Cuba allows more space for criticism in journalism, but restrictions slow press freedom progress, says CPJ report

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a special report surveying the changing media landscape in Cuba and the obstacles still standing in the way of press freedom.

The organization published the report, “Connecting Cuba: More space for criticism but restrictions slow press freedom progress,” in Spanish and English on Sept. 28.

“Cuba’s press, emboldened by President Raúl Castro’s call for reforms in 2010, are finding more space for critical comment, but harassment and intimidation from authorities, a legal limbo caused by outdated and restrictive press laws, and limited and expensive access to the internet is slowing the island nation’s progress toward press freedom,” the report introduction reads.

For the report, CPJ interviewed bloggers, journalists who created independent news sites, and publishers of online magazines, about press freedom on the island. The organization also consulted official journalists who work at state-run media outlets.

The CPJ team looked at existing press freedom restrictions, many of which are enshrined in Cuba’s constitution and other laws, as well as the innovative ways that independent digital media are working to provide critical reporting.

In an executive summary for the report, Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for CPJ, explained that the country’s media landscape was “vitally transformed” in the last five years by “a lively blogosphere, an increasing number of news websites carrying investigative reporting and news commentary, and an innovative breed of independent reporters who are critical of, yet still support socialist ideas.”

During a 2011 report to the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party in Cuba, Castro said it is “necessary to absolutely leave behind the habit of triumphalism, stridency and formality in addressing national news and generating written materials and programs for television and radio, which by their content and style capture attention and stimulate debate in public opinion, which raises the professionalism and expertise of our journalists.”

Lauría specifically pointed to a 2010 speech by Castro at the Sixth Session of the Seventh Legislature of the National People's Power Assembly where the leader, in talking about discussion around economic changes to the country, told the audience that "differences of opinion" are more "desirable than the false unanimity based on pretense and opportunism."

Statements like these have “emboldened” journalists, and even journalists for state-run media acknowledge that the official press should become more critical, wrote Lauría.

While some blogs and news websites clearly are in opposition to the government, critical journalists who want to provide more accurate views of reality, while not necessarily speaking against socialism, also are creating spaces online, the report points out.

Additionally, many outlets are becoming more professional in news production, according to Ted Henken, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College who is cited in the report.

CPJ also spoke with journalists at online magazines from the island that focus on producing narrative journalism that covers societal issues, as well as digital publications writing on sports and fashion.

However, the precarious legal situation for independent journalists can lead to sites being taken offline, temporary detentions, surveillance and more, CPJ reported. Some journalists employ self-censorship or avoid direct attacks on the socialist system in order to retain their online spaces.

Legal ambiguity also makes financial sustainability a big problem, especially in terms of private advertising, the report explains. Many of the sites pay their journalists very little or not at all. For most interviewed by CPJ, they pursue the projects out of passion for journalism and a desire to create new kinds of writing and reporting on the island.

The report also contains special sections detailing how Cuban residents and journalists access the internet to research and distribute information. Solutions, like passing information on USB drives or sharing reports via email, have increased communication, but lack of internet access remains an obstacle for journalists to not only be informed themselves, but also to inform fellow citizens.

The CPJ team concludes the report with recommendations to the Cuban government and to the Organization of American States (OAS).

For the government, CPJ encourages constitutional and legal reforms for freedom of expression and journalists, an end to detentions and harassment of independent journalists, increased internet access and more. The organization also calls on the OAS to send the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for a special mission to evaluate press freedom in Cuba.

Access the report, as well as accompanying multimedia components, at cpj.org.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.