BOB GARFIELD: About three weeks ago, the Cuban government announced that President Fidel Castro was in the hospital and that he had handed over power to his brother, pending his recovery. But since then, the Cuban government has released next to nothing about Castro's condition and essentially shut off the island to foreign journalists. So how do you cover a huge breaking story when you're not even allowed into the country? We asked Dan Grech, correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace, to find out.
DAN GRECH: For years, The Miami Herald has been essentially banned from reporting in Cuba. The Cuban government considers the paper a mouthpiece of Miami's Cuban exile community and, therefore, an enemy of the revolution. But Cuba is the foreign story that most interests Herald readers, so the paper's found ways around the reporting ban.
REPORTER: I intentionally left my computer. I intentionally left my press badge and all my cards.
DAN GRECH: That's a Miami Herald staff writer who recently posed as a tourist to report from Cuba. On the Media has agreed not to disclose his identity because he might be sneaking back onto the island sometime soon. Over the years, The Miami Herald has compiled a running list of do’s and don'ts for reporting under cover from the Communist island.
REPORTER: Try not to draw attention to yourself. Take lots of cash. Stay away from other reporters. Obviously it's just about being very discreet. Of course, looking back on it now, I probably could have done a lot of things differently.
DAN GRECH: The Herald reporter was on the island for five days. He contributed several stories and wrote a front page piece about how Cubans were watching foreign news programs through illegal satellite hookups. He used public pay phones and Internet cafes to send back his dispatches, and his name never appeared with the stories. But the cat-and-mouse game soon ended.
REPORTER: I got a knock on my hotel room door around 6 in the evening, and it was two uniformed men. They said, we heard you've been doing some journalism work, and you're on a tourist visa. You're not allowed to do that. But they were very nice. They said, excuse us for the inconvenience, and they took my passport and they said, stay in the hotel. Your flight's tomorrow, and we'll come pick you up.
DAN GRECH: It's not always been this hard to report from Cuba. In 1998, during Pope John Paul the Second's visit, the government threw open the doors to 2,000 journalists, half of them from the U.S. Despite the embargo, the U.S. government allows American journalists to report from Cuba. But when the Cuban government announced Castro was in the hospital, it got hundreds of applications for press visas – and turned them all down. A German news agency estimated 150 journalists were turned away at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana in the days following the announcement. One of them was Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist who wrote a book on Cuban music, called “Last Dance in Havana”. He tried to enter as a tourist but got caught at Customs.
EUGENE ROBINSON: The immigration officer scans my passport in and then there's a change in his facial expression, which I recognized as not a good thing. He started asking questions and eventually got to the magic question, which is, are you a journalist, sir? That's a question that we have to answer truthfully, so I said, yes, I am.
DAN GRECH: Robinson, and journalists from Spain, the Netherlands and Panama, spent the night in the airport. They were shipped out of the country the next day. Cuba's recent clampdown on journalists creates a dilemma for media organizations. Do you stretch the truth to get your reporter in the country or do you abide by Cuba's laws and potentially shut yourself out of a big story? New York Times deputy foreign editor, Ethan Bronner.
ETHAN BRONNER: There are conflicting issues, but on balance, it's more important to be there than to not break the law, that particular law in Cuba.
DAN GRECH: The Times sent in veteran Mexico City correspondent Ginger Thompson. On August 4th, she contributed reporting to a page one story by Juan Forero about the ties between Cuba and Venezuela. This tagline ran at the end of the piece: "An employee of The New York Times who could not be named for security reasons contributed reporting from Havana for this article."
ETHAN BRONNER: The point we were trying to make is that our reporter would be at risk of arrest and/or expulsion if named.
DAN GRECH: The use of the phrase "security reasons" surprised some journalists. Several mainstream news organizations, including America's three major TV networks, have had unofficial reporters on the ground for years, and The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson says there's no history of Cuban authorities jailing foreign journalists.
EUGENE ROBINSON: The real reason is because we don't want the Cubans to know who it is [LAUGHS] and find them and kick them out. And I don't think you can really encapsulate that as security concerns.
ETHAN BRONNER: I think it was just infelicitous phrasing, you know, that was put together at 7 o'clock on a workday evening.
DAN GRECH: Bronner says the tagline won't be used again.
ETHAN BRONNER: In retrospect, I think I would have deprived the readers of that bit of information because it probably tipped the authorities in Cuba off to Ginger's presence there.
DAN GRECH: Ginger Thompson was kicked out after seven days. While that might be the worst a foreign reporter faces for breaking Cuba's rules, the risks are much greater for their sources. Gary Marx is the Havana correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
GARY MARX:: Yesterday the individual I was interviewing was a guy on the street. He was selling cigarettes on the street. I'm surrounded by three or four police officers. And what do I do? Do I try to walk away? So I talk to the individual I'm interviewing. I say, well, do you want me to stay here to try to protect you? And he says, no, no, no. You know, you got to go. He says, you know, nothing's going to happen to me now, but maybe tomorrow they're going to take me away.
DAN GRECH: The Chicago Tribune is one of four U.S. news organizations that have government-approved bureaus in Havana. The others are CNN, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. If you haven't heard of The Sun-Sentinel, they're based in Fort Lauderdale, and they're the main competitor to The Miami Herald. Sun-Sentinel editor Earl Maucker explains how his paper landed this coveted bureau, its only foreign posting.
EARL MAUCKER: There's a variety of reasons. The obvious one [LAUGHS] is that we're not The Miami Herald.
DAN GRECH: When Castro fell sick, the Sun-Sentinel was in between correspondents, and they couldn't get their reporter back in the country. They didn't dare sneak a reporter in as a tourist for fear of having their bureau taken away. So in an ironic turn, Castro's nemesis, The Miami Herald, had a reporter on the ground in Cuba while the Sun-Sentinel's Havana bureau sat empty. For On the Media, I'm Dan Grech.