This year the government has shown signs of a growing concern over the independent press and the emergence of media not controlled by the ideological apparatus of the Communist Party. The country is going through a ratcheting up against non pro-government reporters through which pro-government political forces have intensified criticisms, threats and arbitrary detentions.
The governmental aggression is mounting at a time of growth of a press not subordinated to the official editorial stance. The arrival of new technologies, the increase in the quality of the work of Cuban journalists and a greater visibility in the international media have made it believe to be the most orthodox voices and those contrary to the presence in the country of newspapers, magazines and publications punished outside government control.
The Cuban blogosphere continued its growth in the last few months and showed a healthy process of diversification, which includes digital logs dedicated to news, opinion and topics related to the citizenry, LGBT community rights, sports, fashion and technology. Facebook has come to be Cubans' preferred social network, while Twitter is playing an important role in activism and the independent press.
The rise and consolidation of news media operated in an independent manner has also marked recent months. Among them are narrative journalism sites such as El Estomudo (The Sneeze), the investigative portal Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism), the magazine OnCuba and the platform El Toque (The Touch).
However, great obstacles to digital publication are maintained. Among these are little and costly connectivity, harassment and institutional repression of independent journalists, which includes detentions, police summonses, threatening interrogations and confiscation of work equipment; in addition, the absence of a legal framework that regulates press freedom and protects members of the press.
Self-censorship continues to be one of the most habitual practices of journalists working in official media, in the face of fear of receiving reprisals if they are brave enough to touch upon topics considered taboo by the government. Among these the conduct of State Security bodies, foreign policy, the electoral system, the suitability of the highest posts in the Executive Branch and the viability of the political system.
In June pro-government journalist Rosa Miriam Elizade, director of the portal Cubadebate, declared during a meeting of officials of the Communist Party and members of the Journalists of Cuba Union that "the media should appear to be considered as fundamental social property, even when they assume diverse forms such as the state or cooperative ones or are the power of organizations, but they should never be privately-owned property."
She then recalled the ideas of a dean of the School of Journalism in which he said that "our press is partisan, it is revolutionary. That is its greatest matter of pride. It is an irreversible historical conquest. There is not in this nor will there be the least concession to liberalism or opportunism. The policy that we apply in Cuba is completely indifferent to any idea of ingratiating ourselves or making ourselves sympathetic to the West."
Despite these calls to not be enthusiastic about a non-artisan press this year has also been characterized by published complaints by journalists working in official media in which they show their disapproval of some aspects of the official news policy, especially against the prohibition of state media employees collaborating in a parallel manner with independent news spaces.
"We make use of the most legitimate right to write and give an opinion both in official media and in the emerging digital platforms," declared in a letter several young journalists of the newspaper Vanguardia in Santa Clara city. They suggested that among the reasons to collaborate with other media was the fact that state spaces "do not manage to get past once and for all their structural distortions."
"We cannot, nor will be able to, improve Cuban journalism while the news policies are not definitively freed from their ties to the official institutions and sources," the signers of the note added.
The extension of the use of the TICs and the devotion to the phenomenon called el paquete (the package) – a compendium of digital material that is distributed in the informal market – were configured as supports for many independent publications. A greater editorial freedom and the attractiveness of better financial remuneration have catalyzed the journalistic collaborations with those media, but the government has warned official reporters that they may not continue with this practice.
The extension throughout the country of alternative wireless networks has also given more power to the distribution of information in parallel to the state's.
The embryo of television of the future has gained strength with the package. Programs of the style of Q Mania Tv, produced independently, open the way to a new form of communicating with the audience. The distribution of these spaces is carried out by two production houses that copy, organize and distribute some 1 terabytes of material each week. Omega and Odisea began offering foreign films, series and magazines but they have enlarged their service to include magazines in pdf, apps for mobile phones and advertising of privately-owned businesses.
The apps developed on the island for iOS and Android systems are focused on offline use to make up for lack of connectivity to the Internet. An effective informal grid is in charge of updating the apps and offering clients those most recently created by Cuban developers.
The independent press most critical of the government has continued, however, at the center of reprisals and harassment. On March 20, some hours before the arrival of President Barack Obama, detained were Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez, director of the agency Hablemos Press, and reporter Rolando Reyes Rabanal. Along with them were Dutch journalist Erik Mouthaan and his cameraman, who also were held for several hours.
During the time that Obama was on the island there were reported "more than 300 arbitrary detentions for political reasons," according to statements by Elizardo Sánchez, chairman of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission. A large number of them were independent and active journalists, among whom was reporter Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca.
In July several members of the Pro Press Freedom Association (APLP) were arrested on the outskirts of Tuna province as they were heading to Bayamo in Granma province for a meeting on a Media Law that the independent organization is promoting. The APLP is seeking from the government an assurance for the existence of autonomous news media and respect for the exercise of press freedom.
That same month there were arrested reporters Ana León, Augusto César San Martín and Elio Delgado, who string for the Miami-based portal CubaNet. They were heading to Sancti Spiritus province to cover the holding of an official act commemorating the anniversary of the attack on Moncada barracks.
Police told the three journalists that they were being detained for not being accredited to cover the July 26 activities in that province. Their equipment was confiscated and they were threatened with being charged with the offense of "receiving stolen property" for which the Cuban Penal Code sets punishment of "privation of freedom of three months to one year or a fine of 100 to 300 quotas, or both."
On July 11 journalist José Ramírez Pantoja was expelled from his workplace in the local radio station Radio Holguín. The action against him occurred after he published in his personal blog some controversial words of the managing editor of the official newspaper Granma, Karina Marrón, about the current economic crisis that Cuba is going through.
Marrón declared in the 6th National Plenary Session of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (Upec) that on the island "a perfect storm is arising" due to the "phenomenon of the reduction of oil and the reduction of energy," a situation that according to her could give rise to protests.
Before the Marrón incident Ramírez Pantoja had been awarded the Félix Elmuza distinction, the highest given by the Upec, but in September the labor union, controlled by the government, ratified the sentence of firing from his job handed down against the reporter.
The so-called "Pantoja case" was taken up by the report Connect to Cuba: More space for criticism, but restrictions put a brake on the advance of press freedom, published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The New York-based organization noted the advances made by the press and said that "the founding of a more free press is already afoot" in the country.
In August several pro-government voices suggested that Fernando Ravsberg, an Uruguayan journalist who has worked for more than two decades on the island, should be "expelled" from the country for the way in which he covers Cuban issues. A reporter for foreign media Ravsberg was harshly rebuked for the manner in which he described an article of government member Darío Machado titled "Democracy, News Media and Realities."
The last day of that month flight 387 of JetBlue airline landed in Santa Cruz and thus inaugurated regular flights between Cuba and the United States which were suspended for more than half a century. Journalist Reinaldo Escobar was arrested as he covered the news and later was forcefully deported to Havana. The police that arrested him stressed he was doing "enemy reporting."
On Wednesday, October 12 journalist Elaine Díaz, editor of the independent media Periodismo de Barrio, was arrested in Baracoa city, Guantánamo, while she was covering damages left by Hurricane Matthew in the area. She was accompanied by several members of the editorial board who were also arrested.
The Cuban government increased its controls over the independent press in the days after the hurricane passed through the country's eastern zone. Several non-official reporters who were planning to go there faced threats, detentions and confiscations of their work equipment.
Among them was Maykel González Vivero, a stringer for the portal Diario de Cuba, who was arrested and spent three days in jail for attempting to report from the most damaged areas. Previously he had been fired from the officialist local radio station Radio Sagua, precisely for collaborating with independent media.
Activists of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba) that maintain on Twitter a flow of information about the affected areas were also arrested, stripped of their equipment and forcibly deported.
Censorship of digital sites has also increased this year, as has the list of blocked sites on national servers, among which there have been for years such portals as Cubaencuentro, Martinoticias and the online newspaper 14ymedio, and there have been added in recent months the Diario de Cuba and Cubanet sites.
A journalistic investigation carried out by 14ymedio reporters uncovered in September that the government is implementing a filtering of text-only messages (SMs) that are sent via the cellular network. The messages, which include allusions to "human rights," "hunger strike," the names of members of the opposition such as "José Daniel Ferrer" or of the independent magazine Convivencia, are charged for by the Cuba Telecommincations Company (ETecsa) but never reach their destination.
The filtering of e-mails and the suspension of cel phone service are also maintained as means of reprisals against activists and independent journalists for their work.
The areas of WiFi connection to the Internet in September rose to more than 200 throughout the country. Nevertheless, Cuba continues to be one of the countries with less connectivity in the world, with only 5%, which reduces to 1% in the case of wideband, a situation that is maintained despite the relaxations in the telecommunications areas that the Obama administration has adopted with regard to Cuba.
Journalist and former correspondent of the official newspaper Granma José Antonio Torres continues waiting to receive parole allowing him to leave prison and spend the rest of his sentence at home. In the past few months he has received weekend passes to visit his family and a permit to work in his jail's library. He maintains he is innocent of the charges of espionage for which he was sentenced.
The Center for Co-Existence Studies (CEC) has in recent months suffered pressures on the part of the State Security about the dates of its meetings to deal with issues of the Cuban reality. Several members of the editorial board of the magazine of the same name have been subpoenaed and threatened by the political police.
To sum up, this year the Cuban independent press has been marked by two contrary phenomena – censorship and growth. Despite the material and legal obstacles that limit the press it has had months of creativity and diversification of its themes, new formal proposals and a qualitative jump in its proposals. For its part the official press has made an effort to take up again issues and perspectives closer to the people, but it has not managed to distance itself from the rigid partisan limits.