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More reporters ordered to leave Cuba

Frances Robles
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI - In the harshest crackdown in years on foreign correspondents based in Havana, the Cuban government has ordered at least three of them - including the Chicago Tribune's - to stop writing because of their "negative" reporting.

The government last week ordered veteran Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Gary Marx to stop covering Cuba immediately and gave him 90 days to leave the island, said Tribune managing editor for news George de Lama.

Mexico City's El Universal reported that its correspondent in Havana, Cesar Gonzalez-Calero, and an unidentified correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corp. got the same orders. More are expected to follow.

The sanctions come at a tense time for foreign journalists in Cuba. Although Cuba has always restricted news coverage of its affairs, reporters on the island say the pressures against filing negative reports intensified after leader Fidel Castro became sick in July and was replaced by his brother, Raul.

Raul had been widely expected to be more pragmatic and open to reforms than his brother, but journalists in Havana have said several have been called in for extended questioning about their stories since Raul took over.

Former Associated Press reporter Vanessa Arrington said when she arrived in Havana in 2004 she initially didn't feel any direct censorship - just difficulty getting information. But after writing two articles the government disapproved of late last year, Arrington was barred from high-level government events and news conferences, including the weeklong celebrations in December to honor Castro's 80th birthday.

"Since Fidel Castro got sick, the pressure has increased, and my punishment for writing stories the government disliked was, in my opinion, clearly an attempt to silence other reporters by way of warning," she told The Miami Herald.

"Foreign correspondents walk a very fine line in Havana. . . . An ethical journalist must portray all sides of the story, which will almost inevitably lead to some conflict with the government," she added. Arrington left Cuba last month after almost three years and now lives in Arizona.

A 2003 survey by the France-based Reporters Without Borders slammed the Cuban government's control of the foreign news media, saying the government regularly exerted pressure through warnings, rebukes and surveillance.

The report said the government also controlled coverage by restricting journalists' visas. Any journalist who wants to report from Cuba legally must obtain a special visa. But the application process often takes months and involves a background check on the reporters, including whether they are involved in labor union activity, the report said.

"If you are known for stories that are critical of Castro, you don't get the visa," organization spokeswoman Lucie Morillon said. "The government controls all the media. The only thing they don't control is the foreign correspondents. The reporters have to play a game of cat and mouse with parameters changing all the time."

In the past, the government has expelled several correspondents, and in other cases did not renew their journalists' visas or accreditations, in effect forcing them to stop writing. Recently, the government changed its annual visa system from an annual renewal to monthly to increase its controls.

The Tribune is one of a handful of U.S.-based news organizations, such as CNN and other TV networks, with official permission to work in Cuba.

At a time when waves of journalists are expected to descend upon Cuba upon Fidel Castro's death, Marx's departure makes the South Florida Sun-Sentinel - also owned by the Tribune Co. - the only U.S. newspaper with a Cuba bureau.

The Miami Herald has historically been denied both permission to open a bureau in Havana and visas to visit and report on the island.

Signs of the government's hardening line on foreign correspondents have been evident since December, when the Cuban government issued an 11-page edict that updated regulations on their work.

The document said the International Press Center in Havana may temporarily suspend or withdraw a reporter's accreditation "when (the reporter) carries out improper actions or actions not within his profile and work content."

"This is a sensitive time there," the Tribune's de Lama said.

He said the government said it would be flexible on the 90-day order to leave, allowing Marx's children to finish the school year this summer. During that time, Marx will continue to fly in and out of Cuba to Venezuela and Colombia, the other countries he covers.

A Tribune story on the sanction said the Cubans had said they would accept an application from another Tribune reporter. "We're obviously disappointed," de Lama said. "Gary is an excellent, experienced correspondent who had reported fairly and accurately from Cuba."

In the past month, Marx filed reports about young people's waning interest in communism, a debate among intellectuals who feared a government crackdown and a Catholic church activist. Marx also wrote about a string of Cuban doctors who defected.

Based there since 2002, Marx had been set to leave this summer. "They said I've been here long enough, and they felt my work was negative," Marx told The Tribune. "They did not cite any examples."

El Universal reported its reporter was told his coverage was "not convenient for the Cuban government."

"At no time did they refute one bit of my information about Cuba in terms of errors or facts," Gonzalez-Calero told the paper.

BBC Americas editor Emilio San Pedro said the company declined to comment on the report about its correspondent.

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