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People have a right - and a need- to know

I had just turned 13 when I learned that the government in my native country of Cuba had imprisoned more than 15,000 men and women for political reasons. The majority of them were in jail because of their ideas. Others were detained for "conspira...

I had just turned 13 when I learned that the government in my native country of Cuba had imprisoned more than 15,000 men and women for political reasons. The majority of them were in jail because of their ideas. Others were detained for "conspiracy against the government," and many more for attempting to leave the island, which at that time (as now) was considered treason.

I did not hear the details concerning this issue through the government's disclosure or from the Cuban press. In May of 1977, they were far from being open or abject to self-criticism. I knew the facts were otherwise because in the midst of political overtures to President Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro's cabinet decided to offer an interview to American journalist Barbara Walters.

To the surprise of Cuban people accustomed to covert behavior by their government, the interview was broadcast. "What about the political prisoners?" Walters asked. This single inquiry alerted me to the importance of asking questions that demand precise answers from our government.

Walters' pointed question, triggered at the right moment, impacted me so strongly that it sparked my passion to become a journalist.

Twenty years after starting my career at The Miami Herald, that passion still guides my pen.

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On several occasions, I have attempted to return to Cuba to investigate facts that could help me be more effective as a journalist. For example, in 1999 I applied for a visa in order to interview Cuban government officials about racial conflicts on the island. My visa was denied. The reason given by Cuban authorities in Washington, DC, was that the Cuban government had no interest in discussing racial conflicts.

In 2003, I asked for permission to travel to Havana. My purpose was to research information for my book about the 1980 Mariel Exodus, when 125,000 Cubans left the island within a five-month period. I was refused again. This time, I was told that the topic was not of interest to Cubans. Even so my book, "Tomorrow: Memories of a Cuban Exodus," was published. It was well received by literary critics and readers alike despite the Cuban government's refusal to consent to the facts.

I am currently working as a professor at Columbia University where there is a sign at the entrance hall that I read every morning. It is a quote from Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the School of Journalism. It says: "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and the courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery."

In these uncertain times when governments (including the democratic government of the United States) persistently obscure the facts, Pulitzer's statement echoes even louder.

The reading public has the right to understand, and the need to know, how its elected leaders exercise the powers granted to them.

This power is vested in government to be preserved and respected, not to be abused. Citizens expect their leaders to exhibit humility and to honor the voter's confidence. Transparent governments extol their leaders and cause the electorate to feel empowered. This is essential for true democracy to function.

MIRTA OJITO, AUTHOR and PROFESSOR AT THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM, COLUMBIA

UNIVERSITY

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