economies, and to support the individual dissidents and their families, and dissident groups, which circulate this information.

CPJ is concerned that this provision will be broadly interpreted to include Cuba’s independent journalists. It would be a serious mistake -- and one with significant consequences -- to consider these men and women dissidents and therefore eligible for U.S. aid. CPJ urges the United States to refrain from offering this type of assistance to independent journalists.

As I learned firsthand on my recent visit, Cuba’s independent journalists do not consider themselves dissidents. Their aim is to carve out a livelihood that is independent of state-controlled media yet a comfortable distance from organized factions at home and abroad.

Financial assistance from the United States government to Cuba’s independent journalists will endanger their safety and discredit their effort to establish an independent press. Moreover, these payments would compromise the small press freedom gains already attained.

I personally learned how grave a matter this is. I carried with me a modest amount of cash, raised exclusively from private funds, as well as reporters notebooks, pens and medicine, to distribute to the journalists I met with. After my arrest, however, my Cuban interrogators seized on the donations. Again and again, I was asked about their source and purpose. Despite what I told them, they were of the unshakable belief that these donations came from U.S. government funds, and that the recipients of those funds are clients of U.S. interests. Some critics of CPJ’s position may argue that Cuba’s independent journalists do not have to accept these private donations if offered. But given the state of Cuba’s economy and the difficulty people face in trying to make a living as independent journalists, the offer of financial assistance is hard to turn down.

Conclusion

Fidel Castro remains the chief obstacle to freedom in Cuba for local and foreign journalists alike. However, some aspects of existing U.S. policies inadvertently promote Mr. Castro’s campaign to silence independent journalists and destroy the fledgling free press in Cuba.

While these U.S. policies seek to promote the cause of freedom and democratic change in Cuba, they could have the opposite effect.

The Cuban journalists I have spoken with tell me that the most important step the United States can take is to help create "free market opportunities"for journalists in Cuba. Removing the potential U.S. obstacles to the establishment of U.S. news bureaus in Cuba and ensuring the editorial independence of Radio and TV Marti will produce radical improvements for the island’s independent journalists.

Cuban journalists want the opportunity to work with and for independent news organizations. This will help accomplish four important goals: It will professionalize Cuban journalism through exposure to experienced, dedicated Western reporters and editors. It will economically empower independent journalists by creating real job opportunities with highly regarded politically- independent news organizations. It will advance the cause of press freedom by ensuring the presence of a politically independent news gathering operation in Cuba. And, last, it will help these journalists establish their credibility as independent observers in the eyes of their countrymen.


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