Cuba has introduced new controls over online content deemed to affect national interests, in a move described as “Orwellian” by independent media and activists.
Decree 35 was passed last week, following the biggest anti-government protests in decades, as Cubans called for better living conditions amid economic hardship and the pandemic. Details of the unrest spread in part because of social media.
The new law is aimed at content or messages that Havana deems to be false news, offensive or that may incite acts “that upset public order." Under it, anyone who tries to “subvert the constitutional order” will be considered a cyberterrorist.
A special channel also has been set up for citizens to inform on anyone who breaks the law.
"Our Decree 35 goes against misinformation and cyber lies," Reuters quoted Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel as saying.
The Cuban president blamed the July 11 protests on an online campaign that he said was led by U.S.-backed counter-revolutionaries.
So far, the penalties for breaching the regulations have not been made public, but it is believed the government would fine offenders, a Cuba-based journalist who requested anonymity, said.
Independent media within Cuba and analysts have said the decree is similar to the totalitarianism described in George Orwell's novel 1984, in which Big Brother controls every aspect of citizens' lives.
“This decree is a way of silencing any critical voices in Cuba, which may have existed after 62 years of communist rule,” Normando Hernandez, of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press, told VOA. The Miami-based organization supports opposition media on the island.
“It is a way to kill off all liberty of expression. It means even if you call a meeting, this can be construed as cyberterrorism. Any content that the government construes as against the government can be seen as a crime,” he said.
No arrests under the law have been reported. But Hernandez said that many Cubans already are fearful of violating the legislation, and they are avoiding posting on social media platforms.
Bertrand De La Grange, chief editor in Madrid for independent Cuban website 14ymedio, said the new decree is “Orwellian.”
“They are trying to create the same totalitarian world as George Orwell described in 1984 or Animal Farm,” he told VOA.
De La Grange said the government introduced further restrictions on free speech in response to the biggest demonstrations since the 1990s, which in part were caused by criticism over the high coronavirus rate.
“The fact the regime is doing this shows it is on the defensive. It is not solving any of the major problems. The COVID-19 situation is much worse than the official media say,” he added.
As of Thursday, Cuba has more than a half-million confirmed cases and 4,500 deaths from COVID-19, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University. Its new case rate is estimated at 9,376 a day over the past week.
De La Grange said 14ymedio and other independent media had managed to circumvent controls because Havana does not operate a total block on the internet in the way that China does.
“This decree is a way to try to punish those who publish what the regime calls 'fake news' but it is what we know is the true situation,” said De La Grange.
Under the new decree, the state telecommunications company can suspend access to the internet for those found to have broken the new law.
Journalist Camila Acosta said that despite the regulations, Havana could not prevent millions of Cubans from accessing social media.
“They can charge independent journalists like me – I have had five telephones confiscated this year alone – but they cannot possibly control millions of Cubans who access social media all the time. It is impossible,” said Acosta, who works for the news website Cubanet, and for the Spanish daily ABC.
Acosta was arrested after reporting on the July demonstrations and has been placed under house arrest for six months while police investigate her case.
“This will make my job more difficult, but they have introduced previous legislation to attack the free media so this is not new. What is new is that it is an attempt to stop people organizing demonstrations,” Acosta told VOA from her home in Havana.
Since the introduction of mobile internet a bit more than two years ago, platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have allowed Cubans to air complaints.
Havana insists that it permits free speech as long as it is “within the revolution.” But Decree 35 has alarmed Cuba civil rights campaigners, who say it uses vague language regarding what information internet users should provide to the government.
The law says users should grant public security institutions the “technical facilities and services they require” and give the Communications Ministry the “information that (the ministry) determines.”
"We have to see the context of this. Cuba has already introduced legislation to restrict the activities of journalists and activists,” said Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas, referring to a law passed in 2019. “This new decree is not sending out a message to them, it is sending a message to the general Cuban population."
“It wants to strengthen a culture of fear among anyone who might be thinking of organizing protests or complaining about the fact you have to stand in line for hours to get basics in Cuba,” Guevara-Rosas told VOA.
The communist government wanted to “formalize digital repression” in a country in which it already controls all aspects of life, Guevara-Rosas said.
U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio, as well as foreign diplomats in Havana, have criticized the new measure.
“What the dictatorship doesn’t realize is that the Cuban people have lost all fear to voice their opinions, they’ve realized the despotic nature of the regime and aren’t afraid of protesting against over 60 [years] of repression,” Rubio told VOA.
Congress this month passed an amendment co-sponsored by the Republican senator from Florida to provide Cubans uncensored access to the internet.
“It is now in the [U.S.] president’s hands to act upon what Congress has approved,” Rubio said.
British Ambassador to Cuba Antony Stokes also voiced concern at the decree, tweeting, “Harassment, detentions against peaceful protesters, trials without due process and censorship embodied today by Decree Law 35 silence legitimate voices and violate international conventions.”