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Media Watchdog Ranks Cuba Among Worst Violators of Press Freedom

The media watchdog group Reporters without Borders has ranked Cuba 165th on its worldwide press freedom index, just ahead of the world's worst violators Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea. A recent report by the same group details how Cuban authorities make sure there is no Internet access for independent journalists or political opponents.

The group Reporters without Borders, based in Paris, says less than two percent of Cuba's population is online, making it one of the most backward countries in the world regarding Internet usage. Cuban authorities blame this situation on the US trade embargo, which they say prevents them from getting the equipment they need for Internet development.

But Reporters without Borders concludes the Cuban government has a system of control and surveillance to prevent independent information from circulating online. State-run media is the only legal media in Cuba. To visit websites or check their e-mail, Cubans have to use public access points such as Internet cafes, universities, or youth computing centers, where their activity can be easily monitored. Cuban police have installed software on all computers in these facilities that triggers an alert message when so-called subversive keywords are written, such as the names of Cuban dissidents.

John Virtue is the Director of the International Media Center at Florida International University in Miami.

"We work with independent journalists in Cuba," he said. "There are about 100 of them who file on a regular basis from Cuba. Very few of them are able to use the Internet. There's just a handful, two or three have Internet accounts. But most of the articles they file they have to do so by telephone and somebody takes dictation in Miami."

Virtue said several independent Cuban journalists his center secretly trained are now in prison for practicing their profession. He recalls the crackdown by Cuban authorities three years ago.

"The Cuban government arrested 75 dissidents. It did that on March the 18, 2003. And of those, 27 were journalists," he added. "And 24 journalists still remain in prison, serving sentences of up to 28 years. And the charges are more or less charges of treason for having cooperated with a foreign government."

Reporters without Borders says you can get a 20-year prison sentence in Cuba for writing articles for foreign websites and a five-year sentence just for connecting with the Internet in an illegal manner. John Virtue says the surveillance by state security is intense.

"Several months ago state security started visiting foreigners based in Cuba and warned them against letting Cubans have access to the Internet on their computers, especially the independent journalists," he explained.

Virtue said some ingenious Cubans have made their own satellite dishes to receive television signals from abroad, and that authorities conduct raids on Saturday evenings when popular Latin American soap operas are broadcast.