Obama’s trip to Cuba and the censorship dilemma
On March 21, when President Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, every step of his trip will be scrutinized, praised, or criticized by politicians, pundits – and by journalists both inside and outside the country.
In announcing his historic trip, Obama stated on his personal Twitter account that he would personally raise human rights with the Cuban government. “America will always stand for human rights around the world,” he Tweeted.
For some journalists working in the island’s highly restricted media, Obama’s trip raises hopes that freedom of the press is high on his human rights agenda.
“It’s a historic event and Obama’s visit will be broadcasted internationally,” said a reporter who works for Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party. That makes the trip an ideal opening – for a press freedom message from Obama, and for Cuban President Raúl Castro “to show off some of the small progresses made since the diplomatic conversations with the U.S. resumed,” said the reporter, who asked to not be identified because of potential government retaliation.
Others expressed doubt that Granma or other official Cuban media – all in the firm grip of the Communist Party – would be able to report freely on Obama’s trip.
“We still don’t know if Raúl Castro’s regime will let the press publish all of Obama’s speeches” made in Cuba, said Hugo Landa, president of Cubanet, an independent online news site founded in Cuba in 1994.
Landa, who now lives in Miami, predicted that if Obama talks about freedom of speech during the trip, the Castro regime might use what Landa termed “soft censorship” measures to block those statements – such as pulling the plug on TV and radio, or preventing people from leaving their houses to attend events where Obama is speaking.
“There is no way the official media is going to run stories related to freedom of speech,” said Landa. “Relationships have been reestablished, but Cuba is still a communist country.”
The party’s control over media in Cuba remains nearly absolute. Last April, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Cuba the tenth most censored country worldwide. No private print or broadcast media is allowed, and state authorities constantly monitor journalists. Though there are no longer dozens of journalists in Cuban jails, CPJ noted that blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats has been imprisoned since 2013 for writing critically about Fidel and Raúl Castro.
In the past couple of years Raúl Castro’s government has drafted legislative reforms to allow creation of community media projects in print, radio and TV. That could be a significant change in the party-controlled media landscape, but the proposals are still under discussion inside the Communist Party.
“The idea is that people can create their own content and narratives,” said Rommel Jurado, an Ecuadorian media and political observer who attended a conference on the proposals last month at the International Institute of Journalism in Havana. While such projects could improve freedom of speech on the island, “all changes will come gradually, because there is still a big technological gap,” said Jurado. Service providers in Cuba can still be ordered by the government to block objectionable content, and most Cubans have no Internet access, according to CPJ’s report.
Some dissident journalists say that the political opening with the U.S. has done little for prospects for the future of press freedom in Cuba, and they predict that Obama’s visit could actually reinforce censorship there.
“Cuba has very a long way to go,” said Roberto Paneque, who worked for the party’s Granma newspaper for 20 years. “Obama’s speeches and words will definitely be censored,” he predicted.
Paneque left Cuba in the late 1990s and now writes a personal blog. Like others working for independent blogs founded by Cuban journalists in exile, Paneque is still waiting to hear whether he will receive credentials to cover Obama’s trip.
“We don’t even know if we are going to be able to travel to Cuba and report on Obama’s visit,” said Paneque.
Other U.S. journalists such as Andres Oppenheimer, who writes for the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald, share Paneque’s skepticism about press access on the island. Last year, journalists from El Nuevo were denied entry to cover Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Cuba, according to a Miami Herald editorial.
Both of the Miami papers have called on Cuba to allow in all U.S. journalists who want to cover the Obama trip. If that were to happen, it “will offer, at least, a little bit of hope,” said Paneque. “So it won’t be such a disappointing visit like the one Pope Francis paid to the island just a couple of months ago.”
On his Cuba visit, the pope did not meet with opponents of the government. President Obama, however, has already announced that he would hold meetings with dissidents, opening the way to rethink the issue of freedom of speech on the island.