Type Size
 
Thursday, 20 September 2012

Cuban journalist charged with insulting Castro brothers

Arrest followed sensitive reporting on cholera outbreak 

By: Scott Griffen, Press Freedom Adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (L) and his brother, Cuba's President Raul Castro attend the closing ceremony of the sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana in this April 19, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files

VIENNA, Sep 20, 2012 – A Cuban journalist who had been covering a sensitive cholera outbreak has been charged with defaming Fidel and Raúl Castro, the editor of one of Cuba’s leading independent news agencies said yesterday.

In a message transmitted via the Háblalo sin miedo voice platform, Roberto Guerra Pérez of Hablemos Press said that Cuban authorities have charged Hablemos Press correspondent Calixto Martínez Arias under the country’s desacato law (Cuban Criminal Code, Article 144.1), which criminalises insulting or offensive speech toward public officials.  If convicted, Martínez could face up to three years in prison.

Hablemos Press reported that Martínez had been detained on Sunday near Havana’s José Martí International Airport, where he was investigating the delivery of medical teams and equipment, ostensibly in relation to his coverage of a cholera outbreak near the city of Manzanillo that Communist Party sources have said killed three and sickened hundreds.

Cuba’s government declared the outbreak over at the end of August, but not before Cuban President Raúl Castro denounced what he called „propagandistic campaigns“ to “discredit” the country’s health-care system, news reports said.   Previously, the last known incidence of cholera in Cuba occurred in the late nineteenth century.

It was unclear to what specifically the charges of desacato referred.  In addition to his coverage of cholera, Martínez, in an article published on Sept. 14, reported on a series of deaths in the city of Camagüey believed to be caused by dengue fever.  He accused authorities of maintaining “airtight control” over medical stations so as to “impede information about the exact number of the dead” from the disease.

“He is the most active journalist in our agency and they are trying to silence him,” Guerra said yesterday of Martínez.   Guerra told IPI that Martínez's face had been severely beaten.

According to Hablemos Press and IPI World Press Freedom Hero Yoani Sánchez, who has closely followed the case on Twitter, Guerra and a lawyer, Veizant Boloy, were also held by police for several hours yesterday.  The incident marked the second arrest in one week of Guerra, who was reportedly savagely beaten by state security agents last week.

International Press Institute (IPI) Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi condemned the charges against Martínez, noting, “IPI strongly opposes the existence and application of criminal insult and defamation laws, which are easily abused by those in power in order to silence critical journalists. Calixto Martínez Arias’s coverage of issues of unquestionable public interest and exposure of alleged wrongdoings by the authorities can not amount to an attack on the reputation of the country’s leaders.  We urge Cuban authorities to immediately release Martínez, whose investigative reporting have upheld the public’s right to know.”

At IPI’s 2012 World Congress in Trinidad and Tobago, delegates approved the IPI-initiated Declaration of Port of Spain, which calls for governments to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws.  The declaration coincided with the launch of IPI’s campaign to decriminalise libel and defamation offences in the Caribbean.