OK To Break The Law For Cuba Story?
Is it okay to break the law for a story? That question was raised by a Fairfax Station reader who wondered about a Sunday Travel section feature co-authored by Post reporter Emma Brown.
She and a friend wrote about touring Cuba on bicycles. They freely acknowledged to readers that they had skirted the law. Despite some exceptions for journalists, researchers and those with family in Cuba, they wrote in a sidebar, “U.S. citizens and residents are generally prohibited from traveling to the island.”
“Americans can, however, travel there, as we did, by flying through a third country, such as Costa Rica, Mexico or Canada,” they wrote, “although you could face civil penalties or prosecution for doing so.”
That prompted the Fairfax Station reader to e-mail: “The merits of the travel ban are certainly debatable, but I find it irresponsible for the Post to have supported and printed an article describing violating U.S. law. What’s next, will the Post be supporting other budding journalists if the travel is to a future embargoed Iran, but excusable because it had cheap lodging and food?”
Joe Yonan, The Post’s Food and Travel editor, said that Brown had traveled to Cuba on her own and pitched the story idea upon her return.
“Obviously, Emma took a risk that she was comfortable with, and we disclosed that to our readers,” he explained by e-mail. “But the fact is, we are a Travel section, and I want our stories to transport readers to places they may never go, in addition to helping them get to the places they are inspired to actually visit.
“Ignoring Cuba altogether as a travel destination, when there are mass-market guidebooks published about it, would seem to reflect an unrealistic viewpoint about how and where some Americans actually travel. We could’ve refused Emma’s piece because she violated the travel ban, but we thought the strength of her tale made the piece viable.”
It is not uncommon for Americans to circumvent the restrictions and travel to Cuba for pleasure. Travel agents and advisers often have argued that the thrust of the government’s restriction is not on banning travel itself, but is intended to forbid spending U.S. dollars there that might support the repressive Castro regime. Some American travelers have gotten around that by pre-paying for their entire trip through tour operators in a third country.
Brown and her traveling companion, Jacob Fenston, decided not to apply for U.S. permission to travel as journalists. Prior to making their trip in May, she said, they were both freelance journalists and feared that not being affiliated with a publication (she subsequently joined The Post as an reporting intern) might doom their request. Journalists who legally enter Cuba as journalists often are assigned a government "minder" who monitors or restricts their travel. Similarly, they worried that they could not venture freely around the island if they joined a pre-packaged tour. Plus, Brown said, they were not certain they would end up writing about their adventure.
Brown acknowledges that she and Fenston broke the law by spending U.S. dollars while in Cuba.
The restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba may be nearing an end. Bloomberg news service reported Monday that a Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) said legislation he is co-sponsoring will have enough votes to pass the House by the end of the year. He also predicted that the bill has enough votes to win Senate approval. However, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who sits on the Foreign relations Committee and is of Cuban descent, has vowed to oppose it.
| September 22, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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