Cuba punishes journalists for daring to differ

It does not pay to be an "independent journalist" in Cuba. It's not only the tapped phones, the cut-off lines, the threats to your relatives or the jail spells. It's not even the kind of beating handed out to dissident journalist Joaquin Torres last week by four thugs, presumably from the State Security bureau.

It's just that there is no news outlet that will print or broadcast your material. The 100 or so self-styled "independent journalists" who have emerged over the last few years to challenge Fidel Castro's one-party Communist rule send their stories or radio reports to Cuban-American media outlets in the United States, usually via telephone calls to sympathisers in third countries and almost always without payment.

They survive, in spite of official harassment, on cash sent to them by such groups as the French-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Frontiers). But even that buys little more than pens, pencils and paper - all hard to come by in Havana.

Their main radio outlet is Radio Marti, a US-based station run by Cuban exiles, administered by the Voice of America and widely heard on the Caribbean island. Printed stories get used by such Spanish-language publications as Diario de los Americas and El Nuevo Herald, sister publication of the Miami Herald.

Most of the "independent journalists" broke away from Cuba's official publications and state broadcasting media, disillusioned with daily repetitions of the success of the latest five-year economic plan or other government propaganda. They set up the first independent agencies in 1995.

Although these agencies are illegal, the authorities largely turn a blind eye. Their "bureaux" are their bedrooms, their transport is bicycles and their equipment usually battered typewriters or just pencils and scraps of paper.

A government raid a year ago on one of the independent agencies, in which every pen and pencil was taken away, was a major setback in a country where schools are desperately short of such basic equipment.

One founder of the independent journalists' movement, Rafael Solano, opted for exile in Spain last year after being jailed for six weeks and charged with "criminal association," which could have put him in prison for three years.

"They said I couldn't come back and that they would eventually crush independent journalism," said Mr Solano, 45.