Ahead of planned protests in Cuba this week, the Havana government revoked the media accreditation of five journalists with the Spanish news agency EFE.
The move was quickly condemned by the international community and media analysts, who saw the withdrawal as a sign that Havana had turned its attention to the international press.
Cuban authorities told the three editors, cameraperson and photographer Saturday that they would lose their press credentials, but gave no reason.
Four later had their accreditation restored but EFE President Gabriela Cañas said the move was "insufficient."
The move came ahead of this past Monday’s Civic March for Change, a protest by dissident groups calling for greater rights. The government in Havana had sought to ban the march from taking place.
With seven journalists employed to cover the Caribbean island, EFE was the largest foreign media organization. But now that number has been reduced.
Last month, an editor for EFE was stripped of media accreditation. Meanwhile, the outlet has been waiting since July for its new bureau chief, Juan Palop, to be granted credentials. He is currently working in Berlin.
The agency, which is run by the Spanish state but is independent from the government in Madrid, has demanded that credentials be restored to all its journalists.
Cuban authorities said this week that Palop’s credentials will be issued
EFE’s Cañas believes the communist government targeted the agency because it was the largest foreign media organization in Cuba.
“In normal times we are the biggest independent foreign media on the island and we have a strong presence in Latin America and the Spanish speaking world. That is why we think the Cubans have targeted us at this moment, but they have not given us any reasons,” she told VOA.
“But we are not influenced by foreign powers. We don't generate news; we simply recount news.”
With a global staff of 700, EFE operates independently of the Cuban government and any other authorities to report across the world, Cañas said.
Its reporters in Havana always ask for both sides of the story, but the government sometimes does not respond to requests for comment, she added.
EFE declined a request from VOA to speak with its journalists in Cuba.
The Spanish government, the European Union and journalism organizations criticized Havana for restricting the foreign media.
At a conference in Brussels on Monday, Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said, “I have told [the Cuban authorities] that it is unacceptable to withdraw the accreditation of the EFE journalists. I have had talks with the acting head of the Cuban embassy in Madrid.”
Josep Borrell, the European Union foreign policy representative, described the move as “one more step to stop the flow of open and truthful news from [Cuba].”
VOA contacted the Cuban Embassy in Madrid for comment but received no reply.
The Cuban government's International Press Center, which controls accreditation for foreign media, did not respond to requests by VOA for comment.
Edith Rodriguez Cachera, vice president of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders in Madrid, said that after a crackdown on independent media during protests in July, Cuba had turned its attention to the international press.
“The Cuban dictatorship takes another turn of the screw in its persecution of the press, trying to deactivate the delegation of a foreign press agency. The government of [Cuban] President Miguel Díaz-Canel does not want witnesses to the movement for change which are emerging in Cuba,” she said at the conference.
“Not content with silencing the entire independent local press with jail and exile, he now wants to do this with the foreign press.”
Cuban journalists reported on Monday that police and government supporters had surrounded their houses to stop them covering the planned protest.
Camila Acosta, a Cuban journalist who works for the Spanish newspaper ABC and the news website Cubanet, has been under house arrest for four months after her arrest during the July protests.
“Many journalists have been unable to leave their homes to do their jobs. They are trying to make us afraid but fear will be the catalyst for social explosion. We cannot give in to their repression. We must carry on,” she told VOA from her home in Havana.
“The security forces are trying to bully us into giving up our freedom of expression. They are trying to make many independent journalists unable to do their jobs by putting them under house arrest.”
Acosta said that security services tried to “bully” her into giving up her job as a journalist.
“Thanks to my family, I can subsist and carry on doing my work. I will never give up,” she added.
Normando Hernandez González, of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Press, told VOA that “scores” of independent journalists on the island were unable to do their work because they were under effective house arrest. The Miami-based organization supports opposition media in Cuba.
“We have heard that there is a heavy police presence outside journalists' homes and there are lots of military vehicles on the streets,” he said.
“It is another shameful expression of the totalitarian regime in Cuba which seeks to silence anyone who opposes the regime or who wants to report what is really going on.”
He said another demonstration is planned for November 27.
“They feel that they still owe something to the people and want to carry out another protest against the repression which has existed for the past 60 years,” Hernandez said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday condemned “intimidation tactics” by the Cuban government ahead of the planned march.
Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister, responded on Twitter, saying the U.S. should stay out of Cuban affairs.
In a televised statement on Monday, Rodriguez said that the Cuban people had avoided the protests, despite U.S. officials pushing Cubans “to do something that they do not want to do.”
“One can see on our streets…that none of that has occurred,” Rodriguez said.
Some information for this story came from Reuters.