News agencies struggle in Cuba Oppression: Journalists are under increasing pressure from the government, which taps phones, confiscates computers and interrogates reporters.


HAVANA -- In a cramped apartment in a once-tony section of town, Cuban journalist Raul Rivero is hashing out the the latest news story with other local reporters. They are following up rumors that a prostitute trying to evade police died after jumping from a bus.

There's a knock on the door. Everyone tenses, then relaxes: Someone has come to say there's a phone call from Reporters Without Borders, an international support group for journalists. The call comes to another apartment because the phone here, in a reporter's home, is probably tapped by the government.

Musical phones is one of the many games Rivero and other independent reporters are playing to continue working here. But the journalists are under increasing pressure from the government, which is reacting to an American law designed to squeeze Fidel Castro's struggling economy.

The American law is the Helms-Burton Act, which punishes foreigners who do business with Cuba. Cuba's response is a measure that makes it illegal for Cubans to "collaborate with radio, television or other means of propaganda with the goal of facilitating the Helms-Burton Law." The vague wording is a not-so-vague warning: Cuban journalists who publish their findings via radio, television stations and computer modems in the United States risk arrest.

Eight independent news agencies are at work here, some of them underground mini-newsrooms with 1950s-era typewriters. Others are one-person operations conducted from the tops of coffee tables.

With no access to the official state press, these reporters write stories that are like handfuls of sand thrown into the wind. With luck, they might reach people in Cuba, Cuban-American exiles in Miami or the world beyond.

"The independent journalists are the growing response to the lack of information in Cuba," says Nancy Perez-Crespo, who distributes stories from the independent agency CubaPress in Miami. "I admire them. I think what they are doing is suicide."

"We are an impartial press," says Rivero, CubaPress' director. "The officials have their voice and we are another voice. Now they are trying to silence our tongues."

Rivero was a published poet, Moscow correspondent for Cuba's news agency, Prensa Latina, and then something of a dissident. He quit Prensa Latina in 1989. In 1995, he launched CubaPress.

Most of the agency's 17 reporters began as something other than journalists; among them are former history professors and scholars of Spanish literature. They travel on Chinese-made bicycles and write their stories not with typewriters or computers but paper and pen.

Since the tapped phone lines often go dead, the journalists move house to house to dictate their stories to contacts in Miami or Puerto Rico. Their work is broadcast on Cuban-American radio in Miami or on U.S.-funded Radio Marti, stations heard in South Florida and also beamed back to the island. Their stories are also posted on the Internet by outside contacts with desktop computers. Few Cubans are linked to the Internet, but international Cuba-watchers are.

The Internet is the setting for an occasional indirect dialogue between the independent journalists and the government. The independent journalists offer their version of events, the government offers a different version on its own Web page.

"The USA used all the resources of its criminal blockade at its maximum, including the enactment of that juridical monstrosity known as the Helms-Burton Act, to crush the Cuban revolution," a recent entry on Cuba's Communist Party Web page reads. "We shall continue to resist and face the hostility and aggressions."

In recent editions of the state-run Granma and Juventud Rebelde newspapers, Cuban officials have attacked the press agencies as counterrevolutionary movements funded by the United vTC States. Other official charges: Bureau journalists are not professionals, they number only a few, and they are angling for political asylum visas.

State police have in recent months rounded up journalists for interrogation, confiscating laptop computers and cash brought by visitors from the United States. Neighbors have staged "acts of repudiation" -- protests ringing the homes of journalists accused of violating the new Cuban law. Some reporters have left the island under pressure.

"It's important that they can get out some news about what's going on in Cuba," says Sarah DeCosse, Cuba researcher for Human Rights Watch/Americas in Washington. "But because of pressures, they haven't been able to establish a comprehensive journalism network. Many have 'chosen' exile after repeated threats of prison."

Two independent journalists who work for Rivero at CubaPress, Tania Quintero and Juan Antonio Sanchez, were picked up on the streets of Havana earlier this year and interrogated. Police confiscated Quintero's laptop, a tape recorder and $2,000, CubaPress said. Quintero was told her son would be put in prison if she didn't stop reporting.

She is still working.

Pub Date: 7/02/97

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