March 14, 1997, in the Miami Herald
ALTHOUGH the Clinton administration licensed CNN, the Associated Press, The Miami Herald, and others to establish news bureaus in Cuba, Fidel Castro's government -- perhaps in deference to Ted Turner, whom the Cuban leader considers a friend -- has extended the welcome mat only to CNN.
Freer access for American media anywhere in the world is to be celebrated, but CNN's presence in Havana does not mean that the Cuban people will be able to watch CNN.
Satellite dishes are illegal in Cuba, and there is no cable system. Cubans who have tried to rig antennas have been persecuted. And in its own perverse way, the regime's preparation for the arrival of CNN reporters in Havana includes increased harassment of independent Cuban journalists.
Typically those harassed are veteran journalists who formerly worked for the regime's outlets. They have become disillusioned, broken with the government, and established tiny press agencies that survive precariously and under constant threat. They provide hard information to the Miami press, which is to say the Cuban-exile community.
Many of these journalists have been detained and threatened with long prison terms or going into exile if they do not stop writing. Others, who reside in the provinces, are restricted to their home town under threat of imprisonment.
Le Monde has reported on the price that Cuba's independent journalists are paying. According to the French daily, the campaign against them has included numerous repudiation rallies, typically in front of their homes. The rallies are a specialty of the Rapid Deployment Brigades, groups of thugs who travel in government trucks to beat up dissidents and their families.
In addition, Granma, Castro's newspaper, has published a communique from the official Journalists' Union of Cuba charging independent journalists with ``treason to the fatherland.''
CNN's Cuba operations no doubt will increase the level of awareness of the American people about world affairs, but Castro's concessionary approach to admitting the foreign press is most unfortunate. The Cuban government has yet to permit the kind of free access considered normal in most parts of the world.
Freedom House has heard from several human-rights activists in Cuba who hope that the CNN bureau opening will mean that CNN and other media will pay attention to the continued repression on the island, including the detention of Cuban journalists, the cutting of their phone lines, and the confiscation of typewriters, paper, and fax machines. The political prisoners' families hope that CNN will report on the plight of their loved ones, who are often the victims of beatings and held incommunicado without adequate food and medical attention.
``Unless Cubans are allowed to watch CNN,'' the wife of a prominent political prisoner said, ``the opening of the bureau merely expands Cuba's apartheid system, which has one rule for foreigners and another rule for natives.''
Although several foreign journalists have been expelled for reporting on the Cuban reality, Freedom House would like CNN to focus its reports on such problems as child prostitution, environmental degradation, and the growing number of Cuban lawyers ``disbarred'' for defending political cases.
Its Cuban operation puts CNN in a difficult position. CNN needs to remain in good standing with Cuban authorities in order to operate. Yet its worldwide credibility will suffer if its news from Havana is perceived as less hard-hitting than its reporting from elsewhere.
Castro's decision has provided CNN with a financial and competitive advantage, but there is also a historical opportunity: At CNN's inaugural celebrations in Havana, Turner could ask Castro to stop persecuting Cuban journalists and to allow Cubans to watch CNN. As a gesture toward better understanding between the Cuban and American people, Turner could offer to donate 1,000 satellite dishes to Cuban youth groups, Catholic parishes, universities, local libraries, and human-rights organizations.
Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald