Press freedom in Cuba

The story of Bernardo Arévalo Padrón is an excellent example of the plight many Cuban journalists are forced to endure for the sake of spreading information. Padrón, an independent journalist for opposition publication El Cubano Libre, de Hoy, was arrested in September as a result of his reporting. He was subsequently threatened with four years in jail or forced exile.

In the article linked above, Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk, comments on the ultimatum: “Exile or prison, that’s freedom of information in Cuba today.”

Padrón was a political prisoner from 1997 to 2003 after allegedly insulting Fidel Castro. Freedom House names stories of even more journalists who have faced similar pressure from the government. Calixto Martínez Arias was detained for seven months after his reporting on the cholera and dengue epidemics were published without ever being officially charged or tried. José Antonio Torres was detained after writing about a mismanaged construction project and was given a 14 year prison sentence. Blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats is currently serving a five year sentence for assault and trespassing, charges he says were fabricated.

This article on Pen International discusses some of these cases, calling on the Cuban government to publicize the details of these trials (very often believed to be rigged/mishandled) and to separate their journalistic work from their sentences.

6,805 politically motivated arrests have been made in Cuba since the beginning of 2014. Out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranks 170. Although Freedom House reports that the country may slowly be opening to the media, it still received a 90/100 for Press Freedom Score (100 being the worst) and is officially considered not free.

As of October 2012, Cuban citizens no longer have to obtain an exit visa before leaving the country, though the government can still withhold passports necessary for traveling for frivolous reasons. Freedom Press explained that because relatively fewer high-profile events have been occurring in Cuba, there is less reason to impose sanctions. However, two specific examples suggest the opposite.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in 2012, it was made very clear that everyone be on their best behavior, or else. The visit was mostly covered by official sources. The Ladies in White, an all-female government opposition group who continues to campaign for the release of jailed dissidents, were prevented from attending the Pope’s mass at any close proximity. And during the funeral of political dissident Oswaldo Payá (thought to have been killed in a purposeful car accident orchestrated by the government), homes of fellow dissidents were highly guarded in order to keep them inside and out of trouble; the service itself was attended by government forces to ensure no sympathetic forces could make their voices heard.


Has the situation changed markedly in recent years, and if so, why?


In the era of post-9/11 paranoia, journalists are facing more obstacles than ever before.

Common discourse today about the field of journalism and those who adamantly support freedom of the press have cited the Obama administration as the biggest obstacle of press freedom (and one of the most restrictive administrations in history, in terms of press freedom). At a conference at the New York Times Center last March, national security journalists and government representatives discussed the issue.

An article on Gawker highlights the main points of the conference. Most notably, the Obama administration’s intense pursuit of leakers is causing a sort of source drought, which is a huge blow to investigative journalists. Both journalists and government lawmakers on the panel agreed that a real system for handling internal whistleblowers is necessary. The author also called the debate as a whole “a struggle for institutional power” that, as of now, the NSA has won.

Clearly, the freedom of journalists is dwindling. The War on Terror has made national security an especially sensitive topic, which is to be expected. However, the presidential administration’s handlings of these issues clearly leaves much to be desired. In light of the consequences faced by James Risen, in particular, the kinds of pressures faced by journalists to “stay within the bubble” are very visible. He told Jon Stewart in the interview we watched in class, “The government has been after me ever since for that book.” That book being Pay Any Price, an account of the abuses of power carried out by the government ever since the war began.



For more, see this interview with Bart Gellman that covers several of the topics we’ve discussed recently.

The War on Terror and Guantanamo Bay

The notorious Guantanamo Bay prison has been historically used to detain particularly threatening persons involved in the War on Terror, many of whom are allegedly linked to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Located on the far southeastern end of the island, Guantanamo Bay is rather distant both physically and legally from the United States. It was declared as outside US jurisdiction in 2002, just before the first group of War on Terror detainees were imprisoned there.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Guantanamo was the Bush administration’s claim that detainees could not be covered by the US constitution because they were not being kept on US soil. Prisoners are considered enemy combatants, and thus can be “denied some legal protections”, according to a rather helpful Fast Facts article  on CNN. Guantanamo Bay is exempt from protection under the Geneva Conventions, which mandates standards for humanitarian treatment of war prisoners. Throughout the War on Terror, several stories have circulated about the torturous conditions prisoners must face. Obama signed an executive order in 2009 to shut down the base, but severe problems with relocating the prisoners will most likely make this impossible. He has also been quoted by The Economist saying the base, “likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”


In 2001, Wikileaks released hundred of classified documents related to the inmates, showing questionable protocol for detainment that often involved sketchy or little evidence of terrorist activity. The Economist also published a piece condemning the prison, from its operation to its very existence. Amnesty International, the UN, and the EU have called for its closing in 2005 and 2006.




Cablegate disclosure

In February 2010, two individual but similar references appeared on Cablegate, explaining how political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo had recently passed away after a hunger strike that lasted over 80 days. The first explained that reactions on the island had been rather quiet since his death just a day ago, and that supporters had been detained or placed under house arrest. Several dissidents were threatened with arrest should they attempt to attend the funeral. The second, released after Tamayo’s burial, explained that a “status quo” had returned: there were no public demonstrations, and detainees were released. However, the funeral ceremony was “tense” as police presence was heavy and the homes of known dissidents were under constant surveillance throughout.

Cuba has a history of unjust imprisonments and hunger strikes that haven been covered by the international media–mostly the US (naturally, the strict state does not want such coverage running on their own soil). In 1972, Pedro Luis Boitel, an active opponent of the Batista and Castro governments, died of starvation in prison after failing to be released once his ten year sentence was up and engaging in a subsequent hunger strike. More recently, Alan Gross, an American contractor who was arrested in Cuba and accused of smuggling illegal communications material into the country, went on an eight-day hunger strike in protest of his imprisonment. Dissident Guillermo Farinas, though not currently imprisoned, has carried out twenty three hunger strikes throughout his lifetime to protest the regime.

Beyonce in Cuba

In April 2013, celebrity power couple Beyonce and Jay Z went on a rather controversial vacation in Cuba. Most criticism did not actually begin to surface until after the trip, when members of congress requested documents recording what kinds of activities the couple actually engaged in while there. Because of the embargo, traveling to Cuba is only permitted under a specific license, and legality of tourist activities is highly limited. In response to a letter by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart last April–which requested information regarding the license they were given to travel and who approved it–a report by the Treasury Department was released in August deeming the trip legal once and for all.

In a comparison of coverage by traditional vs. non-traditional media, I found that format is the biggest difference, whereas writing style and type of information is rather similar. One article on CNN about how the trip was officially declared legal explains why the criticism began and how the trip was actually correctly licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. In another video report on CNN, one journalist discussed the differences in reception by locals and the US government: as demonstrated by the video, fans were thrilled with the visit whereas some US lawmakers complained that the trip was being used as propaganda by Castro’s government. Finally, one longer special piece talks about how the embargo is really the cause of the drama. These pieces, specifically the last one mentioned, provide lots of background and context to the story, alluding to the embargo and providing a brief explanation of it at the very least.

Buzzfeed took a less formal approach to the story in general, but still provided useful information. One list/article highlighted important points from Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart’s letter with detail I did not find in other formats, and provided a link to the whole letter. While explanations of these representatives demands was summarized and explained by CNN, it was also useful to have access to the entire document. Another short piece on Buzzfeed highlights arguments made by the Office of Foreign Assets Control and Ros-Lehtinen.  Although it did not provide much different information that can be found on other platforms, it could be considered a more digestible version of the controversy, as it is much shorter and uses mostly direct quotes to explain the opinions of individuals. Finally, in a very non-traditional but almost comical and interesting take on the story, Buzzfeed published a link to a song by Jay Z entitled “Open Letter” that talks back to critics of his trip. The article that follows pulls out specific lines of the song and explains how they have to do with the criticism he and Beyonce received concerning their trip.

Social media in Cuba

Because internet access is so severely restricted in Cuba, the use of social media has not gained as much popularity as it has in other countries.The most notable social media news actually concerns a platform itself, and not the messages or ideas spread using it. ZunZuneo existed from 2008-2012, and had about 40,000 users by the time it was shut down. Early this past April, the AP revealed that it was actually created by the US with the intention to help build support against Castro’s regime. The idea was to build a subscriber base while passing around non-controversial messages about sports, music, and weather. Then, when enough people were using the service, “operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’…or, as one USAID document put it, ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society’.” ZunZuneo was paid for an run by USAID, but was abruptly discontinued when its contract ran out of money.

Because of such intense internet restriction, citizens are not active on social media. And in fact, neither is the government. Reporters–those official in the eyes of the government or independent–continue to report using more traditional outlets such as print or online newspapers (though online content can be censored). As noted in the past post, only 5% of the population can access open internet. One popular method of getting ideas around is by uploading information to flash drives or DVDs, and then distributing those in person. A few Twitter and Facebook pages have been created calling for the improvement of the country, but these are most often run from outside Cuba.


Citizen journalism in Cuba

Though citizen journalism is alive in Cuba, there are significantly more stories about the trials and tribulations of citizen journalists than there are stories from these journalists. Recently, citizen journalist and contributor to the Cuban Network of Community Journalists Juliet Michelena Díaz was detained after taking pictures of a police operation. Her charges were intensified after this article ran on Cubanet, explaining how a dog had been set on a man during an altercation about  debt. More police brutality occurred, and Díaz reported that cell phones of passersby were confiscated so as to avoid exposing the incident.

The Broadcasing Board of Governors also issued a statement about the unjust beating and detention of citizen journalists Lesbety Guillén, Jose Manuel Guerra, Niurcy Acosta Pacheco, Juan Miguel González Manso, and Acosta Bermúdez. Guillén and Guerra were preparing a video report when they were stopped and attacked by police. The other three were beaten and arrested when trying to visit opposition leader Jorge Luis Garcia. All of these reporters are contributed to Martí Noticias, a US-based news network covering Cuba who’s content is rarely accessible on-air in Cuba. In order to spread their messages, news is generally recorded onto DVDs and then distributed in person.

Cuba’s internet is not so much censored as it is unavailable. According to this article on mashable, only 5% of the population has access to the open internet. Home connections are essentially unheard of, so people are often forced to use expensive internet cafes. And professionals can only gain access at work if approved by the government. Generally, “internet access” means access to a government-controlled Intranet made up of only approved sites.

The tools that are most popular among citizen journalists are actually non-internet tools. Information is often shared by downloading articles onto flash drives and distributing them through communities. People can also build their own antennas or use illegal dial-up connections, but there is a constant fear of discovery by authorities. Sometimes, those with internet access with share their accounts or sell access to others.