THE MEDIA | CUBA
Coverage comes with price of self-censorship
Foreign correspondents covering Cuba admit they soften the critical
edges on their stories to keep the government from kicking them out.
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
One Spanish journalist based in Cuba for five years wrote that ``rare is
the journalist who does not soften his reports, to avoid being expelled
from the country.''
Another based there for four years wrote, ``Self-censorship is a very
common practice,'' and ``No one on the island can write the truth of
what happens there. Correspondents can only come close to reality.''
Together, two recent books by Vicente Botín and Isabel García-Zarza have
cast a spotlight on a harsh reality that foreign reporters in Cuba have
previously admitted only in private -- that powerful government
pressures regularly force them to pull their punches on touchy stories.
``Audiences abroad are getting an image of Cuba that is at least
minimized,'' García-Zarza said in a telephone interview from Spain.
``But that's always better, 80, 90 percent of reality, than nothing.''
``Of course my editors in Spain were perfectly conscious of what was
happening, but to them it was important to keep a correspondent in
Cuba,'' Botín told El Nuevo Herald in another phone call from Spain.
Self-censorship to avoid being expelled has been common among foreign
reporters based in countries with repressive governments, from Saddam
Hussein's Iraq to the former Soviet Union.
Even in democracies, ``a reporter is aware of the pressure to . . . hold
back information or present it in a way that's going to avoid needlessly
offending sources,'' said Ed Wasserman, who teaches journalism ethics at
Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
But after he was read several passages from the two Spaniards' books,
Wasserman said the Cuban pressures appeared to have forced the
correspondents in Havana to cross the line of reasonable discretion.
``They are really saying the cost of their stay in Cuba was their
inability to function as journalists,'' Wasserman said.
Botín and García-Zarza disagree and argue that the 150 or so foreign
reporters based in Cuba do regularly write and broadcast stories that
may anger the government but are too important to avoid, such as Fidel
Castro's health, crackdowns on dissidents and the economic chaos.
Their books -- her La Casa de Cristal, The Glass House, and his Los
Funerales de Castro, Castro's Funerals, both published in Spain late
last year -- provide examples of how they wrote sensitive stories
despite the Cuban efforts to control their work.
While writing a story about dissidents, ``I cannot avoid a little
anguish, and I even consider abandoning the story . . . but later I
decide that I cannot allow them to intimidate me.'' wrote García-Zarza,
who worked in Cuba for the Reuters news agency 1999-2004.
And when Cuban officials ordered all correspondents in Havana to report
``not one word'' after Castro fainted during a speech in 2001, they
nevertheless reported the event, she wrote.
But the bulk of their comments in their books acknowledged that they
often bowed to the pressures from the Cuban government and its
International Press Center, which issues the accreditations strictly
required to work there as journalists.
The IPC also issues the paperwork required by correspondents to buy key
items such as air conditioners, García-Zarza noted, ``and of course . .
. I can't avoid thinking about that.''
Correspondents strongly believe that state security agents regularly tap
their phones, homes and cars and often follow them. ``Sometimes the
police monitoring is deliberately indiscrete, to intimidate,'' wrote
Botín, a Spanish Television correspondent in Cuba 2005-2008.
He added that the security agents also monitor correspondents'
``political ideas, their preferences, their tendencies and above all
their weaknesses like drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling.''
The system of pressures ``functions to perfection. You become your own
censor,'' wrote García-Zarza.
When Castro fainted again during a Feb. 18, 2006, funeral for a
government supporter, ``nobody reported nothing'' because of
``recommendations from State Security,'' according to Botín.
``The sword of Damocles hangs from a thin thread over the heads of the
accredited correspondents on the island, and the least little breeze can
bring it down,'' he wrote.
García-Zarza noted that her first run-in with the IPC came after she
wrote about the government ban on Cubans entering tourist hotels. An IPC
official summoned her to the center, and ``being the first time . . .
she played the card of the older sister who tries to open the eyes of
her crazy little sister, who has not yet understood the difficulties the
But after a second story deemed too critical, the same official
telephoned her, ``shouting at me how I could have done that, that she
had warned me and that I knew very well that this would have its
consequences,'' she wrote. ``I began crying inconsolably.''
A later IPC complaint was e-mailed to her Reuters supervisor in Havana,
saying, ``When she has reached this extreme, she should ask herself
whether she has exhausted her usefulness where she is.''
She stayed on until the scheduled end of her assignment, but a British
correspondent with Reuters in Havana, Pascal Fletcher, was forced to
leave in 2001 after Castro publicly attacked his reporting and the IPC
told him it would not renew his press credentials.
``I suppose there was no alternative, but it pains me a lot'' that
Reuters agreed to reassign Fletcher, she added.
Later in the book, based on a diary she kept, she wrote, ``It's been a
couple of months since the [Fletcher case], covering only the absolutely
necessary, taking maximum care with each story. All of us feel fear down
to our bones. To the point where each time we write something, we ask
each other if `they are going to like it.' ''
About 150 foreign media are currently accredited by the IPC, ranging
from the U.S.-based CNN and the Associated Press to newspapers and
television and radio stations from Europe, Latin America and Asia.
Editors for three of the foreign media with correspondents currently or
formerly in Cuba declined comment for this story, and so did Fletcher.
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, which have not received Cuban
permission to report from there for several years, send reporters to the
island as tourists who do not obtain IPC accreditations.
Alberto González, spokesman for the Cuban diplomatic mission in
Washington, said he had not read the Spaniards' books but dismissed them
as part ``of a fad to write books about Cuba and make money. If they
write the truth about Cuba the books are not published, so they have to
``They would not have stayed so long in Cuba if they had been persecuted
so badly,'' he added.
IPC regulations allow it to cancel correspondents' accreditations ``when
the holder carries out actions that are improper or incompatible with
their . . . work duties, and when it is considered that he has violated
journalistic ethics and/or has not remained objective.''
Gonzalez said the wording mirrors those of many European countries,
especially Spain. ``The only thing that we have demanded is that they
stick to the truth and objectivity,'' he said.
The Castro government has expelled or refused to renew the
accreditations of several correspondents since 1959, however. The last
three were in 2007 and included The Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx, who had
been posted in Cuba since 2002.
``It's absolutely true that there's self-censorship in Cuba,'' Marx told
El Nuevo Herald. ``But every correspondent makes his own decision on how
to handle the government pressures. I tried as best as I could to cover
the story without buckling.''
He did, and the IPC notified him in early 2007 that he had 90 days to
leave the country. ``They told me my stories were too negative and that
`we think we can do better with someone else.' ''
``For sure self-censorship is a common thing in Cuba,'' said Tracey
Eaton, the Dallas Morning News' correspondent in Havana from 2000 to 2005.
``Reporters make compromises in exchange for access all the time, but in
Cuba the situation is more dramatic.''
The Inter-American Press Association reported in November the IPC had
tightened controls on correspondents and delayed renovating the
accreditations for months as a way to pressure the foreigners.
While García-Zarza's book focuses on her personal experiences in Cuba,
Botín's offers a detailed and uncensored look at Cuba's reality, from
the poverty of its people to its chaotic economy.
He wrote parts of the book in secret while living in Havana, but
finished it after he left because, he wrote, ``no one from within the
island can tell the truth of what happens there. The correspondents can
only come close to the reality with innuendos and metaphors.''
Cuba, he added, ``is not the happy world that the news media projects.''
Coverage comes with price of self-censorship - Issues & Ideas -
MiamiHerald.com (28 February 2010)