Freedom of Expression

Press Release R63/19


March 13, 2019

Washington D.C. - The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presents a special report on the situation of freedom of expression in Cuba. This report contains six main sections, which address the regulatory framework that is at the root of the human rights violations, as well as a brief analysis of the aspects of the constitutional reform introduced by the regime itself for debate in Cuba that refer to the right to freedom of expression. It also addresses free and independent journalism in Cuba, referring in particular to the public media, the impossibility of establishing private media, and the practices of persecution against independent journalists. Since journalists are not the only ones who have suffered persecution for expressing their ideas in Cuba, also analyzes the situation of the criminalization of criticism and politically motivated discrimination against different sectors of the population, such as human rights defenders, artists, political dissidents, and others. Also, the report addresses the protests and social demonstrations. The last part of the report refers to limitations on the right to freedom of expression on the Internet and addresses obstacles in the regulation of the use of networks and communication on the web, connectivity problems and universal access, content blocking and censorship, and surveillance. Finally, based on the analysis of these issues, the Office of the Special Rapporteur presents its conclusions and recommendations to the Cuban State.

For more than half a century, Cuba has been a State governed by a single party that obstructs all avenues of political dissent. The State severely restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, freedom of movement, and due process. For decades the Cuban State has organized the institutional machinery to silence voices outside the regime, and to repress independent journalists, as well as artists or citizens who try to organize themselves to articulate their demands; in all that time the State has maintained a monopoly over the media. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression have noted, open debate on ideas and on central aspects of national life has been suppressed.

As the Inter-American Commission has pointed out, this is presented in a context of serious disregard for the essential elements of representative democracy and its institutions. Historically, the IACHR has been critical of the absence of conditions that would allow genuine political participation by sectors with diverse lines of thought in Cuba; in particular, the holding of elections lacking plurality and independence, with insurmountable obstacles that prevent free access to multiple sources of information. The voice of opposition to the government, in its attempts to express itself and participate in the conduct of the country’s affairs, ends up being suppressed in the presence of a single party, the prohibition against association for political purposes, and arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and the right of assembly, among other fundamental rights.

For decades, Cuba has remained among the countries in the hemisphere with the worst conditions and least favorable environment for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Practicing journalism in Cuba was not even close to a situation comparable to any other country in the region. This is due to the serious risks faced by journalists and other population groups seeking to express opinions, the lack of access to public and official government information, the fear of the population and of those who may potentially be journalists’ sources of information, among other multiple obstacles.

El The control of freedom of expression and political freedoms has been ongoing for almost five decades, but there have been some emblematic episodes of repression such as the one that occurred in March 2003, when people identified as "counterrevolutionaries" for their thinking were arrested en masse.

In recent years, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have continued to receive troubling information about illegitimate restrictions on freedom of expression in Cuba. Of particular concern is the continuing rise in selective and deliberate persecution of independent media and organizations that disseminate information and opinions on matters of public interest outside the control of the State. The acts and threats by authorities and public officials to intimidate anyone expressing critical ideas about the country’s politics and institutions, such as activists, artists, journalists, human rights defenders, and intellectuals, among others, are also very serious.

At present, the intolerance of the Cuban authorities toward any form of criticism or opposition continues to be the main limitation on the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and association in Cuba. The de facto change of government of the Presidency of the Council of State and Ministers from Raúl Castro to Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2018 had also created expectations of positive steps in the area of human rights. So far, however, the new government has generally shown itself to be a continuation of the former regime in terms of repressing the exercise of freedom of expression in Cuba. Of grave concern is the fact that, shortly after taking office, Diaz-Canel announced that he would maintain a position against press freedom and the legalization of independent media in the country.

Most troubling is the fact that, even in recent times, there has been an increase in repression and intolerance in order to discourage journalism that does not toe the official line, the work of human rights defenders, and criticism voiced by dissidents, as discussed in detail below. For years, repression in Cuba was characterized by maintaining a veneer of legality, which included prosecution indictments, the appointment of public defenders, judicial proceedings, and/or final convictions. Although some of these practices continue, there are variations that seem to be aimed at leaving neither legal traces nor documentation that can be used as evidence of the abuses suffered. During the 169th Session of the IACHR, several journalists in attendance, and others through previously recorded statements, reported what they called a repression of "attrition" that avoids prosecution. These forms of repression are said to include arrests and humiliating interrogations, particularly of women journalists; detentions of up to 72 hours without a warrant or judicial communication; pressures on their families and those around them; confiscation of equipment and theft of materials from journalists; as well as travel bans to keep journalists and activists from leaving the country.

The current model reportedly follows a rationale that is separate from the legal structures, based on State Security or para-State structures that may be more subtle but equally serious in light of international law. In addition to the traditional tools used to repress independent journalism, forms of repression have been reported such as threats to bring criminal action based on the criminal offense of "impersonation of a public official and acting without legal capacity" against those who practice journalism in non-state media and, more recently, the imposition of "aptitude tests" for admission to the journalism program at the State University.

In this context, the Office of the Special Rapporteur also took note of the process of constitutional reform that took place in Cuba. The information available indicates that, at the end of July 2018, the "Draft Constitution of the Republic of Cuba" was published. The IACHR in a press release dated March 4, 2019, reported that the reform process was concluded with the referendum held on February 24, 2019. On this occasion, the Commission expressed its concern, among others, regarding the possibility that the referendum may not have complied with the conditions necessary for free, secret, reliable, independent elections that safeguard the principles of universality and plurality.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur considers that Cuba’s development and openness is closely linked to the indispensable return to democracy and respect for human rights. In that regard, respect for human rights, freedom of expression, and respect for political rights, together with the holding of free elections based on secret and universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. Freedom of expression accompanies the person as one of the most precious freedoms because it allows each individual to think about the world from his or her own perspective and choose his or her own lifestyle, as well as to build pluralistic societies. For this reason, since the beginning of the current administration, the Office of the Special Rapporteur has given priority attention to the situation in Cuba. To that end, the report analyzes the situation of freedom of expression in Cuba in the light of the standards of the inter-American system and, on that basis, offers recommendations to the State that will enable it to contribute to the effective exercise of this right in the country.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur concluded that Cuba continues to be the only country in the hemisphere where there are no guarantees for the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. A State in which there is a persistent and serious failure to observe the essential elements of freedom of expression, representative democracy, and its institutions. Despite the years that have passed and the repeated recommendations in this regard, intolerance continues to be the norm for the Cuban authorities towards all forms of criticism or opposition, and the main limitation to fundamental rights and freedoms in Cuba.

The State continues to have a monopoly on the media, and it is still against the law to establish private media, all of which is incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression. The selective and deliberate persecution of independent media and journalists continues, and even intensifies at times. This persecution—carried out by State bodies or tolerated by the State—takes the form of arbitrary detentions, threats, and acts of harassment or censorship against journalists who disseminate ideas, opinions, and information critical of the ruling party. It is also reflected in the multiple acts and threats by authorities and public servants to intimidate anyone who expresses critical ideas about the country’s politics and institutions, such as artists, human rights defenders, political dissidents, and others.

Today’s repressive practices seem to be based on a rationale that is outside the legal framework, but they are far from disappearing. On the contrary, they are strongly replicated in the new media. With respect to the Internet, the extremely restrictive and ambiguous legal provisions, the limited connectivity of the Cuban population, the blocking and censorship of critical media, and surveillance seriously impede the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet.

The Cuban legal system—from the Constitution itself, to the legal and regulatory provisions outlined in the report—is designed to repress dissent and criticism. Thus, in the opinion of the Office of the Special Rapporteur, the main problem with current legislation is its overtly repressive approach to freedom of expression. Far from protecting the exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights and freedoms, it provides the State with legal tools to repress it. It also facilitates serious discrimination on political grounds in the exercise of human rights, since anyone who thinks or wants to express themselves differently from the socialist regime cannot exercise their rights without repression.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression was created by the IACHR to encourage the defense of the right to freedom of thought and expression in the hemisphere, given the fundamental role this right plays in consolidating and developing the democratic system.