Six facts about censorship in Cuba

To mark the World Day against Cyber Censorship on 12 March, here are six things you should know about free speech, the internet and online censorship in Cuba.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in December 2014 brought renewed hope for an end to the US economic embargo, which has had a dire impact on the human rights of ordinary Cubans. But while tourists flock to the island to experience its romantic, old-world charm before it “changes”, less romantic is its history of restricting freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, still shown in the authorities’ determination to stifle dissent.

1. Freedom of expression can land you in jail in Cuba.

Graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto”, found this out when he was locked up for most of 2015 for painting the names of Raúl and Fidel – the names of the Castro brothers who have been in power since 1959 – on the backs of two live pigs. He had planned to release the animals as part of an artistic performance but, before he could, he was accused of desacato (contempt) and thrown in prison for 10 months. He was never formally charged or brought before a judge.

2. The state has a virtual monopoly on print and broadcast media.

The Cuban Constitution recognizes freedom of the press but expressly prohibits private ownership of the mass media. While independent journalists and bloggers have emerged in recent years, the authorities continue to prevent journalists critical of the government from doing their jobs. On International Human Rights Day 2015, journalists at 14ymedio – established by prominent cyber activist Yoani Sanchez – were prevented from reporting on a protest coordinated by human rights groups The Ladies in White and TodosMarchamos. According to one journalist, state security agents blocked the door to the building they worked in and told him: “Today you are not going out.”

Today only 25 per cent of Cubans use the internet, while only five per cent of homes are connected.

Amnesty International

3. Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the Americas.

Until 2008, the government banned ownership of computer and DVD equipment in Cuba. Today only 25 per cent of Cubans use the internet, while only five per cent of homes are connected. Internet access is still prohibitively expensive for most, and far from accessible to all. Cuba has said it will double access in the next five years, with public Wi-Fi hot spots starting to open since March 2015, but it remains the most disconnected country in the Americas.

4. Internet access in Cuba is censored.

With access to internet so limited, online censorship is not that sophisticated in Cuba. Authorities frequently filter and intermittently block websites that are critical of the state. Limiting access to information in this way is a clear breach of the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information. 

5. Communicating with Cuban human rights activists from overseas is difficult.

Amnesty International, along with many other independent international human rights monitors, including UN Special Rapporteurs, are not allowed to access Cuba. The landline, mobile and internet connections of government critics, human rights activists and journalists are often monitored or disabled. In the lead-up to Pope Benedict’s three-day visit to Cuba in September 2012, a communications blockade prevented Amnesty International and other international organizations from gathering information on a wave of detentions that were taking place. Communicating with Cuban human rights activists remains challenging, particularly at times when the authorities are arresting people based on their political opinion.

6. Cubans are savvy about how to circumvent censorship and government restrictions to internet access. 

From underground Wi-Fi, to creating apps, to harnessing the power of USBs, Cubans are finding ways to share information and avoid cyber censorship. World Day against Cyber Censorship is a time to show solidarity with Cuban dissidents, activists, journalists andtheir struggle.

Amnesty International has joined with AdBlock on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship to raise awareness about the crackdown on free speech across the world. AdBlock is a tool that helps web users to block unwanted ads, and on 12 March 2016 it will replace banner ads with content censors in certain countries wouldn’t want people to see.