Freedom of press | Cuba

Threatened, interrogated, fired

The atmosphere for journalists in Cuba is increasingly tense. As a last resort, they are turning to the internet - or exile

The picture shows the view over the shoulder of a man. He wears a sleeveless shirt and torn jeans and smokes a cigar. He sits in what appears to be a doorway on a street. Over his shoulder we see a newspaper, which he is reading.

A man reads Granma, a daily newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba

In August 2022, six journalists from the Cuban news site El Toque were prevented from leaving the island nation. They were headed to the Media Party, a renowned conference held in Argentina. The incident triggered a series of public resignations (via social media) of reporters from that media outlet. 

“I will not be allowed to leave the country until I fulfill certain conditions demanded by the State’s Security, like no longer contributing to this platform (El Toque), or any others that are not associated to the official ones”, José Leando Garbey wrote on Facebook.

Harassment and threats to independent journalists are not new, but have peaked in the last three or four years. The governmental rhetoric continuously demonises their work, labelling them as mercenaries or unpatriotic. “I’m not the enemy! I’m not betraying anyone! I have just tried to do journalism (…)”, posted Meilin Puertas Borrero, who was also banned from travelling. 

“Far from protecting journalists, the system criminalises them”

The Constitution approved in 2019 establishes that the “fundamental” mass media are socialist property of all the people, or owned by political and social organisations. In practice, this means that – apart from accredited foreign news agencies– the only legal media outlets are those under state control. 

A more recent legislation explicitly includes journalism on a list of forbidden “self-employed” activities. This juridical instrument, conceived to regulate autonomous workers and the private sector, left independent reporters stranded in no-man’s-land. Furthermore, in terms of labour rights, they are completely defenceless: they have no contract of employment, nor social security or benefits – like paid vacations or maternity leave.

Far from protecting journalists, the system criminalises them. The new Penal Code, passed in May, includes prison sentences and fines for those who receive funds from abroad, which is often the case of independent journalists and activists. Needless to say, this legal framework, which will come into force in December, will only worsen the vulnerable, perilous situation of professionals working outside of Cuba’s state-run media. 

“In the meantime, however, new channels have developed beyond state control, even in Cuba”

This situation also exacerbates the already tense relationship with the U.S. which is home to non-profit organisations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, which provide grants. Meanwhile, media professionals suffer reprisals such as surveillance, interrogation and the confiscation or temporary withholding of their equipment.

The current difficulties facing Cuban journalism are partly related to a six-decade old legal loophole. This is because “the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of the press is legally regulated only by the constitution, and its protection is based on laws that are anchored in criminal law”, explains lawyer Michel Fernández.

In the meantime, however, new channels have developed beyond state control, even in Cuba, where the mass media have not been allowed to be privately owned since 1976, according to Article 53 of the constitution. Institutions have emerged that are run by independent journalists, designers, programmers and photographers.

With their content and topics, these magazines and websites are distancing themselves from the state-affiliated media, presenting a wide range of topics and breaking through the homogeneous reporting found in state-owned newspapers and news broadcasts.

“In several cases, reporters received explicit instructions not to produce any more reports for other channels”

This development is also related to increased access to digital technology and the Internet. Public Wi-Fi hotspots have only been available in some Cuban cities since around 2015 - and mobile internet access was only gradually introduced in December 2018. Many young female journalists and designers, seeking professional fulfilment, better earning opportunities and a space for creativity that does not exist in the state media, have taken advantage of these opportunities for themselves.

In the beginning, many of them took a two-track approach and kept their secure jobs in the state-affiliated media. However, this repeatedly led to conflicts with colleagues and superiors. In several cases, reporters received explicit instructions not to produce any more reports for other channels. Increasing pressure made the professional balancing act untenable. Many female reporters have lost their jobs. A large proportion of these journalists now work full-time for the “new” media.

Cossette Celecia, of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City, therefore emphasises that while “Within the new media there is a broad spectrum that ranges from those who consider themselves opponents of the regimen, to those who distance themselves from activism and political affiliation …; although a common characteristic is the exercise of critical journalism towards the reality of the country.”

“Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that some freelance journalists now publish their work under a pseudonym”

Moreover, the increasing state criticism of independent reporting has, over time, led to a radicalisation of journalistic positions. That is hardly surprising given the frightening reports of interrogations, threats against family members, and prime-time “special broadcasts”publicly discrediting media outlets such as “El Toque”, “Periodismo de Barrio”, and “La Joven Cuba”.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that some freelance journalists now publish their work under a pseudonym to avoid possible reprisals - or even emigrate to report on the situation in the country from exile. For the experts of the U.S.-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), the reality in Cuba increasingly resembles that of authoritarian states such as El Salvador, Nicaragua or Venezuela.

“We are exhausted. Every time there are fewer journalists left that work on their own”, González Vivero, editor of the online magazine “Tremenda Nota”, recently tweeted, effectively summing up the current situation.