The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 28, 2010

Coverage comes with price of self-censorship


One Spanish journalist based in Cuba for five years wrote that "rare is the journalist who does not soften his reports, to avoid being expelled from the country.''

Another based there for four years wrote, "Self-censorship is a very common practice,'' and ``No one on the island can write the truth of what happens there. Correspondents can only come close to reality.''

Together, two recent books by Vicente Botín and Isabel García-Zarza have cast a spotlight on a harsh reality that foreign reporters in Cuba have previously admitted only in private -- that powerful government pressures regularly force them to pull their punches on touchy stories.

"Audiences abroad are getting an image of Cuba that is at least minimized,'' García-Zarza said in a telephone interview from Spain. ``But that's always better, 80, 90 percent of reality, than nothing.''

"Of course my editors in Spain were perfectly conscious of what was happening, but to them it was important to keep a correspondent in Cuba,'' Botín told El Nuevo Herald in another phone call from Spain.

Self-censorship to avoid being expelled has been common among foreign reporters based in countries with repressive governments, from Saddam Hussein's Iraq to the former Soviet Union.

Even in democracies, "a reporter is aware of the pressure to . . . hold back information or present it in a way that's going to avoid needlessly offending sources,'' said Ed Wasserman, who teaches journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

But after he was read several passages from the two Spaniards' books, Wasserman said the Cuban pressures appeared to have forced the correspondents in Havana to cross the line of reasonable discretion.

"They are really saying the cost of their stay in Cuba was their inability to function as journalists,'' Wasserman said.

Botín and García-Zarza disagree and argue that the 150 or so foreign reporters based in Cuba do regularly write and broadcast stories that may anger the government but are too important to avoid, such as Fidel Castro's health, crackdowns on dissidents and the economic chaos.

Their books -- her La Casa de Cristal, The Glass House, and his Los Funerales de Castro, Castro's Funerals, both published in Spain late last year -- provide examples of how they wrote sensitive stories despite the Cuban efforts to control their work.

While writing a story about dissidents, ``I cannot avoid a little anguish, and I even consider abandoning the story . . . but later I decide that I cannot allow them to intimidate me.'' wrote García-Zarza, who worked in Cuba for the Reuters news agency 1999-2004.

And when Cuban officials ordered all correspondents in Havana to report ``not one word'' after Castro fainted during a speech in 2001, they nevertheless reported the event, she wrote.

But the bulk of their comments in their books acknowledged that they often bowed to the pressures from the Cuban government and its International Press Center, which issues the accreditations strictly required to work there as journalists.

The IPC also issues the paperwork required by correspondents to buy key items such as air conditioners, García-Zarza noted, ``and of course . . . I can't avoid thinking about that.''

Correspondents strongly believe that state security agents regularly tap their phones, homes and cars and often follow them. ``Sometimes the police monitoring is deliberately indiscrete, to intimidate,'' wrote Botín, a Spanish Television correspondent in Cuba 2005-2008.

He added that the security agents also monitor correspondents' ``political ideas, their preferences, their tendencies and above all their weaknesses like drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling.''

The system of pressures ``functions to perfection. You become your own censor,'' wrote García-Zarza.

When Castro fainted again during a Feb. 18, 2006, funeral for a government supporter, ``nobody reported nothing'' because of ``recommendations from State Security,'' according to Botín.

``The sword of Damocles hangs from a thin thread over the heads of the accredited correspondents on the island, and the least little breeze can bring it down,'' he wrote.

García-Zarza noted that her first run-in with the IPC came after she wrote about the government ban on Cubans entering tourist hotels. An IPC official summoned her to the center, and ``being the first time . . . she played the card of the older sister who tries to open the eyes of her crazy little sister, who has not yet understood the difficulties the island faces.''

But after a second story deemed too critical, the same official telephoned her, ``shouting at me how I could have done that, that she had warned me and that I knew very well that this would have its consequences,'' she wrote. ``I began crying inconsolably.''

A later IPC complaint was e-mailed to her Reuters supervisor in Havana, saying, ``When she has reached this extreme, she should ask herself whether she has exhausted her usefulness where she is.''

She stayed on until the scheduled end of her assignment, but a British correspondent with Reuters in Havana, Pascal Fletcher, was forced to leave in 2001 after Castro publicly attacked his reporting and the IPC told him it would not renew his press credentials.

``I suppose there was no alternative, but it pains me a lot'' that Reuters agreed to reassign Fletcher, she added.

Later in the book, based on a diary she kept, she wrote, ``It's been a couple of months since the [Fletcher case], covering only the absolutely necessary, taking maximum care with each story. All of us feel fear down to our bones. To the point where each time we write something, we ask each other if `they are going to like it.' ''

About 150 foreign media are currently accredited by the IPC, ranging from the U.S.-based CNN and the Associated Press to newspapers and television and radio stations from Europe, Latin America and Asia.

Editors for three of the foreign media with correspondents currently or formerly in Cuba declined comment for this story, and so did Fletcher. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, which have not received Cuban permission to report from there for several years, send reporters to the island as tourists who do not obtain IPC accreditations.

Alberto González, spokesman for the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, said he had not read the Spaniards' books but dismissed them as part ``of a fad to write books about Cuba and make money. If they write the truth about Cuba the books are not published, so they have to lie.''

``They would not have stayed so long in Cuba if they had been persecuted so badly,'' he added.

IPC regulations allow it to cancel correspondents' accreditations ``when the holder carries out actions that are improper or incompatible with their . . . work duties, and when it is considered that he has violated journalistic ethics and/or has not remained objective.''

Gonzalez said the wording mirrors those of many European countries, especially Spain. ``The only thing that we have demanded is that they stick to the truth and objectivity,'' he said.

The Castro government has expelled or refused to renew the accreditations of several correspondents since 1959, however. The last three were in 2007 and included The Chicago Tribune's Gary Marx, who had been posted in Cuba since 2002.

``It's absolutely true that there's self-censorship in Cuba,'' Marx told El Nuevo Herald. ``But every correspondent makes his own decision on how to handle the government pressures. I tried as best as I could to cover the story without buckling.''

He did, and the IPC notified him in early 2007 that he had 90 days to leave the country. ``They told me my stories were too negative and that `we think we can do better with someone else.' ''

``For sure self-censorship is a common thing in Cuba,'' said Tracey Eaton, the Dallas Morning News' correspondent in Havana from 2000 to 2005.

``Reporters make compromises in exchange for access all the time, but in Cuba the situation is more dramatic.''

The Inter-American Press Association reported in November the IPC had tightened controls on correspondents and delayed renovating the accreditations for months as a way to pressure the foreigners.

While García-Zarza's book focuses on her personal experiences in Cuba, Botín's offers a detailed and uncensored look at Cuba's reality, from the poverty of its people to its chaotic economy.

He wrote parts of the book in secret while living in Havana, but finished it after he left because, he wrote, ``no one from within the island can tell the truth of what happens there. The correspondents can only come close to the reality with innuendos and metaphors.''

Cuba, he added, ``is not the happy world that the news media projects.''