Journalists discuss experiences as foreign reporters in Cuba

Maddie Jarrard, Reporter

Three days since President Barack Obama left office, three journalists spoke at a panel Monday about the future of journalism in Cuba, a nation with which the former president worked to repair decades of strained relations.

The panel featured journalists Nick Schifrin, Zach Fannin and Sally Jacobs. The event was organized by Medill Prof. Peter Slevin in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a non-profit journalism organization that supports engagement with underreported global issues.

“All three of them have international experience and have worked in dozens of countries,” Slevin said. “We were looking for a timely issue on which all three had expertise, and Cuba is entering this fascinating period.”

Addressing an audience of more than 20 people in the McCormick Foundation Center, the journalists covered topics ranging from Cuba’s culture to the ethics of telling stories despite the possibility of endangering sources. Elizabeth Schwall, a Weinberg postdoctoral fellow, moderated the panel.

Panelist Nick Schifrin discussed government protesters in Cuba and similar countries that place limitations on free speech. Schifrin recalled interviewing a man who talked about a rhetorical “red line” that protesters were prohibited from crossing.

Schifrin said Cuba tolerates certain level of dissent, which enables the government to present the protesters as counter-evidence when external observers criticize Cuba for denying free speech.

“There are official dissenters who will be allowed to talk to [journalists],” he said. “He was free to criticize the government in general … but you cannot name names. As long as he remained generic, he was allowed to criticize.”

Jacobs, who reported in Cuba 25 years ago and returned to report from the country after relations with the U.S. were re-established in 2015, also spoke about the reporting challenges she faced while in Cuba.

Although the government doesn’t overtly tell its citizens not to talk to journalists, the country’s culture leads people to not want to talk about sensitive subjects, Jacobs said.

“When I’m trying to interview people around the country about race, I can feel them being uncomfortable about that,” she said. “Cubans don’t want to talk to me about it or to themselves about it.”

Still, with President Donald Trump in office, U.S. relations with Cuba could revert to an icier past, Jacobs said. A diminished effort to build rapport with Cuba from the Trump administration could drive the country to regress, further limiting press freedoms, she said.

“If Trump pulls back a bit, Cuba’s going to become an anomaly, moving backwards as the world moves forward,” Jacobs said.

Medill sophomore Pearl Kim, who is Korean American, said she was intrigued by the discussion because she saw similarities between Cuba and North Korea. Both countries were communist regimes with tense U.S. relations, she said.

Kim said she appreciated that the panelists spoke about the power of information and storytelling.

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