Independent journalist Guillermo Fariñas, who staged a long hunger strike to demand unrestricted Internet access for all Cubans, was today awarded the 2006 Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France press freedom prize in the Cyber-Dissident category. Yang Zili of China and Habib Saleh of Syria were the two other nominees in this category.
Guillermo Fariñas Hernández, Cuba
He is fighting for Cubans right of access to a “free Internet”
Guillermo Fariñas, "El coco", head of the independent news agency Cubanacán Press, began a hunger strike in February 2006 to demand the right for all Cubans to have access to a “fee Internet”. The authorities hospitalised him and put him on a drip to try to end his campaign, which was widely covered in the international media.
After he had spent several months in intensive care suffering from kidney and heart problems, the authorities told Guillermo Fariñas he could have “limited” access to the Internet. He refused, explaining that he could not honourably exercise his profession as a journalist by looking only at news and information which had been filtered by the government.
“El coco” only ended his hunger strike on 31 August after a brush with death and the loss of 15 kilos. He is continuing his work at Cubanacán and has become one of the leading voices among Cuban opposition journalists. He also still keeps the foreign media up to date with human rights violations in his country and in particular passes on information about intimidation and harassment of independent reporters.
Cubanacán, founded in 2003, is the leading news agency of the new generation of Cuban journalists. None of its 17 reporters has the right to use the Internet or fax to send articles abroad. Their reports are mostly filed from public telephones. Since telecommunications charges are very high, the calls are mostly placed by collect.
Internet in Cuba, a network under tight surveillance
The Cuban government uses a variety of tools to ensure the Internet is not used to “counter-revolutionary” ends. First of all, private Internet connections are more or less banned. Cubans wishing to surf the Net or check their emails have to go to public places such as cybercafés, universities, youth computer clubs and so on, where it is easier to keep checks on what they are doing. Then, Cuban police have installed software at all cybercafés and big hotels which sends out an alert as soon as “subversive” key words are entered. The government also depends on self-censorship. In Cuba, one can be sentenced to 20 years in prison for posting a few “counter-revolutionary” articles on foreign websites and to five years simply for going online illegally. Few Internet-users dare to take such a risk to defy state censorship.
The other 2006 nominees in the “Cyber-dissident” category were:
Habib Saleh, Syria President Bashar al-Assad has made Syria into one of the worst ‘black holes’ in the Internet. He has set up systematic filtering of online opposition publications and sent his political police to mercilessly track down dissidents and independent journalists expressing themselves online. Writer and businessman Habib Saleh, 59, has paid the price of this systematic repression. On 29 May 2005, he was arrested at his office in Tartus, 130 kilometres north of Damascus. He was sentenced to three years in prison at the end of an unfair trial at which he was accused of “spreading lies” on the Internet.
Yang Zili, China
Computer technician Yang Zili was sentenced on 28 May 2003 to eight years in prison for “subversion”. His “crime” was to post articles on his website lib.126.com, "the garden of Yang Zili’s ideas", in which he wrote about his support for political liberalism, criticised the crackdown on the spiritual movement Falungong and condemned the economic woes of China’s peasants.
He was only 30 when he and his wife were arrested on 13 March 2001. “It was like the films about the cultural revolution”, his wife, Lu Kun later said. They ransacked my apartment and held and questioned me for three days in the cellars of a police station. It was only when I returned home, without my husband, that I began to cry.”
This is the fourth time that Reporters Without Borders has awarded a “cyber-dissident” prize. The previous three years’ winners were:
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