CPJ condemns Cuba’s decision to ban three foreign correspondents

New York, February 23, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Cuban government’s decision not to renew visas of three Havana-based foreign correspondents.

The government’s decision comes at a crucial period in the country’s history, seven months after Fidel Castro’s ill health prompted the Cuban president to temporarily cede power to his brother Raúl.

“We are concerned that this decision will have a chilling effect on the foreign media and its ability to cover Cuba at this crucial time,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We urge the Cuban authorities to review their decision and to let the journalists continue reporting from Cuba.”

Earlier this week, Cuban authorities informed Havana-based foreign correspondents Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Gibbs of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and César González-Calero of the Mexican daily El Universal that their press credentials would not be renewed, according to international press reports.

The government’s decision was based on the journalists’ negative reporting on Cuba, the international press said. Marx, who has worked as a correspondent in Cuba since 2002, was told his press credentials won’t be renewed and that he had 90 days to leave the country. “They said I’ve been here long enough and they felt my work was negative,” he was quoted in a Chicago Tribune story published yesterday.

“We’re very disappointed and concerned that the Cuban government has decided not to renew our correspondent’s credentials and has asked him and his family to leave the island,” George de Lama, Chicago Tribune managing editor for news, said in the story.
Stephen Gibbs, Havana correspondent for the BBC, received the same order. “The BBC is talking to the authorities in Havana about the status of its Cuba correspondent, after his accreditation was withdrawn. He remains in Cuba, pending the outcome of these discussions,” said the broadcaster in a statement. The BBC said Gibbs was reporting general news and they cannot speculate on the possible actions of the Cuban government.

Cuban authorities told El Universal correspondent César González-Calero that the decision stemmed from “his way of approaching the Cuban situation, which is not convenient for the Cuban government,” said the paper. The International Press Center (CPI) in Havana said the reporter’s work was “not positive” for the Cuban government, according to El Universal.
“It is a clear attempt against press freedom,” El Universal’s Vice-President and General Director Roberto Rock told CPJ. “We are worried this decision may have a chilling effect on other foreign correspondents in Cuba,” added Rock.

As the foreign press flocked to Cuba in August to report on Castro’s health, CPJ documented at least 10 cases in which the government barred entry to foreign journalists carrying tourist visas. Under Cuban immigration law, foreign reporters must apply for journalist visas through Cuban embassies abroad. CPJ research shows that Cuban officials have historically granted visas to foreign journalists selectively, excluding those from media outlets deemed unfriendly.

According to the International Press Center’s Web site, there are 169 foreign correspondents currently working in Cuba, including freelance journalists. According to CPI regulations, journalists’ visas are extended by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a one year period, after which it can be renewed following the presentation of an application at year’s end. The Miami Herald reported today that more cancellations of visas are expected to follow.

In December, the Cuban government issued a document updating regulations on foreign correspondents’ work. The document said that the CPI may temporarily suspend or withdraw a journalist’s press credential “when [the reporter] carries improper actions or actions not within his profile and work content.”

CPJ’s attempts to get comments from Cuban authorities in the U.S. and in Cuba were unsuccessful.