Castro’s Commitment to Press Freedom is Honored … Seriously

One would be hard-pressed to come up with a leader less deserving of such an award than Castro.

On February 10th, a Latin American NGO devoted to press freedom inexplicably awarded Cuban leader Fidel Castro a medal for his dedication to truth, his understanding of the importance of journalism’s role in society, and his fight against falsehood, disinformation, and media manipulation.

Granted, our own President Bush is hardly a stalwart defender of press freedom, but aside from, say, Kim Jong-il, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a leader less deserving of such an award than Castro.

In his speech at a ceremony in Havana, Juan Carlos Camaño, president of the Latin American Federation of Journalists, said he was awarding Castro the medal for his support of ideas “not only in the realm of international politics but also in the realm of the journalistic profession.”

Perhaps he misspoke. Unless of course, by supporting ideas Camaño meant Castro’s continual, iron-fisted suppression of all forms of expression, journalistic or otherwise, that run counter to his party line. Indeed, Castro’s sentiments on free expression are enshrined in Cuba’s constitution, which reads, “Citizens recognize freedom of speech and press conform to the needs of the state.” And elsewhere: “No recognized freedoms can be exercised against the constitution, the law, nor against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism.” No harm, no foul, right?

Or maybe Camaño wanted to upstage Reporters without Borders, which counts Cuba as one of the “worst predators of press freedom,” alongside such notables as North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Burma, and China. In its 2006 world press freedom ranking, the organization noted that journalists in these countries risk “their life or imprisonment for trying to keep us informed. These situations are extremely serious and it is urgent that leaders of these countries accept criticism and stop routinely cracking down on the media so harshly.”

In 2003, Cuban authorities arrested and tried 78 dissidents, 28 of whom were journalists. According to the International Press Institute, all 28 were found guilty of “‘working with a foreign power to undermine the government’ and handed down sentences ranging from 14 to 27 years in jail.” That same year, Cuba was ranked number one in the world as the country with the most jailed journalists (China has since overtaken it). No doubt Camaño and his organization dug deeply into each of those prosecutions and came away satisfied that all were sound.

The award to Castro is even more bizarre given that the Latin American Federation of Journalists is affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a staunch supporter of international press freedom. In 2004, UNESCO awarded jailed Cuban journalist Raul Rivero the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for his “brave and longstanding commitment to independent reporting, the hallmark of professional journalism.” The Federation formally rejected the award, saying it did not consider a “salaried employee of a foreign power” to be a journalist. By “foreign power,” we can only assume the Federation was referring to Cuba Press, the independent news agency that Rivero founded in 1995. In announcing the Press Freedom prize, Kochiro Matsuura, UNESCO’s director general, said, “I am deeply concerned about the conditions in which Mr. Rivero, who is reported to be ill, is being held and I call on the authorities to free Mr. Rivero and the other journalists.” Though Rivero was released from prison several months later, 24 journalists are still languishing in Cuban jails.

Camaño and his Federation sound about as committed to press freedom as their recent honoree. Maybe it’s time for UNESCO to demand that the Federation climb out of its rabbit hole, or sever ties with it altogether.

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Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.