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From doctored weather reports to media freedom champions

11 Nov

A quarter of century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a number of post-communist countries have made impressive progress towards media freedom. From doctored weather reports (in the USSR and Romania, according to Herman Ermolaev, an expert on Soviet censorship), party propaganda, strict censorship and jamming of Western broadcasts, they have moved to the top of press freedom indexes.


Some of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 have trumped long-established Western democracies such as Britain and France in the index launched in 2002 by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Slovakia was joint first in 2004 and third in 2007 in the RSF index, in the same league as northern European paragons of media freedom such as Finland and Norway.

In 2006, six post-communist countries came in the top ten and RSF praised the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia as havens of freedom of expression.

Many of these countries have since hit a few snags, which led to their fall in media freedom ratings. However, some seem to be on their way back. Four post-communist countries came in top twenty in the latest RSF index, ahead of the UK, France and Italy.

But the picture is uneven: Hungary made impressive progress only to fall back dramatically in recent years. A law passed in 2010 established a new regulatory body with sweeping authority over all media and drastically curtailed the independence of public-service broadcasters.

The only EU members to fare worse than Hungary in RSF’s 2014 index are post-communist Croatia (65) and Bulgaria (100) as well as Greece (99).


How police are wasting their time

20 Feb


Contrasting the British police with their counterparts from Spain, my Spanish boyfriend often raves: “In Britain they are so nice, so polite!”

Having had similar experience in the UK, it has become my deep conviction that the police were there to help, not to harass law obeying citizens. So I was (stupidly) bold when I faced constable S.

But from the beginning.

It was a good night out. Around 2:20 I said good-bye to my friends and headed home to get some sleep before a workday.

Just as I stepped out of a club, I realized only one glove was in the pocket of my coat. I wanted to return to get its pair, which must have been laying somewhere on or under the seat the coat had been placed on.

But the bouncer stopped me from re-entering, saying no-one could get in after 2 AM. He was closed to any negotiations. I really liked my gloves and so decided to sneak in behind his back.

The impulsive action immediately revealed its weaknesses.  As soon as I passed the entrance door, I stopped surprised that it had gone so smoothly. A mistake of a beginner!

The bouncer was right behind me. He grabbed my arm and led me out. A grip of the strong man, at least three times bigger than I am, didn’t give me any option than to follow obediently.

Once in the street outside the club, I hesitated. No I didn’t think about trying again to get in the club. It was clear to me that if I hadn’t succeeded the first time, it would be even less likely the second time.

Do as I say or…

A police officer started to speak to me, sending me away. I recounted the glove story, hoping for some understanding. To no avail. I can’t really blame him. In the end, a glove might have seemed insignificant to him, even more so someone else’s glove.

But I was not ready to give up yet. Taking a mobile phone out of my pocket, I said I was going to call my friends who were still in the club to find the glove for me.

“But do it somewhere else,” the policeman commanded.

That made all the bits and pieces I had ever learnt, heard or read about human rights and freedoms appear in bold in my head.

“Why? I’m in thestreet, this is a public place. I have a right to be in a public place, don’t I?” I dared.

The constable didn’t like the defiance. “Do as I say or I’ll arrest you!”

I blinked in disbelief. “He can’t arrest me for nothing. He is surely just flexing his muscles,” I thought.

Of course, I can’t be completely sure of what was going on in his head. But even now, with the distance of time, I believe he just wanted to frighten me into obedience.

He didn’t expect my reaction. I simply said: “OK”, curious if he was serious. I guess he didn’t know how to backtrack without losing his authority. The fact that I didn’t have any ID with me, gave his case some strength.

If you expect I was pushed against the wall and searched, hand-cuffed or at least gripped by the arm, than you are wrong.

I obediently followed the officer as he had asked me to, still sceptical about his intentions.

A police car was around the corner. Only there did they search me and ordered me to sit on the metal seat at the back of the car.

The journey to a police station was long and dark. Had it been in South America, I would have thought the police were not the police and I was being kidnapped. In the end, the constable didn’t show me any ID, just gave me what he said was his number. Frankly, if I wanted to go with the kidnapping theory this wouldn’t have set my mind in peace.

Don’t drink if you want to be taken seriously

But, we were not in South America and we arrived at the police station.

There I heard what we all know from movies: “You do not have to say anything.  But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in Court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

I was searched again, photographed, my finger prints taken and breath analyzed.

Yes, I had been drinking. Five 3-5 % strong beers of different sizes, in the course of five hours on a full stomach. But where was the problem? It is not illegal to drink in the UK…

The breath analyzer gave a result of 36 mg per 100ml of breath, one mg above the drink drive limit. But I was not driving…

I was taken to a cell to “detoxify to be able to answer questions at an interview”.

My shoes stayed outside the cell so that I could not “use them to attack a guard”.

In case you are wondering: No, there weren’t any dangerously-looking women staring at me with hungry eyes, waiting to rob, beat or rape me as soon as a guard closed the door.

It was quite a decent cell, for one person only: a low upholstered bench/bed, a toilet, a sink with drinking water, which stops automatically if you switch it on too many times. On the wall there was a large note warning against destroying anything. The guard has even offered me a blanket.

I had noticed several other shoes lining the way to my cell and I wondered how many of their owners were there because they wanted their glove back…

Three hours after my arrest, constable S., suddenly very sympathetic, informed me they had decided to give me “a simple caution” instead of charging me with an offence.

A caution remains in police records along with photographs, fingerprints and may adversely affect both employment and travel prospects.

I could not accept that such a small error of judgement (as I believe sneaking into the club behind a bouncer’s back was) should have such a potentially serious effect on my life. I requested a solicitor.

Impressively alert and kind in the wee hours, she was surprised by the disproportion of the punishment.

But the police told her my breath analysis was done only 2 hours after I was arrested. I had no exact notion of time. The constable had taken my mobile phone as I was getting in the police car. But when I later checked with my boyfriend, he told me the police informed him of my arrest at 3:30. Supposing it was only after they completed the registration, the breath analysis must have been done less than an hour after the scene in front of the club.

Constable S. also reported I had attempted to re-enter the club three times. “Nonsense!” I objected, but that was the word of “a drunk who didn’t know what she was doing” against the word of the policeman.

All the solicitor could do for me was to request a CCTV recording of the events. Four hours after my arrest, I was granted a bail and ordered to return a week later.

The only thing I could do in the meantime was to study what it was I was accused of: “Drunk/disorderly person failed to leave relevant premises when requested” and whether the officer was right to arrest me.

I have not found out whether the pavement in front of a club is a part of licensed premises.

However, according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, a lawful arrest requires two elements: A person’s involvement in a criminal offence AND reasonable grounds for believing that the person’s arrest is necessary.

As I studied the necessity criteria, only the fact the constable could not “readily ascertain my name” could loosely match. But, according to the act, I should have been given “a reasonable opportunity to establish my real name and address”.

There were least two easy and fast ways to do that: Ask my boyfriend, who was calling me just as I was being arrested, or enter the club and ask my friends who were still there. Not mentioning the police could have taken me to my house, which is just 10 min walk from the club.

I mentioned this to the constable S. during the interview. He replied the police did not have time to check people identities this way. Spending four hours at the police station with me, apparently seemed to him like a more efficient solution.

“Isn’t it possible that meanwhile some guys are fighting somewhere, someone gets robbed, raped or murdered?” I asked. “Yes, it’s possible,” he admitted.

The following Friday I returned to the police station, curious whether the CCTV recording would confirm or prove wrong my recollection of the events. An officer at a reception desk told me the case had been cancelled: “No further action needed”.

They tried to call me all the morning to spare me the troubles of getting there, but they failed to reach me. Interestingly, there was no missed call recorded on my mobile phone….

Is the world out there really so evil?

8 Feb

Consequences of Cuba’s travel reform

Cuban press

Cuban media portray the Western world as full of extreme poverty and social injustice

Much to her disbelief the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez  received a call from an immigration office on 30 Janury, informing that her passport was ready.

The well-known critic of the country’s communist government had been refused a permit to travel abroad 20 times before the migration reform came into effect in January. She said through her Twitter account on 4 February that she had her visa for Brasil and was about to apply for visa to a number of other countries.

Not all Cuban dissidents have been this lucky. Many of them have been refused passports because they have pending prison sentences of for “reasons of public interest”.

Despite its imperfections, the Cuban government seems to be serious about letting people go abroad, at least most of them and for the time being.

The percentage of Cubans taking advantage of the travel liberation will be quite small as the price of the necessary documents, flight tickets and expenses abroad will be unaffordable for the majority. In addition, foreign countries, especially the USA, are unlikely to rush into granting visas to ordinary people.

Even so, there will be more Cubans going abroad and seeing for themselves whether the life beyond the “Iron Curtain” is really like the regime of the Castro brothers has been portraying to them.

The island’s state propaganda can be pleased with the job it has done. Cubans are proud of the achievements of the revolution: “We have free education and free heath care,” they have told me triumphantly. Their jaws have dropped in disbelief when I have replied: “So do we” Although this varies from country to country, heath care and public education to at least secondary school level is free in most of Europe.

There was even more scepticism about my claim that the unemployed in Europe – yes, I admitted there are people without jobs now in a time of an economic crisis – receive financial help from state.

Even the most enlightened of the Cubans I have spoken to – I haven’t met any dissidents – believe the country’s system is the best way to go – it only needs to change its economic model. They believe the double currency is the problem.

There are two kinds of peso in Cuba – “the Peso Cubano” – which Cubans use to buy their food in subsidised shops or in the streets, pay for their bus tickets or household bills and the Peso convertible, CUC, which is used mostly by tourists.

Many Cubans believe that once the island does away with this double-currency system, its economy will revive and the Cuban one-party controlled social and political model will triumph.

I have yet to understand the logic behind this thinking.

The success of the Castrist regime in instilling the desired beliefs deep into people’s minds is hardly surprising, given the government monopoly on information.

I have neither watched the Cuban TV, nor listened to the radio. But newspapers gave me an idea. They are very thin – four sheets in average – and with very little political coverage. Most of the space is taken by sport, culture and advice for couples.

If there is some international news, then a headline usually reads something like: “The US imprisons more people than any other country in the world” – Granma 1 Feb 2013 “Child poverty has risen by 25% in the US” – Granma 25 Feb 2012 or “Misery camps are growing in the US” – Granma 24 Feb 2012

When I was in Cuba a year ago, Cubans needed permission to own a computer and to have an internet connection.

I was told that even those that had internet had their access limited to email and certain websites related to their profession – such as medical research or architecture.

I had to show my passport to prove I was a foreigner, when I wanted to connect in an internet café.

Some have been able to trick the administration and pay for internet licensed to expats living in Cuba. But even for them, the internet connection is so expensive and so slow that they hardly spend much time reading data-heavy international news websites.

However now, some Cubans will be able to travel abroad and they are likely to share their impressions with friends when they come back.

The state’s grip on information will little by little lose its strength. This can lead to only one thing – louder and louder demands for real change.

It will probably take some time and I doubt it will come while Fidel and Raul Castro are still alive (unless they cling exceptionally tightly onto life, which is also possible, given Cuba’s long life expectancy)

Cubans might keep thinking for a long time that despite everything, their island is the best. I met a lady in Santa Clara, who had spent several years in Europe, married to an Italian. She told me she could not stand it there. She missed Cuba’s warm climate and the warmth of its people.

First test of Cuban travel reform: Success

16 Jan
A fisherman on Havana's seawalk, the Malecon

Cubans no longer need to set out on dangerous sea journey in search of better life

Long cues formed in front of travel agencies and offices issuing passports from the early hours of 14 January, the day when a reform allowing Cubans to travel without official permission took effect.

The first in one of the cues was opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez. Her husband, an independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, had secured the position by waiting there since the previous day. (Oh, how this brings back to my mind memories of overnight cueing for English classes after communism ended in Czechoslovakia)

Ever since the government of Raul Castro announced last October that travel permits would no longer be needed, there have been doubts about the sincerity of the reform.

Will the authorities use passports as a tool to control who can and who cannot travel?

A new passport is now the only document the government requires from most Cubans to let them go abroad (highly qualified professionals still need a permit to travel).

However, the new Migration Law stipulates that citizens can be denied a passport for “defence and security reasons”, or for “reasons of public interest”.

Yoani, whose blog about the life in Cuba is well-known around the world, has been prevented from travelling on twenty occasions.

At 8:39 Cuban time, she tweeted that the application process went smoothly.

“They have already told me I would be able to travel,” she wrote.

Both, Yoani and her husband, expect to have new passports within two weeks. “Fingers crossed. I’ll believe it only when I am on a plane,” she tweeted.

“There are hopes and doubts”, Yoani had commented while still waiting in front of an immigration office.

Optimists see the travel reform as a good sign.

“The new Migration Law is the explicit recognition by the country’s current political leadership of past mistakes and therefore it expresses a desire for change,” an independent journalist Mario Hechevarria Driggs wrote. “It seems that we are moving to another variant of socialism,” he added.

But for many, it is just too difficult to believe that the 54-year-old oppressive regime is changing.

Yoani Sanchez wondered whether other Cuban opposition figures would also be that lucky to get passports.

Reinaldo Escobar’s scepticism went further, when he questioned whether the possession of a passport would really guarantee them freedom to travel to and from the country.

“Just let’s wait to see what will happen at the immigration officer desk at the airport when the famous blogger tries to walk through that door, which is officially called ‘the border’, he wrote in his blog.

Opposition activists also worry that even if they are allowed to leave Cuba, they won’t be let back in.

The next few weeks will show whether Yoani Sanchez gets the passport she has been promised. Whether immigration officials will allow her to take a plane and whether they will let her back in the country after her first trip abroad.

If the new migration policy passes all of these tests there will be a real reason to believe that a change in the Caribbean island is finally in the wind.

Who will profit from Cuba’s travel reform?

18 Oct

Although small businesses generate more income than state jobs, travel expenses are unaffordable for majority of the Cubans

At least one Cuban is probably thinking that the government has once again ruined his plans with its announcement to remove the need for permit to travel abroad.

I met him during my visit to the island this year. For the purpose of this blog I’ll call him Reinaldo.

He studied in communist Czechoslovakia during the eighties. Smiling, he told me about the parties with pretty Slovak girls.

Then he returned to Cuba – temporally, he thought. But meanwhile, the communism in Europe collapsed and Czechoslovakia was no longer an allied country where the Cuban government sent its people to study and work.

Reinaldo has never returned to what is now Slovakia and has never met his daughter, who was born there just after he had left.

After all those years, his Slovak was impressively fluent, as he was outlining the plan he had to get back to that country.

Spanish citizenship, that he had recently been granted, allowed him to get around the government restrictions on travel abroad. He just needed to find a rich Cuban to marry and share this citizenship with. In return, she would pay for his plane ticket.

Now, when the government will ease the travel abroad, Reinaldo will no longer have anything to offer. But a plane ticket to Europe will continue to be too expensive for his wage of a state employee.

Like him, most of the 11 million Cubans will have to satisfy their desire to get know other countries through TV documentaries. With an average monthly wage of 20 pesos convertibles (approximately 12 GBP), they will hardly be able to afford even the passport fees, which have increased from 55 to 100 pesos convertibles.

Then, there are well known Cuban activists, such as Yoani Sanchez, who are likely to have their travel expenses funded from abroad. However, even under the new migration law the government will be able to control who can and who cannot leave the country.

Although full of hope, Yoani joked about the extent of the travel reform in a series of Tweets: “There is a phrase which says: You cannot do this for “h” and for “b”. You can hear in the streets today: You cannot travel for “h” and for “d”… Letters “h” and “d” of the article 23 of the Migration Law are those, which enable the Cuban government to limit the travel of dissidents.”

According to the letter “d”, the Cubans can be denied a passport “for defence and security reasons”, or “for other reasons of public interest defined by authorities”, according to the letter “h”.

There has not been a considerable increase in chances of some professionals, such as doctors, to leave for other than allied countries, such as Venezuela. The government will continue to control their travel “in order to preserve qualified work force for the economic, social and scientific development”, according to the letter “f” of the same article.

So who is going to profit from the travel liberation? Most likely obedient (at least seemingly) citizens, whose income greatly exceeds the national average, having either the permission to offer accommodation to foreign tourists or a job that allows them to take bribes or steal from state property.