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The Coalition for Freedom of Association together with former OAS rapporteurs for freedom of expression and prominent Latin American journalists urge the international community to adopt concrete measures calling on the Cuban government to put an end to the repression, arbitrary arrests and systematic persecution against independent journalists, human rights activists, users of social networks and ordinary citizens who demand changes to current regulations exercising their rights to freedom of expression, in addition to the rights of assembly, demonstration and association for lawful and peaceful purposes enshrined in the 2019 Cuban constitution.
At the same time, we urge the Cuban government to immediately and unconditionally release independent journalist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca and YouTuber and influencer Yoandi Montiel (known as “El Gato de Cuba”), who have been arbitrarily detained for several months accused of contempt for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
The Coalition for Freedom of Association is currently made up of 20 civil society organizations and it was formally created in February 2021 with the purpose of exercising democratic solidarity among civil society, demanding in a coordinated manner the recognition of the right to freedom of association in countries with severe restrictions, and uniting the voices of its members to amplify the scope of their work. The coalition’s work has initially focused on Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Cuban State severely restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and due process. “For decades the Cuban State has organized the institutional machinery to silence voices outside the regime, and to repress independent journalists, as well as artists or citizens who try to organize themselves to articulate their demands; in all that time the State has maintained a monopoly over the media”, according to the Report on Freedom of Expression in Cuba published by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in December 2018.
After the July 11, 2021 massive protests against deteriorating living conditions, which sparked international attention in an island-nation not familiarized to public demonstrations against power, government repression against the peaceful opposition has intensified. In fact, authorities have increased restrictions based on new regulations on telecommunications, seeking to reinforce media censorship and expand government control.
According to a statement by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, until February more than 700 people remain imprisoned in Cuba for their participation in the protests. According to the IACHR, based on official information from January 24th, the Attorney General's Office in Cuba acknowledged that a total of 790 individuals are accused of “acts of vandalism, which constituted a crime against the authorities, people, and property, as well as serious disturbances of public order.” In addition, sanctions of up to 30 years in prison would be imposed depending on the seriousness of the facts, the statement said.
Last August, the Cuban government ordered new actions that criminalize the act of sharing “false” and “offensive” information on the Internet and extend the powers of the authorities to restrict freedom of expression in cyberspace, as reported at the time by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to the statement published in the official gazette of the Cuban Ministry of Justice, it is Decree-Law 35 “On Telecommunications, Information and Communication Technologies and the Use of the Radioelectric Spectrum”; resolutions 105, 107 and 108, linked to cybersecurity and the use of telecommunications networks; and Decree 42, related to information and communication technologies.
The regulations do not define the terms “false information” or others such as “collective security, general welfare and public morality” but clearly seek to strengthen government control over the content of social networks. In a letter to the Cuban authorities, the rapporteurs for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Irene Khan), on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (Clement Nyaletsossi Voule) and on the situation of human rights defenders (Mary Lawlor), analyzed decree 35 and related regulations and warned that the regulations “could be used to restrict freedom of expression in a manner incompatible with what is allowed in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the freedom of peaceful assembly and association in accordance with the provisions of article 20 of the aforementioned Declaration.”
In Cuba, the State Internet service provider, ETECSA, is under orders to block objectionable content, and prevents access to some blogs and news platforms critical of the government. Authorities target critical journalists, peaceful activists, and political dissidents through bullying, harassment, intimidation, physical and digital surveillance, arbitrary arrests, house searches, and equipment confiscations. On many occasions, journalists, activists, and dissidents are forced into exile.
More recently, in January of this year, the Supreme Court of Cuba introduced a bill that will modify Article 143 of the Penal Code and will ban Cuban citizens from receiving foreign funds. This measure would allow State authorities to muzzle the independent press that relies on this type of financing to carry out its activities, an initiative that stipulates penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
It is important to remember that the imprisonment of journalists in retaliation for their independent reporting violates the most basic norms of International Law, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees every individual the right “to investigate and receive information and opinions, and to disseminate them, without limitation of borders, by any means of expression”.
At the same time, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its special rapporteurs have highlighted that social protest is an essential mechanism to ensure respect for and guarantee of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, as stated in the report on Protest and Human Rights, urging authorities to channel social discontent through dialogue and active listening to citizen claims and taking the necessary measures to satisfy them.
As civil society organizations that promote human rights and as individuals committed to defending freedom of expression, we urge the international community to intercede with the Cuban government urging an immediate end to the repression against those who peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, demonstration, and association. We reiterate our demand for the Cuban government to release Cuban citizens arbitrarily detained and we call for international solidarity with the victims of State policies that represses and criminalizes any form of dissent or public criticism.
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Former special rapporteurs for freedom of expression of the InterAmerican Commision on Human Rights: Santiago Cantón, Eduardo Bertoni, Ignacio Alvarez, Catalina Botero Marino and Edison Lanza.
Latin American journalists: Daniel Coronell (Colombia), Gustavo Gorriti (Peru), Raúl Peñaranda (Bolivia), Alejandra Matus (Chile), Janeth Hinostroza (Ecuador), José Rubén Zamora (Guatemala), Mauri König (Brazil), César Batiz (Venezuela), Octavio Enriquez (Nicaragua), Norma Morandini (Argentina), Javier Garza (Mexico) and Eduardo Ulibarri (Costa Rica)
Coalition for Freedom of Association