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Another Look Inside Cuba

(AP Photo/ Jorge Rey)
Information about Cuban President Fidel Castro's illness and temporary handover of power to his brother has slowed to a trickle lately. And that makes tales of how reporters operate in this tightly controlled regime all that much more intriguing. Producer Portia Siegelbaum, who is based in Cuba, gave us a first-hand account of her experiences covering the country for CBS News back in August, when news of Castro's condition first broke. Her first line pretty much said it all: "There are no rules or guidelines for covering the news in Cuba except a really big one: If the government wants coverage, you'll get access. If they don't you won't." In next month's issue of American Journalism Review, Lori Robertson takes a more detailed look at the situation for reporters in Cuba. She begins with some scenes from Havana's José Martí International Airport on the evening of August 2, where many of the reporters who arrived there to cover one of the biggest stories to befall the Cuban nation were told to go home, they wouldn't be getting the necessary visas to remain in the country. That was just one example of what has become one of the most frustrating beats in the business, writes Robertson:
For decades, journalists have been trying to cover a country, whether from somewhere on the island or from afar, that is as frustrating an assignment as they come. It's tough to get in, to get an interview, to get "it" – an entire country filled with people wary of talking to anyone about how they really feel. The small group of foreign journalists who live there struggle to build trust with sources – and find sources they can trust. Others fly in on weeklong or shorter visas or work the phones, reporting methods that are never ideal for penetrating anyplace, let alone a venue as elusive as Cuba.
Robertson also takes a detailed look into how news outlets have negotiated agreements with Cuba to operate "offices" in the country:
By the early 1990s, after the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had collapsed, U.S. news outlets began talks with Cuban authorities about reestablishing news bureaus there.
One of the sticking points for the Cubans was reciprocity: The U.S. has not allowed Prensa Latina, the Cuban news service, to open a bureau in this country. But Cuba has softened on this point for certain news organizations.

In 1997, CNN got the go-ahead. A year later, the AP was back, and in 2000, after 10 years of talks with the Tribune Co., including visits by two different company chairmen, the Cubans granted Tribune a bureau, which includes correspondents for both the Chicago paper and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

ABC, CBS and NBC have "offices" in the country, but they have not been given permission to open full-fledged bureaus. Where the Cubans draw the line is hard to discern. CBS News has a producer and a cameraperson in Havana; NBC News Producer Mary Murray has been in the country since 1994; ABC has "editorial resources," says Paul Slavin, the network's senior vice president for worldwide newsgathering. Correspondent Marc Frank works for ABC and is a stringer for both Reuters and the Financial Times.

In 2000, the Dallas Morning News got permission to open a bureau, but closed it in 2004 amid a round of budget cuts. The News' bureau lasted less time than it took to lobby the Cuban government to allow the paper to open it.

The Morning News had been expanding its coverage of Latin America when it got the bureau, but four years later, its focus was on issues closer to home, such as the U.S.-Mexico border. "We moved the bureau to Texas," explains Editor Bob Mong, who says that in a time of staff reduction, "we felt that [the Cuba bureau] was probably a luxury."

It's a story that will inevitably generate a huge amount of international media attention again, making this a worthwhile read, and making Siegelbaum's missive even more meaningful.
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