HAVANA (AFP) – Monica Baro’s investigation into cases of lead poisoning in Havana won her a prestigious Latin American journalism award but few friends in the Cuban government, which views independent media outlets like hers with growing suspicion.
Baro’s report for the Periodismo de Barrio website – which won Colombia’s Gabo award for journalism – took two years to pull together and a further six months to fact-check, but has helped throw light on the difficulties facing Cuba’s independent media.
“Maybe in a less hostile context this investigation could have been done, written and revised in a year, but here everything is much more complicated,” said the 31-year-old, seated on a sofa in her apartment which doubles as her office.
When she first heard reports of lead poisoning in the teeming district of San Miguel del Padron in 2016, Baro went to meet the locals to hear their story. Many were too afraid to speak to her and information was scarce.
Most official sources gave her the cold shoulder. Instead, while working away on USD2-an-hour public wifi, she said she feared being threatened and harassed.
Cuba is ranked 168 out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters without Borders (RSF). Independent journalism is officially illegal, though tolerated to an extent, ensuring bloggers are constantly walking a legal tightrope.
Despite this, Cuba’s online independent media has won kudos abroad – a Gabo for El Estornudo in 2018, a Spanish environmental award for Periodismo de Barrio, and an online journalism award for El Toque.
But the higher profile has come at a cost. In January, officials published a list of 21 independent media organisations decried as “platforms for the restoration of capitalism in Cuba.”
Two days later, several of the sites were temporarily inaccessible on the island. Some had already been permanently blocked.
The communist government equates such organisations with Miami-based opposition sites funded by the United States (US) government, which also feature on the list.
It’s the view espoused by Francisco Rodriguez Cruz, a 49-year-old journalist with the official Trabajadores weekly.
“Independent media does not exist. Not in Cuba nor, I believe, anywhere in the world.”
Cuba is too easy a target for the independents’ biased views, says Cruz: “It’s easy in a society like ours, under American government embargo, and with myriad economic difficulties.”
Emerging during the brief detente in Cuba-US relations during President Barack Obama’s term, and boosted by the arrival of mobile Internet in 2018, Cuba’s independent media outlets see themselves as offering an alternative to polarised state and opposition media, stripped of ideology. Funded variously by a Swedish foundation, the European Union (EU), a British NGO and a Dutch radio station, they are the product of around a dozen young journalists who graduated from the same journalism schools as their state media colleagues.
Their key draw is covering hot-button issues hitherto neglected by the official media, like the environment, domestic violence and animal welfare.
The independents have recently tackled stories about the delapidated condition of housing in Havana – after the death of three girls crushed by a falling balcony – a multimedia project on drought in Cuba, and a report on major hotel developments in the country.
They “demonstrate a healthy autonomy to achieve responsible journalism in the context of the island, even if indeed a media’s autonomy is always relative,” said Abel Somohano, a Cuban academic based in Mexico who has studied Cuba’s independent media.
Independents, he said, express “what is not seen in the discourse of the official media.”
President Miguel Diaz-Canel himself criticised state media in a 2018 interview with Venezuela-based Telesur, particularly for being “too apologetic” and not always “being capable of reflecting certain themes.”
But amid newly frosty relations with Washington, his government’s distrust of independent media has sharpened.
All of which helps ensure independent media outlets act with discretion, especially outside the capital.
“If you leave Havana, the mechanisms of state security work perfectly and detect you when you enter a town to report,” said 32-year-old Jose Jasan Nieves, editor-in-chief of El Toque.
“You end up arrested or taken out of the municipality.”
For Baro, “you rely on the willingness of a source to give you information, because they feel sympathy for you or because they have a very open vision of information, which is exceptional in Cuba where the population is generally afraid to speak openly to the unofficial media.”
Around 50 Cuban journalists, bloggers and activists recently called in an open letter to the authorities to “end the repression” of independents.
They referred to “arbitrary detentions and incarceration, house searches, confiscation of equipment, interrogations.”
One prominent independent news website, Cuba Posible, was forced to close in 2019, citing state pressure that undermined its network of correspondents and cut off all access to funding.
“In a context where American aggressiveness continues to increase, the government is returning to a siege mentality,” said Nieves, citing the example of recent arrests of dissident Jose Daniel Ferrer and Roberto Quinones, a journalist with the CubaNet opposition site.
This renewed firmness against dissidents makes independent journalism “a collateral victim,” said Nieves.
Because for the state “a freelance journalist from an alternative media is like a political opponent, so it applies the same control tools for him.”
Maykel Gonzalez, 36-year-old director of Tremenda Nota, has been arrested three times in recent years. He regularly receives calls from State Security, and online threats. Last December, as he was preparing for a trip to Europe, he learned he was banned from travelling.
“For them, we are counter-revolutionaries,” he said. “Some days, I wake up very discouraged.” A friend who went to work for state media has a “quiet life” by contrast, he said.
Some of the band of independent media journalists have already given up the ghost and left Cuba. Today “there is more fear, more departures,” said Baro. “All the time, I wonder if I should leave. For me, it would be easier to go tells stories elsewhere.”