CJFE and Amnesty International protest crackdown on journalists in Cuba

Friday, March 12, 1999

The Hon. Lloyd Axworthy
Minister of Foreign Affairs
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6
Fax: + 613-996-3443

12 March 1999

Dear Minister Axworthy,

Both Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and Amnesty International Canada (AI) wish to strongly condemn the government of Cuba's recent moves against press freedom. Of particular offense is the arrest and detainment of journalists trying to cover a trial in progress. We urge the Canadian government to pursue the matter with Cuban authorities and do everything possible to assist in the release of the journalists who remain in jail.

At least 15 journalists were arrested surrounding a sedition trial on 1 March in Cuba and two journalists have reportedly disappeared, provoking an international outcry. The 15 journalists were detained to prevent them from covering the trial on 1 March of political dissidents Vladimiro Roca, Marta Beatriz Roque, Félix Bonne, and René Gómez, known as the "Group of Four" or "Grupo de Trabajo", who are charged with sedition.

The four, members of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group for the Analysis of the Cuban Socio-Economic Situation, were arrested on 16 July 1997. The arrests followed their public criticism at an internationally-attended press conference a month earlier of the government paper: "The Party of Unity, Democracy and Human Rights which we Defend" where they also handed out copies of their own critique of the document entitled "The Homeland is for Everyone".

At least another 11 reporters were put under house arrest during the trial of the "Grupo de Trabajo", which ended around 22:00 that day. In addition, State Security agents ordered reporters to clear the area in front of the courthouse, preventing the international press from covering the trial.

Among the journalists arrested was the award-winning Raúl Rivero, Director of the independent CubaPress. Other reporters from the independent CubaPress and HavanaPress news agencies were also arrested, as well as several human rights defenders and numerous dissidents. Many of those detained were reportedly released shortly after the trial, including some of the journalists. However, we fear others remain in jail and two journalists have disappeared..Journalists Jesús Díaz Loyola, a HavanaPress reporter in Havana, and José Edel García Díaz, a reporter with "Centro Norte del País" based in Caibarién, have been missing since 25 February and their whereabouts are unknown.

This crackdown comes shortly after a repressive law was passed in Cuba on 16 February that imposes sentences of up to 20 years in prison for the possession or distribution of "subversive" documents. The law, called the "Ley de Protección de la Independencia Nacional y la Economía de Cuba", "Law for the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba," also makes it a crime to contact foreign media or distribute information opposed to Cuba's "fundamental interests."

On 9 March, Rivero was again detained and questioned for two hours by officers of the state police who threatened him and "warned" that he would be the first individual punished under the new law. This is a clear indication that the crackdown surrounding the trial was not an isolated incident.

Mr. Axworthy, on a visit to Cuba in 1997, you persuaded Fidel Castro to let Canada help Cuba build a civil society. In light of the continuing detention of political prisoners, the new legislation aimed at journalists, and the round-up of activists and journalists, it is clear that we are no closer today to seeing such a society in Cuba.

At the annual Human Rights NGO Consultations on 4 March in Ottawa, you stated, "Dialogue is not a substitute for pressure or public censure. It is another channel that can be used to deliver tough human rights messages and to work with a range of actors in government and civil society to bring about change."

Clearly dialogue is not working with the Cuban authorities. We urge the government of Canada to use all channels of influence at its disposal and insist that Cuba make public the status of Jesús Díaz Loyola, José Edel García Díaz and the other journalists who reportedly have not been released, and confirm the whereabouts and safety of journalist Raul Rivero.

Finally, we ask Canada to insist that the Cuban authorities respect the internationally recognized right to collect and impart information freely, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Wayne Sharpe
Executive Director
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Roger Clark
Amnesty International
Canadian Section

Please feel free to copy this letter or write your own based on this information.