Reporters Without Borders and its contradictions

On September 12, 2006, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published an open letter “in response to its detractors,” who denounce its lack of impartiality, the financing it receives from the United States and its political agenda – suspiciously similar to that of the White House. The objective of this letter was to show that RSF doesn’t have political motives for stigmatizing some countries. Once again, RSF’s explanations are unconvincing, contradictory and laced with lies (1).

The attempt at clarification begins ironically by striking out with a very clear political position, perfectly aligned with Washington’s, against the government of Havana: “Cuba is a dictatorship,” the release says, accusing Fidel Castro of “inflicting autocracy and repression on his people.” Nevertheless, RSF presents itself as an apolitical association interested only in “defending freedom of the press” (2).

RSF goes farther: “By any chance do Cubans elect their president and parliament? No.” This peremptory claim illustrates RSF’s singular ignorance about the Caribbean island’s political system. Instead of hammering away with the outdated rhetoric of the Cuban extreme right, leftover from the days of Batista, the Parisian organization would do better to take a look at the country’s constitution. It would learn more about Cuba’s electoral system and wouldn’t be proffering such thoughtless remarks, which must amuse foreign journalists based in Havana who have attended elections. But it spends so much time with those who yearn for a pre-revolutionary Cuba, found in the administration in Washington or in the heart of exile organizations in Miami, that it has assimilated their discourse (3).

“Do they have the right to openly criticize those in government? No,” claims RSF (4). There also the charge is not credible. It is enough to look at the French and international press to find out the opposite is true. No group of dissidents in the world has such an important media space at its disposal as Cuban dissidents. Furthermore, there is no lack of invective against the Cuban government. For example, opposition leader Osvaldo Payá regularly accuses the authorities of the worst imaginable crimes: “In Cuba, there are disappearances (…). There are more than 20 murdered children,” he told the international press several times. Nevertheless, he hasn’t spent one minute in jail (5).

In the same way, the dissidents organized a congress in Havana on May 20-21, 2005. The United States and the Cuban extreme right in Florida completely financed that congress. Several foreign journalists and diplomats attended, among them James Cason, ex-chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. President Bush himself sent a video message to the opposition, in which he said that “the wave of freedom is spreading all over the world, and would one day soon reach the Cuban coasts.” The attendees warmly applauded the White House resident’s speech, shouting “Long live Bush!”. In any country in the world, those individuals would have been arrested and charged with association with a foreign power. Nevertheless, Cuban justice hasn’t bothered a single one of them (6).

RSF presents Osvaldo Payá as a “social democrat” and holds him up as an example. It neglects to point out that he openly supported the coup d’état against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in an open letter in April, 2002. It also forgets to mention that he is intimately linked to U.S. diplomats present in Cuba, as well as the tiny extremist groups of Florida (7).

RSF continues to assert that “23 journalists” are in jail. For the organization it is enough for any Cuban, attracted by the profitable dissident business, to write three lines against his government to earn the title of “independent journalist.” It matters little that among those “23 journalists” only one, Oscar Elias Biscet, graduated from a journalism school. It matters little that not a single one of them practiced the journalistic trade before joining the opposition. It matters little that they have been convicted by Cuban justice of common crimes – they received money from a foreign power, the United States – that have nothing to do with their status of “journalist” (8).

Furthermore, the United States’ own official documents – the 1992 Torricelli Act, the 1996 Helms Burton Act and the Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba of May 2004 – state that there is a budget allocated to the creation of an internal opposition in Cuba. The 2004 plan recommends $50 million for that. With regards to the latest measures against Cuba taken by President Bush on July 10, 2006, they even provide for “training and equipping independent journalists in the written press, radio and television in Cuba,” and the astounding sum of $80 million is allocated for this objective, among others. Can RSF honestly ignore this reality (9)?

RSF finally confesses that Washington supports it through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an agency created by the administration of Ronald Reagan with the aim of promoting the agenda of the White House around the world. But it tries to minimize the importance of the amount it receives and explains that it is only “allocated for work on the African and not the American continent” (10).

RSF also acknowledges that it receives financing from the Center for a Free Cuba, an extreme rightwing organization whose objective is the overthrow of the Cuban government. It even pretends that it has never hidden these grants, which it has received since 2002. That is false since they do not appear in the 2002 and 2003 web pages. RSF also neglects to point out that the director of this group is Frank Calzón. He was at one time executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which has been implicated in terrorism against Cuba, as former director José Antonio Llama just stated (11). Why does RSF hide this truth from public opinion? How can RSF accept money from a former director of an organization that has promoted terrorism?

RSF rejects “the charge of attacks against Cuba” and claims that it is in no way “under obligation to those who finance [it].” In this case, why did the organization meet with the special ambassador for Cuban affairs under the Clinton administration, Stuart Eizenstat, in 1996 in Paris? Why did it take over the Cuban tourism office in France on April 24, 2003? Why did it organize an event at the Theatre du Rond-Point in Paris under the political slogan, “Cuba yes, Castro no,” in September of 2003? Why did this organization meet with representatives of the Cuban extreme right in Florida on January 16, 2004, to sign agreements and create a committee of which RSF general secretary Robert Ménard is a member? (12)

In the same vein, why did it launch media campaigns spreading publicity messages (in the written press, on radio and on television) aimed at dissuading tourists from traveling to Cuba, as is written in the Bush plan of May, 2004? Why does it hide the fact that it is the only organization cited as exemplary on page 20 of the same plan? Why does the only link on the home page of its trilingual website concern Cuba, even though, according to its own criteria, China is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world? Why is Cuba the only country against which Robert Ménard demanded that the European Union impose economic sanctions? Why does the text that accompanies the “press freedom index” of 2003 focus entirely on Cuba, with the title, “Cuba, next-to-last, before North Korea” (13)?

But the treatment reserved for Cuba is only the tip of the iceberg. Effectively, the political agenda of RSF goes beyond the single case of Cuba. For example, RSF has only lately remembered – after five years – the case of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Haj, and only after several articles were published condemning this “omission.” Now the organization recognizes that he was detained “under the false pretext of collusion with Al-Qaeda.” “Because it wasn’t known if Sami Al-Hak had been detained for being a journalist and because of a lack of information about him, RSF has waited before carrying out other actions,” the statement says (14).

So RSF has needed a five-year investigation in order to discover that Sami Al-Haj had been detained, kidnapped and tortured only for being a journalist. Maybe that’s the reason the Sudanese journalist has disappeared from the 2004 and 2005 reports in which RSF lists all of the imprisoned journalists in every corner of the planet. On the other hand, RSF did not hesitate one moment before concluding that the Cuban government jailed “journalists” (15).

Furthermore, it is not the first time that RSF has been complaisant about the abuses committed against journalists working for Al Jazeera which – another coincidence no doubt – is on the United States’ blacklist due to its reporting, which shows the crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September 2003, Taysser Alouni was arrested in Spain on the mere suspicion of being linked to Al Qaeda. Asked about this matter, Robert Ménard limited himself to saying that journalists were not above the law and … nothing more (16).

RSF acknowledges that its “silence” about Sami Al-Haj was “culpable” and that its “making a statement is a confession of this culpability.” With this mea culpa, RSF would like people to believe that the case of Al-Haj was nothing but an unfortunate “omission” which, even though it lasted five years, has nothing to do with the fact that he is in the custody of the U.S. military (17).

In this case, why does RSF remain silent about Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi journalist and photographer working for Associated Press, imprisoned by occupation troops since April 12, 2006 in Iraq – for the past five months? Bilal Hussein was accused of being a threat to security and he was imprisoned, but to this day no charges have been filed against him, no evidence has been presented and he has not been brought before a judge (18).

AP has rejected the accusations. It claims that “an internal review of his work did not find anything to indicate inappropriate contact with insurgents, and any evidence against him should be brought to the Iraqi criminal justice system.”

“We want the rule of law to prevail,” says AP president and CEO Tom Curley. “He either needs to be charged or released. Indefinite detention is not acceptable.” Curley continued, “We’ve come to the conclusion that this is unacceptable under Iraqi law, or Geneva Conventions, or any military procedure.” The truth is that Bilal Hussein was arrested because of the photos he took in Ramadi and Fallouja, which show the massacres carried out by President Bush’s army, according to his lawyer, Badie Arief Izzat (19). Why such silence on the part of RSF?

How can RSF maintain its credibility in the face of this new “omission,” which concerns, once again, a journalist detained by the United States? How can it have credibility when at the same time, on September 18, 2006, it hastened to denounce the arrest of a “21-year-old journalist” in Cuba, without any prior investigation and without knowing why authorities arrested him? Furthermore, RSF confesses that it has no idea of the reasons that led to the arrest of Ahmed Rodríguez Albacia. For RSF, there is nothing to discuss: it is Cuba, so he must have been arrested for being a “journalist” (20).

But that isn’t enough for RSF. Two days later, on September 20, 2006, it condemns “firmly the arbitrary arrest of Odelín Alfonso,” without having the foggiest idea of the reasons for the arrest. Here no prior investigation is necessary and there is no shadow of a doubt: his status as a “journalist” is the main reason for his arrest according to RSF. It matters little that Odelín Alfonso is paid by the website of extreme rightist Cubans, Cubanet, which is financed by grants from USAID and the NED. RSF is even obliged to admit this fact and acknowledge that Odelín Alfonso is a “Cubanet correspondent,” without bothering to inform the public about what this website really is (21).

How can RSF hope to appear credible given the way it treated the murder of Spanish journalist José Couso and his Ukrainian colleague, Taras Protsyuk, by U.S. soldiers in Baghdad (22)? How can it be credible when it is an apologist for the invasion of Iraq, claiming that “The overthrow of President Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship ended more than 30 years of official propaganda and opened a new era of freedom, full of hope and uncertainty, for Iraqi journalists” (23)? What to say when it adds that “Decades of zero press freedom ended for Iraqi journalists when the information ministry building in Baghdad was bombed on 9 April” (24)? Who can still believe in RSF’s objectivity? Who can still think that RSF defends “freedom of the press” and doesn’t have a political agenda?

Haiti, under the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was also a target of RSF. When he was overthrown in a coup d’état orchestrated by the United States, France and Canada, RSF warmly applauded the coup in a report titled, “Press freedom returns: a gain to be nurtured” (25). 

At times, the Parisian organization takes clumsiness to the extreme of openly naming the countries that are on its blacklist: “RSF ‘gets tough’ with other regimes such as the one in Iran, China, Zimbabwe or Belarus,” says the statement. Another coincidence? They are exactly the same countries that are in Washington’s sights. This time, RSF doesn’t even deny it (26).

Venezuela and President Hugo Chávez, despised by the Bush administration, have also been among those privileged to be targeted by RSF. During the coup d’état of April 2002, Robert Ménard refrained from denouncing the key role played by the private media opposed to the democratically elected president. Afterwards, RSF has multiplied its tendentious reports against the Bolivarian government, presenting, for example, the arrest of a journalist who was guilty of fraud and misappropriation of public funds as a violation of freedom of the press (27).

This latest charge was the last straw and provoked a reaction from the Venezuelan government:

“The arrest of journalist Gustavo Azócar, charged with the common crimes of fraud and misappropriation of public funds committed in 2000 against the Táchira lottery, set off the pack of international hounds paid by Bush to slander the people and the democratic government of Venezuela.

“The organization ‘Reporters Without Borders,’ financed by U.S. intelligence agencies through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), has expressed its ‘concern’ about this case of ordinary justice. In cahoots with the Venezuelan coup opposition, its media enterprises and the defendant, they are trying to turn this case into an attack on freedom of the press (…).

“Along with the Bush administration, his secret services, his front groups and his Venezuelan lackeys, ‘Reporters Without Borders’ has begun operations for the next media sabotage against the Bolivian revolution” (28). 

For this precise case, RSF used the same methods it had elaborated in 2003 with the “Cuban journalists” which consist of turning criminal matters into violations of press freedom (29).

On the other hand, how can one believe that RSF is interested in “defending freedom of the press,” knowing that it has never bothered to take up the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black journalist who has suffered in U.S. dungeons for more than a quarter century for having denounced police violence against minorities in his reporting? Why doesn’t RSF accuse the United States of putting up obstacles to press freedom when it prohibits Cuban journalists from practicing their profession in its territory, while numerous U.S. media outlets have permanent antennas in Havana?

Finally, RSF’s financing raises several questions. The organization claims it earns 48 percent of its budget (2003) from the sale of calendars and photographic books. That is, 1,984,853 euros come only from these sales. The calendar or the book of photos cost 8 euros. That would mean that RSF sold 248,106 copies per year, or close to 680 per day, 365 days a year. How is it possible to believe such nonsense? (30).

All who criticize RSF’s submissiveness before the centers of power, who denounce its connivance with the policies of the Bush administration and question its financial support are nothing but “Fidelistas,” “Castro supporters” and “recalcitrants” according to the Parisian organization. As if the criticisms only dealt with the treatment it reserves for Cuba and the overwhelming show of collusion between RSF and Washington were of little importance (31).  

RSF pretends that it has nothing to hide. Be that as it may. Then it should have the courage of transparency regarding opinions and publish this response on its Internet site, as Voltaire Network had the courtesy and intellectual honesty to allow it to express itself on its own site. It should also have the valor to respond point by point to all of these facts. But let’s not fool ourselves.

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