Friday, July 07, 2006

An Editorial Board That Gets It

Little Bradenton Florida, a town that is defined more by the cities that it's near (Tampa and St. Pete) than in its own right. But from Bradenton's newspaper, the Bradenton Herald, we get an editorial that speaks more wisdom than the New York Times could ever hope to muster.

Dignified protest: Journalist's hunger strike for Internet access shows the evil of Castro's rule

In a nation where freedom is against the law, where the slightest dissent can be met with a knock on the door by the secret police, some of the bravest outlaws in Fidel Castro's Cuba are its independent journalists. Each day, they put at risk what little liberty they enjoy to report the reality of the regime and of life under dictatorship. It is dangerous duty, and they know it, remembering each day the more than two dozen of their colleagues imprisoned in Castro's gulag.

Outside of prison, Cuba's independent journalists, armed with few resources other than the desire to tell the truth and a bias in favor of human rights and democracy, struggle to go beyond and, in most instances, undermine the official line from the state-run media.

In one dramatic instance, there is a Cuban journalist ready to die for the right to tell his stories.

Since Jan. 31, psychologist-turned-journalist Guillermo Fariñas, 43, has been on a hunger strike to protest a government ban on him using the Internet to transmit his work to the outside world. The government moved against Fariñas, a long-time dissident, after the Miami Herald described a confrontation he had with a pro-Castro mob, which challenged him to denounce the Cuban president.

"I got on my knees and said, 'Down With Fidel!'" Fariñas told the Herald. "They started kicking and beating me, bruising my back, arm and head. They stopped when they saw I would not lose my dignity and say things I didn't feel."

The Cuban government - which, to help ensure its survival, has some of the strictest limits on Internet access in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders - retaliated by blocking Fariñas from e-mailing his stories out of Cuba.

Fariñas then began his hunger strike, which is now in its 168th day. He has been hospitalized. At times, he has consented to being placed on an IV drip. And he has undergone emergency surgeries to deal with complications.

Throughout, Fariñas has maintained his dignity, vowing to continue his protest to a natural end.

He also has made his protest about more than himself.

"I want all Cuban citizens to have the right to an Internet connection, but also for the independent press to be able to report on the government's activities, and if I must be a martyr for Internet access, so be it," Fariñas told Reporters Without Borders, near the start of his protest.

We are not in favor of protest by suicide, even for the most just of causes, like Fariñas'. We wish the Catholic Church or a foreign government would intervene with Castro to save Fariñas' life. Or that Fariñas would decide on his own to end his hunger strike.

But Fariñas' fight illustrates again the fundamental cruelty of the Castro dictatorship, which has responded with indifference and a refusal to even discuss Fariñas' demands. By its inaction, the regime has shown its willingness to let Fariñas die.

Havana also has responded with distortions and lies. In a televised interview with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, meeting in Fort Lauderdale last month, Cuban National Assembly Speaker Ricardo Alarcon said the imprisoned journalists were American spies, and that Internet usage is restricted because the American economic embargo blocks Cuban access to needed technologies.

The truth is, the free flow of information - the very essence of the Internet - is a danger to the Castro regime, threatening its survival after more than 47 years of disaster for the island. Jailing journalists and blocking the Internet help Castro and the communists hold onto their power.

Internet access in Cuba is restricted not because of technology or the embargo, but because in the hands of someone like Fariñas, it is a weapon of mass instruction that no tyrant can survive.

Fariñas' protest likely will fall short of its goal, ending either with his backing down or, more likely, a martyr's death. But one day, he and other independent journalists, and all Cubans dedicated to freedom, democracy and human rights, will be declared the victors. Their cause is just, and history has shown that no tyranny can survive forever in opposition to their type of courage and commitment.

Cuba's independent journalists have gone to great lengths and against great odds - with the potential for great suffering, including a painful death - to tell the stories of the real Cuba, the stories that might one day help set their country free.

Guillermo Fariñas and other Cuban independent journalists, especially the writers and editors serving prison terms of up to 27 years simply for doing their jobs, are heros for our shared profession.

And they are heroes for the cause of freedom everywhere.

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