A screenshot from the phone of a Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press employee shows that the device cannot connect to the internet. (Photo: ICLEP)

Staff of Cuban press freedom group ICLEP lose internet service, fear targeted disruption

Miami, March 4, 2021 — Cuban authorities must ensure that journalists and staff at the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP) are able to access the internet, and should allow its journalists to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since February 24, dozens of employees of ICLEP, a Cuban press freedom organization that also publishes seven free newspapers in the country, have been unable to connect to the internet on their mobile phones, according to press reports and Normando Hernández, ICLEP’s general manager, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

At least 42 journalists and directors of ICLEP, located in seven different provinces, have lost all internet connectivity on their phones, and staff have also reported their home computers connecting to the internet unusually slowly, Hernández said, adding that these issues have disrupted the operations of all seven of the organization’s newspapers.

“It can be no accident that nearly 50 independent Cuban journalists lost internet service on the same day,” said CPJ Central and South America Senior Researcher Ana Cristina Núñez. “Cuban authorities must ensure that employees of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press have full access to the internet and that they can carry out their work without interference.”  

Mobile phone ownership is registered with the government, and ICLEP employees’ devices rely on internet service provided by ETECSA, Hernández said. ETECSA is the country’s only telecommunications provider, and is owned by the state under the Ministry of Communications; devices that connect to the internet can be hard to obtain and prohibitively expensive, as CPJ has documented.

Employees’ attempts to access the internet trigger identical error messages, stating that “the mobile network is not available,” according to screenshots seen by CPJ.

Hernández said that the employees have continued paying for their mobile internet service, and have contacted customer service at ETECSA, but representatives have been unable to identify the cause of the issue or restore internet connectivity. He said that at least one employee put their SIM card in another person’s phone and found that the phone connected to the internet without issue, and the card only failed when in the employee’s phone.

Hernández told CPJ, and published on ICLEP’s website, that an unnamed employee of ETECSA told him that state security services had ordered the company to monitor and intercept all communications by ICLEP employees and, if they could not monitor them, to cut-off their services.

“In the nine years that ICLEP has been working in Cuba this had never happened,” Hernández said. “I worry for the security of all ICLEP journalists in Cuba.”

ICLEP journalists frequently use encrypted messaging services and VPNs to protect their communications from surveillance, Hernández told CPJ

Separately, on February 5, National Revolutionary Police briefly detained Alberto Corzo, ICLEP’s executive director, and interrogated him about the organization’s work, funding, and editorial policy, according to a report by ICLEP.

On February 10, the Cuban Ministry of Labor and Social Security published an official notice reiterating longstanding government policy that bars independent “journalists activities” and the independent publishing of “edition of newspapers, tabloids and magazines in any format,” as well as other banned activities.

CPJ emailed the Cuban National Revolutionary Police, ETECSA, and the Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive any replies.