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As pressure increases to open Cuba to U.S. trade and tourism, a series of attacks and beatings of journalists in Cuba represents the continued existence of a closed communist society where verification of Havana’s activities is completely impossible.

The French-based international free-press advocacy group Reporters sans Frontieres – Reporters without Borders – issued a protest against the recent beatings of four independent Cuban journalists and has listed Cuban President Fidel Castro among its “Predators,” leaders who regularly assail journalistic freedom.

According to RSF, the assaults occurred in connection with coverage of events and groups not sanctioned by the Cuban government.

One of the four Cuban journalists, Jesus Alvarez Castillo, suffered a broken neck bone from Cuban police as he sought to report on the activities of the Cuban Human Rights Foundation, a group not recognized by Cuban authorities.

Two other independent Cuban reporters, Lester Tellez Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera, were attacked and beaten as they sought to visit Castillo in the hospital.

Juan Basulto Morell, a 70-year-old journalist operating on the western part of the island, was struck in the head with a rock by an individual denouncing him as a “counterrevolutionary.”

A fifth journalist, Normando Hernandez, escaped an arrest attempt and reported the beatings of Castillo, Tellez Castro, and Yera to Radio Marti, a subsidiary of the Voice of America.

Hernanadez, however, had been beaten earlier, along with Tellez Catro and Yera, while covering the opening of an independent library in the central Cuban town of Florida.

An independent library, according to RSF, is a private entity whose holding includes volumes banned by the Cuban government.

During 2001, some 100 instances of intimidation and 29 arrests against independent journalists occurred in Cuba, RSF stated. Since 1995, approximately 50 journalists have been forced into exile, noted the organization.

Police attacks on the press, however, are not limited to local independent journalists.

On Feb. 28, a busload of Cubans seeking exile crashed through the gates surrounding the Mexican embassy. Two Reuters news agency reporters, correspondent Andrew Cawthorne and cameraman Alfredo Tadeschi, were beaten and Tadeschi’s camera was taken as they covered the incident.

The attack on the Reuters’ reporters was denounced by the Inter-American Press Association, which also noted that Cuban authorities also “violently removed” other foreign journalists who sought to report the incident.

The Cuban government’s “Rapid Response Brigades,” young toughs used to crush dissident activity, were present at the Mexican embassy incident and later attacked Castillo. In the case of the Mexican embassy, lengths of iron pipes were handed out to “Rapid Response Brigades” to dissuade other Cubans from seeking asylum.

Ironically, the U.S. press, noted for its vocal defense of its own freedoms, has been all but silent on the Cuban government’s actions to independent journalists. Even the assault on the Reuters reporters received scant attention.

In the face of U.S. journalistic silence, the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro has clearly defined expectations for those engaged in journalism.

On Nov. 6, 2000, at the 2nd National Festival of Print Media, Castro defined the function of the press as “revolutionary troops” engaged in “a battle of ideas” against what had on other occasions been defined as the “neo-liberalism” of the U.S.

The Cuban constitution forbids private ownership of news media, as well as any reporting which does not “conform to the objectives” of the communist government.

Some observers note that with Cuba veiled in secrecy and with press rules enforced by police and ad hoc thug activity, official Cuban government claims of innocence regarding drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism remain impossible to verify.

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