Cuban journalists detained while covering hurricane damage

Cuban state security officers on October 11 briefly detained Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, one of Cuba’s most prominent independent journalists, along with five of her colleagues from Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood News) and two freelancers working with them, while the team attempted to report on storm damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in northeastern Cuba Periodismo de Barrio reported.

After a fundraising campaign to pay for the trip, Díaz, the founder and editor of the website, and her team traveled from Havana to the northeastern coastal town of Baracoa where they were detained, according to news reports.

In a brief telephone conversation with CPJ, Díaz confirmed that she and her reporting team had been detained and released and said they planned to fly back to Havana immediately. Among the detained journalists were Monica Baro, Julio Batista Rodriguez, Thomas E. Perez and Geysi Guia, according to news reports.

According to the Periodismo de Barrio report, Diaz’s team requested permission from the municipal Ministry of the Interior in Baracoa, but were denied permission to report from the area because they are not accredited journalists with state-run media. State security agents drove the journalists to the operational seat of the Ministry of the Interior in Barracoas for questioning.

The reporters had to turn over passwords, mobile phones, cameras, and flash drives, which security agents reviewed for at least four hours, according to the editorial.

“On October 11, they didn’t just silence Periodismo de Barrio, they also silenced all the communities and people who wanted to speak with our reporters. On October 11, the Cuban authorities attempted to define who has the right to tell stories in our country,” Periodismo de Barrio wrote in an editorial.

The detentions follow the arrest last week of Maykel González Vivero, who was reporting from Baracoa for the independent news website Diario de Cuba. González’s mother said he was released after spending three days in a jail cell, according to news reports.

On her Facebook page, Díaz said that her reporting team had not gone near sensitive areas, such as the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, which is surrounded by a mine field. She said their plan had been to report on storm damage in Baracoa, one of the hardest hit Cuban towns where 24-foot waves damaged or destroyed 90 percent of homes, according to news reports.

Díaz added on Facebook: “The news is not about us, it’s about the victims. We went there to work. That’s what we did, and nothing else.”

Last year Díaz became the first Cuban to win a Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard University. After returning to Cuba, she founded Periodismo de Barrio, a community news website that focuses on environmental issues and natural disasters.

The portal is one of dozens of independent blogs and news websites that sprang up following President Raúl Castro’s calls in 2010 for constructive criticism of the Cuban Revolution.

A September 2016 CPJ special report found that independent Cuban journalists continue to face the threat of arbitrary detention, and that vague and outdated laws and limitations on internet access continue to slow Cuba’s progress on press freedom.