Police are seen attacking AP photographer Ramon Espinosa while he covered a protest in Havana, Cuba, on July 11, 2021. Police have arrested and harassed journalists covering the protests, and have restricted access to the internet. (AFP/Adalberto Roque)

Journalists detained and harassed, internet disrupted amid Cuban protests

Miami, July 14, 2021 — Cuban authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all detained journalists, stop disrupting internet access in the country, and allow the press to cover protests freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Since July 11, protests have erupted in several Cuban cities, with demonstrators calling for the end of the country’s communist government and protesting an economic crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to press reports, which said they were the biggest demonstrations in the country in decades.

Authorities have disrupted internet access in the country, and police have detained at least seven journalists, according to news reports and statements by the Cuban press freedom organization ICLEP and human rights organization CUBALEX.

“Cuban authorities have responded to the country’s largest anti-government protests in decades with expected hostility and aggression to members of the press and disruptions of internet access,” said CPJ Central and South America Senior Researcher Ana Cristina Núñez. “Authorities must release all journalists from detention immediately, restore regular access to the internet on the island, and cease their desperate attempts to hide popular discontent from Cubans and the world.”

On July 11, authorities in the province of Camaguey arrested journalists Henry Constantin, Iris Mariño, and Niefe Rigau of the independent outlet La Hora de Cuba, and authorities in Guantánamo province arrested Niober García and Rolando García, both journalists with the independent news agency Palenque Vision, according to ICLEP and CUBALEX.

CPJ could not immediately determine the circumstances of their arrests or whether they had been formally charged. According to data from ICLEP, which CPJ reviewed, those journalists’ whereabouts are unknown.

Also on July 11, police beat Ramón Espinosa, a correspondent with The Associated Press in Havana, according to news reports, which featured photos of the journalist bleeding from his nose and face.

On July 12, state security agents detained Camila Acosta, a correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC and the independent news website Cubanet, at her home in Havana, and Cubanet reporter Orelvis Cabrera in the province of Matanzas, according to press reports and Cubanet Executive Director Hugo Landa, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app.

Authorities are holding Acosta at the Fourth Station of the National Revolutionary Police in Havana for alleged public disorder and disobedience, and Cabrera’s whereabouts are unknown, according to those sources. CPJ could not immediately determine the circumstances of Cabrera’s arrest or whether either journalist has been formally charged.

Acosta had been reporting on the protests since July 11 for ABC and on her Twitter account.

Authorities have also intermittently blocked dozens of reporters from leaving their homes, including 14yMedio reporter Luz Escobar and at least 26 ICLEP reporters located throughout the country, including in the provinces of La Habana, Matanzas, Pinar del Río, Mayabeque, Sancti Spíritus, Artemisa, and Guantánamo, according to Normando Hernández, ICLEP’s U.S.-based general manager, who spoke to CPJ via messaging app, and a tweet by Escobar.

Authorities have also sporadically shut down internet access on the island and restricted access to social media and messaging platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Signal, Instagram and Telegram, according to news reports and tweets by NetBlocks and the Open Observatory, two organizations that track internet shutdowns.

Cuban authorities regularly block access to independent news websites. Social media networks are normally accessible to internet users on the island but are often interrupted during times of unrest, according to news reports and CPJ research.

One local journalist, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns, said they were able to use VPN software to evade the censorship of specific websites, but were often disconnected from the internet entirely.

“It is hard to confirm information inside Cuba at this time, because of the blocking of the internet,” Hernández said.

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