The arrests of journalists trying to inform fellow citizens about the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Matthew’s passage over eastern Cuba on 4 October are the latest example of how the Cuban government continues its harassment of independent journalism. Their reporting clearly did not please the authorities
Maykel González Vivero, a journalist working for the Diario de Cuba news website, was arrested in the eastern city of Baracoa on 10 October while interviewing people about hurricane damage and was held for three days. He had just been fired from state-owned Radio Sagua for working for independent media.
On 11 October, it was the turn of six members of the Havana-based Periodismo de Barrio news website, include its director, Elaine Díaz, to be arrested while visiting Baracoa to cover the aftermath of the hurricane. Their equipment was confiscated for several hours.
According to the authorities, the journalists were arrested under the state of emergency proclaimed by President Raúl Castro on 4 October, which supposedly prohibited journalistic reporting without special authorization. But for the state of emergency to be valid, it should have been accompanied by a resolution defining how and in what regions of the country it was to be applied. No such resolution was ever formally issued by the authorities.
There is no shortage of subjects that are off-limits for unauthorized media outlets. Reinaldo Escobar, a journalist with the 14ymedio website, was unable to cover the inauguration of the first regular flight between the United States and Cuba. He was arrested in Santa Clara on 31 august for doing “enemy journalism” and was forcibly escorted back to Havana.
Oscar Sánchez Madan, a reporter for the Hablemos Press independent news agency, was arrested by three members of the National evolutionary Police (PNR) in the municipality of Cárdenas on 18 August while interviewing Leticia Ramos Herrería, a representative of the Ladies in White, a movement formed by the wives of political prisoners.
“We deplore the Cuban government’s growing hostility towards the country’s independent media,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of RSF’s Latin America desk.
“The recent attempts to censor ‘unofficial’ media, especially during a natural disaster, are completely unproductive and reinforce self-censorship, which is very harmful for the entire country. The Cuban government should drop its ideological postures and help the independent media to develop instead of systematically opposing them.”
There have been many cases of harassment in recent months, making independent reporting impossible. RSF has learned that four Hablemos Press members – director Roberto Jesús Guerra Pérez, deputy director Eduardo Herrera, executive director Magalay Otero Suárez and reporter Arian Guerra – had no choice but to leave Cuba at the end of September after repeated threats.
Hablemos Press has been the target of harassment and arbitrary arrests for 13 years. Guerra Pérez told RSF he had been constantly harassed by the government in recent weeks in the form of comments by state employees in the street, telephone death threats or being repeatedly prevented from working. Now that he is in exile, he fears an illegal raid on the news agency’s headquarters in the coming weeks.
The Centro de Información Legal (Cubalex), a Cuban NGO that defends media freedom, has been subjected to various forms of harassment –including searches, disconnected phone lines and humiliating interrogations – since it issued a report on free speech in Cuba and presented it to the United Nations in Geneva. The level of persecution of Cubalex got to the point that the office of the special rapporteur on freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an alert on 13 October condemning the harassment.
14ymedio, the website found by Yoani Sánchez (an RSF media freedom heroine in 2014), revealed in an investigative report in September that Cuba’s state-owned telephone company Etecsa was blocking text messages containing the terms “human rights” or “hunger strike,” the name of the opposition magazine Convivencia, or the names of certain government opponents.
At the same time, the list of websites that are blocked or are the target of cyber-attacks has lengthened this year and now includes such sites as Cubaencuentro and Martinoticias.
Cuba is ranked 171st out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index – the lowest position in Latin America.