Cuban journalists covering the most serious protests against the communist government in decades have been arrested, subjected to police surveillance and intimidated by the authorities.
At least 47 journalists have been arrested, according to the Cuban Institute for the Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), an organization that supports opposition media on the island.
When VOA spoke with its executive director, Normando Hernández González, on July 15, he said he had just heard of the arrest of another journalist and wanted to get the news out as soon as possible.
Later, Hernandez said the arrest was symptomatic of how the Cuban government is trying to “criminalize our profession.”
The protests have resulted in dozens of arrests, one confirmed fatality and three days of disruption to Cuba’s shaky internet service, which was used to organize rallies and disseminate footage in an unprecedented challenge to the ruling Community Party and President Manuel Díaz-Canel.
Authorities said the protests were a result of U.S.-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by sanctions.
Reporters told VOA that the police have seized computers and telephones, cut access to the internet, or placed them under house arrest.
One of those journalists — Camila Acosta — spent five days in custody after being arrested in Havana on July 12 after covering demonstrations in the Cuban capital. The journalist was released Friday and placed under house arrest.
Police told the 28-year-old that for the next six months she can leave her house only for essential journeys, such as shopping or health reasons, while they investigate her case.
“They tried to get me to sign a document saying I was guilty of public disorder but I refused. I am guilty of nothing. I was just doing my job as a journalist, reporting on demonstrations,” Acosta told VOA by telephone from her home in Havana.
“I used my time inside police cells to interview people, about one hour a day. I suppose I was destined to do this job. I saw lots of people inside who were detained over the protests, some had been beaten, even children.”
Acosta, who works for the Spanish daily ABC and CubaNet, a pro-opposition newsletter, claimed police employed psychological tactics against her.
“They tried to intimidate me and put psychological pressure on me. They tried to tell me that I am not a real journalist. I said that I studied journalism at Havana University,” she said.
“They tried to tell me that I was not an important person and that my family did not care about me.”
Acosta said that police even tried to persuade her that she should give up journalism.
“When they said I should give up journalism, I just laughed at them. This is what I do. I am not going to give up reporting,” she said.
“I was not scared, but I was worried about my family. I was also worried for many people who have been arrested and just disappeared. It is a worrying situation.”
The journalist says her laptop, mobile phone, a tablet and a hard disc were taken by police, but authorities did not cut off the internet at her home.
Also under house arrest is Alberto Corzo, the 51-year-old director of ICLEP. Police raided his home on July 15 and detained Corzo for 24 hours.
“My arrest was pretty traumatic. My 10-year-old son Cesar has been suffering from bullying from people in my town who are close to the regime. So when the police came, he had a nervous attack,” Corzo told VOA from his home in Matanzas province of Cuba.
When protests started, Corzo said, he telephoned contacts to find out what was happening in Havana and other cities.
“I was just doing my job as a journalist, but they accused me of inciting the protests. My telephone is tapped so they know who I was talking to,” he said.
Corzo says he was interrogated twice during his 24 hours in police custody.
“They try to intimidate anyone who is involved in independent journalism. Some people do not write just about politics but about social issues, but they are also targeted,” Corzo said.
“Despite what has happened — and I am pretty upset about it — I will never give up the profession of journalism.”
Other independent journalists, like Juan Manuel Moreno Borrego from the local news website Amanecer Habanero, have been under police observation since the protests started.
“This past week has been very intense. We are observing a lot of political and social tension in the capital. I know lots of journalists who are under police surveillance,” he told VOA via social media after repeated attempts to contact him by telephone failed.
The journalist sent photos showing a police guard lounging outside his house.
Moreno said despite the pressure from the Cuban government, most reporters were determined to preserve the “tools of their trade” like computers and telephones.
“Up to now, they have not been able to take these off us because we have a policy to preserve these, using strategies to prevent this from happening,” he said.
“But the internet has been our weak point, as you have discovered, and communication is very difficult. Navigating across social media is practically impossible.”
Social media targeted
Those who use social media to share news and commentary were among those targeted.
Dina Stars, a 25-year-old whose YouTube page includes songs about freedom from what she calls state oppression, and comments on the protests, was arrested live on television on July 13 while being interviewed by the Spanish television channel Cuatro.
“They didn’t torture me. I am on the side of truth,” she told her 40,000 subscribers after her release the following day. “They arrested me for promoting the protests.”
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told a press conference that media working for the U.S. government, which funds a number of opposition media websites, were driving the protests Reuters reported.
The website CubaNet makes no secret of its U.S. government funding. It received $300,000 from USAID in 2020 and has 30 correspondents in Cuba whom the website says offer independent reporting.
The site’s director Hugo Landa said that since the protests, at least four of those have been detained, including Acosta.
“Many of our journalists could not leave their homes because the State Security Police put agents at their doors and forbade them to exit,” he told VOA.
Moreno, of Amanecer Habanero, says the situation is still tense, adding, “We are expecting another uprising.”