The Public Eye Chat With...Portia Siegelbaum

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is Havana-based producer Portia Siegelbaum. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: You wrote a piece for us last year in which you mentioned that your cell phone cut out for 20 minutes when Fidel Castro's illness was announced. Do you think that the government is playing close attention to you and the other foreign reporters there and keeping tabs on what you're up to?

Portia Siegelbaum: Oh, absolutely. I think they're very concerned, and when they're making an announcement they know is breaking news, they're clearly watching. And I will tell you that every time that there is something that they hope will be reported on, or hope that it won't, they're monitoring. They're monitoring the wire stories, they're monitoring all the print media, and the television and radio also.

Brian Montopoli: Do you ever feel the threat of censorship?

Portia Siegelbaum: Well what they do here, and they just did it recently, is they yank the credentials sometimes of foreign press. And so you know that if you go out and do something they really don't like – usually on a consistent basis. They normally will not yank credentials if you write one story they don't like. They might call you in.

Brian Montopoli: How hard has it been to get good information about Castro's health?

Portia Siegelbaum: It's almost impossible. The government has not been very forthcoming. The only information that we've received recently that we can actually cite has been from him. There are other sources who give us information. It's hard to get some things confirmed by more than one source, and I don't want to report something that I know only from one person or maybe two. Because it could be speculation. There's a very tight circle of silence around him. So it's quite difficult.

Brian Montopoli: The Cuban press corps – what is it like? And how have they covered Castro's health?

Portia Siegelbaum: You're talking about the national press?

Brian Montopoli: I guess. I mean, that's pretty much the only thing, right?

Portia Siegelbaum: Yeah, there's the foreign press corps and the Cuban state run media. They don't talk about it, unless somebody official makes a statement to them. Or, as a week ago, Fidel Castro himself signed a commentary in which at the end he spoke about his health, and they published that. Otherwise it's not an issue. It's a non-issue in the media.

It's one of the weird things here. Ever since he's dropped out of public view, unless he has issued a statement, it's not an issue in the media, it's not an issue on television, it's not an issue on the radio, or in the print press. Nobody deals with it.

Brian Montopoli: Is there any form of alternative or underground media in Cuba?

Portia Siegelbaum: No.

Brian Montopoli: So there are no real voices of a free press that are in Cuba, for Cuba, specifically?

Portia Siegelbaum: No. The Cuban media is basically an information service of the government. Especially in domestic news. What the Cuban media does do is they cover world news. You will see CNN in Spanish stories in the Cuban television news at night. They'll take CNN in Spanish, they'll take Spanish TV. So Cubans in general get a lot of international news, and that comes from outside sources. But in terms of domestic news, the source is the Cuban government, or Cuban government ministry functionaries, and they're feeding information to their press.

Brian Montopoli: Does the average Cuban's view of America echo the view put forth in the state run media?

Portia Siegelbaum: It's a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, they basically believe what the Cuban media says, in general. I've heard people say to me, "well it was in Granma," which is the Communist Party daily newspaper, and so it was true. Because it tends not to lie outright on international news. What it more commits is the sin of omission. There are things it doesn't deal with, domestically, that every Cuban knows about. That's probably the biggest problem.