Cuban authorities should immediately free a journalist jailed for reporting on a case of alleged police abuse involving a man bitten by a police dog, the Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers (RWF) said Thursday.
Juliet Michelena Díaz, 32, was arrested April 7 because of her reporting on “a case of ordinary police violence she had witnessed in Havana,” and should be freed, said Lucie Morillon, RWF director of investigations.
Michelena was initially accused of threatening a neighbor, but the charge was raised to attacking the woman on the day her report was published, indicating “a desire to silence her and put a stop to all her critical reporting,” Morillon said.
RWF, a non-governmental organization, ranked Cuba 170th out of 180 countries in its 2014 freedom of the press index. Cuba’s communist government controls all newspapers and radio and television stations on the island of 11 million people.
Michelena, who reports for the independent Cuban Network of Community Communicators, should be declared a “prisoner of conscience” by the human-rights group Amnesty International, said CNCC director Martha Beatriz Roque.
Roque said Michelena and five other CNCC reporters were at a Havana bus stop March 26 when they witnessed an elite police unit known as the Black Berets use police dogs to break up a brawl involving two men and women. One man was bitten on the arm.
Police arrested the brawlers as well as Michelena, four of the CNCC reporters and several bystanders who had been taking cellphone photos of the incident in an attempt to seize all the photos, Roque said. Michelena managed to hide hers.
The independent journalists were freed after a few hours, but police detained Michelena again on April 2, aware that she had the photos and was writing a report, the CNCC director told el Nuevo Herald. The report was published April 10 on the Cubanet website.
A State Security colonel let her go after telling her that he would handle her case personally, Roque said. Police arrested her again on April 7, this time on an official charge of threatening a member of a pro-government mob that had cheered her April 2 detention.
Her trial was initially set for April 10 but was postponed while her husband, Jose Antonio Sieres Ramallo, tried to find a defense lawyer, the CNCC chief said. Cuban attorneys know they can get into trouble with authorities if they defend dissidents.
The CNCC focuses mostly on reporting at the neighborhood level, such as complaints of broken sewer pipes, long waiting lines at health clinics, and the collapses of many of Havana’s old homes.
The RWF statement noted that independent Cuban journalists are “victims of constant judicial harassments. The arbitrary detentions have the objective of destabilizing the journalists and slowing their interchange of information.”
Havana journalist Dania Virgen Garcia was detained for several hours on Saturday, it added. And when two government TV journalists who happened to be nearby turned their cameras on the police, they, too, were detained briefly.
Three other journalists are currently jailed on various charges, according to RWF: Yoenni de Jesús Guerra García, arrested in October and sentenced to seven years; Ángel Santiesteban Prats, arrested Feb. 28, 2013, and serving a five-year sentence; and José Antonio Torres, a Granma newspaper reporter arrested in 2012 and serving a 14-year term.
RWF said it wrote a letter to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius before his visit to Cuba on April 10 urging him to take up the cases of the jailed journalists with his hosts in Havana.
While the European Union is trying to improve relations with Cuba in a series of negotiations due to start in the next few weeks, the letter said, “that cannot be achieved at the expense of the journalists."
Read Reporters Without Borders' statement here.