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Report: Cuba Cuts Internet, Surveils Journalists

FILE - Young people use a hotspot to connect to the internet, in Havana, Cuba, June 06, 2019.
FILE - Young people use a hotspot to connect to the internet, in Havana, Cuba, June 06, 2019.
Report: Cuba Cuts Internet, Surveils Journalists
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There was a time when activists and reporters in Cuba had to speak in code or meet in European embassies to avoid government observation.

Now, the internet and encrypted messaging services offers some assistance. But as technology has made private communicating easier, Havana has found ways to interfere with, or block, messages.

Cuba’s independent reporters take care to protect their phones so they do not go into the hands of officials. If government agents seize an individual’s phone, they will search through its data for evidence of wrongdoing.

The Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and Press, or ICLEP, says it documented at least 210 incidents of internet restriction cases in the country in 2023.

Those restrictions can include cutting internet access, blocking social media sites, or hacking the accounts of reporters or the media websites they work for, the ICLEP report found.

Normando Hernandez is founder and director general of Miami, Florida-based ICLEP. He said the government tries to “silence independent journalists."

"It is historically well known that the Cuban state listens and spies on all the conversations it wants to," Hernandez said. "Cubans have no way to defend themselves against any breach of their rights."

Reporter Henry Constantin says his internet was cut suddenly after La Hora de Cuba, the media site for which he works, began criticizing the Cuban government.

La Hora de Cuba is published on Facebook and Instagram. Its team of 15 reporters has an audience of between 46,000 and 48,000 on social media.

Constantin says disconnecting journalists’ telephone lines or internet access is designed to limit free speech. Hernandez said the government controls all access to digital expression.

Havana controls the Cuban telecommunications company ETECSA, which controls all digital communications on the island.

Access to the network for users represents both a threat to Havana and an instrument of control for officials. But with that control, said Hernandez, officials can easily "cut communication in general at historically important moments … or when something is happening in the island of interest to Cuban society."

That appears to be the case with Constantin.

In 2021, he was detained for 10 days for public disorder after reporting on demonstrations against the government over food shortages and medicinal problems.

ICLEP has documented digital harassment since 2016.

In 2021, the activity was especially strong. ICLEP documented 1,129 violations of freedom of expression that year. During that year, protests against the Cuban government and Communist Party were the biggest since the 1959 revolution.

Prisoners Defenders International is a Spain-based human rights group. It said Cuba’s government has been spying on reporters and activists for many years. Javier Larrondo is president of Prisoners Defenders. He said the government monitors text messages for “sensitive words.”

Using encrypted services like WhatsApp or Telegram is not always enough. When reporters or opposition activists are arrested, their phones are always seized and the memory inspected by experts.

"As such, it is essential never to go out with a mobile phone but to leave it at home, hidden." Or to go out with a second phone without memory, he said.

I’m Dan Novak.

Graham Keeley wrote this story for Voice of America. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

code — n. a set of letters, numbers, symbols, etc., that is used to secretly send messages to someone

encrypted — adj. to change from one form to another especially to hide its meaning

access — n. a way of being able to use or get something

hack — v. to secretly get access to the files on a computer or network in order to get information, cause damage, etc.

breach — v. a failure to do what is required by a law, an agreement, or a duty : failure to act in a required or promised way

harass — v. to annoy or bother in a constant or repeated way

essential — adj. extremely important and necessary