Cuban government imposes more limitations on independent journalism by censoring content on social networks during pandemic

Independent journalism in Cuba, for decades, has had to deal with a penal code that criminalizes them when they do not work for state media, among other regulations that restrict their freedom. Since the new coronavirus arrived on the island, independent journalism has had to face the increasingly common fines of Decree 370, which penalizes the opinions of Cubans posted on social networks and digital platforms.

According to Maykel González, director of Tremenda Nota, since the pandemic began, the persecution of journalists and cyberbullying have worsened. "We are all more muzzled than ever," González told the Knight Center.

“In the midst of the [COVID-19] epidemic, the police are mostly citing journalists [with Decree 370]. This law is not the only one against journalism, [but] it is only the only one that can be applied without the need for criminal proceedings. Decree 370 is of a minor nature [legally]. But therein lies its danger. There is no way to defend yourself in court," he said.

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, at least seven activists and journalists have been fined because of Decree 370, which was little used until recently, Hugo Landa, director of the site Cubanet, told the Knight Center.

The decree, created in 2018, was approved in May 2019 without going through the National Assembly of the People's Power, according to Periodismo de Barrio.

Decree 370, Art. 68, subsection “i” indicates as one of the violations associated with information and communication technologies, the “dissemination, through public data transmission networks, information contrary to the social interest, morality, good customs and the integrity of the people.”

“We knew that subsection i would serve to repress, silence, punish, etc. public expression in online spaces,” Elaine Díaz of the Cuban site Periodismo de Barrio told the Knight Center about Decree 370, Article 68. "Subsection i was the legalization of Internet censorship," she added. But above all, what is published on social networks is censored, according to a note published by Periodismo de Barrio in 2019.

The fine imposed by this decree on natural persons is three thousand Cuban pesos (about US $120), and if the payment is not made within the indicated period, the penalties for not paying the fine and the threat of going to jail are greater. Another of the sanctions of this decree for those who violate article 68, is the seizure by the Ministry of Communications of the equipment and means used to commit the crime.

“The only way to avoid this fine, specifically, is by not having social media or not posting anything critical of the government. In Cuba there is no separation of powers,” Cuban journalist Mónica Baró told the Knight Center. “You have no legal recourse to defend your rights; First of all, you do not have civil and political rights," she said.

Baró was fined on April 17 after being summoned for questioning conducted by an agent of the Interior Ministry. According to the journalist, the interrogation was not about her publications on social networks, but rather about the sources of financing for the journalistic projects of the magazine El Estornudo and the site Periodismo de Barrio, the media outlets where she collaborates.

Given the fine, the two options she has left, according to Baró, is to file a claim or go to court and then jail. "I do not have credentials, I am not recognized, my work does not exist. In fact, at the time when I was fined, they asked me ‘Where do you work?’ I said at the magazine El Estornudo, and they said ‘well, she doesn't work.’ My work in Cuba is illegal," Baró said.

According to Díaz, from Periodismo de Barrio, it is no coincidence that they are applying the decree with greater zeal during this crisis of the pandemic. “That there are independent journalists who report and others who prefer to remain silent implies that we do not know exactly how many are being threatened; but we know that they are being threatened and that these are not isolated cases,” she said.

González from Tremenda Nota said that police officers demanded over the phone that "he should not denigrate the Cuban government" in his publications while the epidemic lasts. “I told them that I have never done it, that this is not the purpose of my work. They threatened to use the 370. In the past few weeks they have summoned me twice. I was summoned today (April 24), but they said they will confirm it by phone and they did not,” he said.

Journalist Camila Acosta of Cubanet was also fined, in late March, for publishing information about the new coronavirus in Cuba on her Facebook profile, according to Cubanet. In addition to the fine of three thousand pesos, Acosta's cell phone was confiscated. During the interrogation, she was given a warning after being accused of living in Havana illegally, according to what Acosta said during an interview published on the YouTube channel of Radio Martí. She is from the Isla de la Juventud, a Cuban island south of Havana. "The major Alejandro, the repressor, already warned me, they are going to mount common offenses to sanction me and condemn me to prison,” she said in the interview.

Hugo Landa, director of Cubanet, based in Miami, told the Knight Center that the Cuban government has "dusted off" new decrees to "legalize" the repression. In addition to Decree 370, Landa mentioned Decree 349 that regulates the work of artists, Law 88, known as the "gag law," and the legal concept of "usurpation of functions." The latter, according to Landa, has been applied against journalists who do not have a university degree and who are not members of the official Union of Journalists of Cuba.

"Cuba should urgently review Decree 370 which, as CPJ warned when it was enacted, has become an additional device in the regime's ever-expanding toolkit to target critical voices and silence the press,” said Natalie Southwick, Central and South America Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“They are not just censoring individuals, they are censoring another narrative about the impact of a pandemic in the country. They are censoring the only ones who can challenge the official story. That is why so many, that is why now,” Díaz said. “Let's stop seeing them as isolated cases because they are not. Together, they are the network of alternative voices that are telling what is happening with COVID-19 in Cuba.”