Imprisoned journalists in Cuba . . . and the United State

The Miami Herald
Posted on Wed, Sep. 14, 2005
good yardstick for evaluating a country's freedom of speech is the presence of journalists in jail as a result of their work. When press freedom around the globe is analyzed from this vantage point, it is possible -- at first glance -- to conclude that this freedom has fared much better in the Americas than in other hemispheres.
Reports issued by many nongovernmental organizations show that a number of high-profile journalists languish in detention in some countries of Africa and Asia. Yet in the Americas there have been only isolated cases of journalists going to jail since the end of the region's dictatorships. In this hemisphere, however, there are many laws that could be used to threaten journalists, and some of these laws are in fact used for such an end. Public officials often use the phrase, ''If you say this or that, you can be put in jail.'' Still, there are only two countries in our hemisphere where journalists are now in prison. One is Cuba. The other is the United States of America.
It is difficult to understand how these two very different countries came to share this sad situation. Freedom of the press is a fundamental component of any democratic regime and Cuba is not a democracy. Cuba does not have independent judges, so the decisions of the judiciary follow the wishes of the totalitarian regime. Since its creation, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Organization of American States has highlighted that Cuba is the only country of the hemisphere in which one can state categorically that there is no freedom of expression.
Evidently the United States is on the other side of the political spectrum. The country has a long tradition of democratic elections, an independent judiciary and a uniquely strong constitutional commitment to freedom of speech. It is perhaps for these reasons that the rest of the Americas has viewed the incarceration of The New York Times journalist Judith Miller, now in prison for more than two months because of her refusal to reveal confidential sources, with particular concern and alarm.
While it is easy to explain why an independent journalist could end his or her days in jail under a totalitarian regime, it is hard to see how the same could happen to a journalist in a democratic regime -- where freedom of expression is a cornerstone value -- simply because of his or her work.
At the same time, the significant differences between Cuba and the United States have led to very different government responses. Since 2003, Cuba has been increasing its efforts to block any possibility of an independent press within its borders: Not one, but many journalists are in jail in Cuba, and the government is tightening its position against the independent media. In the United States, meanwhile, legislators from both parties -- including Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. -- are pushing for a law to protect journalists' sources. This law could be used to reverse Miller's imprisonment and decrease the ''chilling effect'' on investigative and independent journalism created by this case.
In a democratic system, people can -- and should -- raise their voices to call on democratic institutions to correct deviations that might undermine democracy. But the presence of even one journalist in jail because of what he or she does is always bad news, whether it occurs in a society with a firmly rooted democracy or in one that is still striving to be free.
Don't abandon hope
In the United States, we should follow cases such as Miller's from the hopeful perspective that the country will not abandon its long tradition of protecting a broad range of freedom of expression and the press.
In Cuba, we should not abandon the hope that, sooner or later, the country will join the group of democratic countries in the Americas, and freedom of expression and the press will flourish for the benefit of Cuban society.