The War Against Media

Sunday, May 9, 2010
A great opinion piece by United Nations correspondent John J. Metzler in The Korea Times:

Cuba censors and stifles media

"Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right… but around the world there are governments and those wielding power who find many ways to obstruct it," warned U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proclaiming World Press Freedom Day.

Thus when Vincente Botin, a veteran Spanish TV news reporter formerly based in Cuba, briefed U.N. correspondents, the message was all the more poignant. Botin, whose four-year stint in Havana working for Spain's TV Espanola, spoke of the ongoing pressures from the Castro dictatorship and the continuing attacks against the free press.

Botin stated that according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, that Cuba holds the dubious distinction of jailing the second largest number of journalists in the world today, led only by the People's Republic of China.

He added that even as a foreign correspondent, being forced to walk a thin line of "self-censorship" and "face a tricky balancing act as to what we can say."

Over the past few years, three foreign correspondents were kicked out of Cuba, and that is why "we have to write between the lines and use metaphor to convey the story."

Importantly Botin stated that since the communist controlled island considers itself in a "state of war," that press surveillance remains intense.

Again citing Reporters Without Borders, he stated that 20 state security agents are assigned to monitor each foreign correspondent.

"Freedom of media is at risk anywhere the independence of thinking is under pressure," stated a Spanish delegate at a separate U.N. committee hearing.

"All U.N. member states make their commitment to respect fundamental freedoms, to guarantee full respect for freedom of expression, and access to information, and to ensure the unhindered movements of press representatives. The EU considers it of paramount importance that these commitments are fully adhered to."

Thus I questioned Botin whether the Spanish government, which let's face it, has a long history with Cuba dating from colonial times to the present day, has taken a pro-active stance on human rights in the Caribbean island?

Given that the Madrid government presently also holds the presidency of the European Union, it is all the more of a political bully pulpit to exert positive influence over Cuba.

Botin conceded that Spanish governments both of the right, namely Jose Maria Aznar and currently Jose Luis Zapatero of the socialist left have spoken of "engagement" for the island. Yet neither right nor left has achieved any positive human rights results in dealing with Fidel Castro.

Interestingly, political pressures from the European Union states have been reserved and limited, with the exception of the Czech Republic's courageous stand.

Botin described the United Nations political position on Cuba as "immoral."

Though he does not favor the longstanding American economic embargo on Cuba which dates from the early years of Castro's rule, Botin admitted that what the Havana regime does not like to admit is that the U.S. is the island's fifth largest trading partner and the largest exporter of food to Cuba. This may prove an uncomfortable contradiction but it is equally a commercial reality.

He conceded that while Raul Castro formally replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, in fact the expected reforms "never materialized."

Moreover the Communist Party of Cuba "controls all." Botin conceded the regime is a "personality driven dictatorship."

Dealing with the Internet, Secretary General Ban stated, "The censors are also active in cyberspace, restricting the use of the Internet and the new media."

According to Botin, the Internet in Cuba plays a very limited role; "It is one of the lowest in the world with only nine in 1,000 people having access, which is actually lower than Togo." The number of Internet bloggers is few but naturally under surveillance.

A 2010 Freedom House survey of global press freedom placed Cuba sixth from the bottom of 196 states surveyed followed only by Eritrea, Libya, Myanmar (Burma), Turkmenistan and North Korea.

In a riveting account of his four years in Cuba, Botin wrote a book, "Castro's Funerals," as a way to "exorcise" himself from the self-censorship and compromises made while formerly living in Castro's state.

Ban Ki-moon stated perhaps optimistically, "This year's theme is freedom of information; the right to know." I'm not so certain the Castro brothers would agree.