In early October, Cuban independent journalist Maykel González Vivero traveled to the city of Baracoa on Cuba’s eastern tip to report about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Matthew. A few days later his trip was cut short when he was arrested by police, as he told it in a first-person account published in the Cuban online magazine El Estornudo. “Independent journalism is prohibited,” a guard told González Vivero in audio captured by the reporter on his cell phone.
The incident took place at a critical juncture for the Cuban independent press. A week after his arrest, eight journalists working with the independent online outlet Periodismo de Barrio were also detained in Baracoa for allegedly reporting without proper credentials. Cuban journalists have reported that harassment from authorities has increased since Obama’s historic visit in March. The online newspaper 14ymedio reported in September that text messages with the word “human rights” and “hunger strike” were being censored. A month before his arrest, González Vivero was fired from his job at the state media, according to a report in Global Voices.
But if independent journalism is, in fact, “prohibited” in Cuba, as some argue, then journalists and even some state officials across the island haven’t gotten the message. Here are just of a few of the exciting examples of the boom in new media that have blossomed in the past five years: an online newspaper that produces all kinds of information and opinion; a website practicing investigative journalism on issues of housing, water supply and communities affected by natural disasters; an online magazine that is exploring the narrative genre; digital outlets that cover sports, fashion, culture and lifestyle.
In a country not long ago considered among the most censored Western Hemisphere, this is an extraordinary development, as a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) shows.
Outside reporters covering or discussing journalism in Cuba often break it into three camps. On one end there is the state media, which—despite some reforms and lively behind-the-scenes debates about press issues—is still tightly tied to the Communist Party line. On the other end of the spectrum, dissident newspapers, usually based abroad, have openly called for an end to the Castro regime and have faced the brunt of government repression.
But many of the outlets that have emerged in the past five years have carved a third space between these two poles. Supporting the pillars of the socialist system, while opposing some other aspects, this new wave of journalists often couch criticism in longer narrative pieces, personal essays or investigations about local issues. Most of them know that sensitive political issues are, often times, off-limits.
A minor expansion in the paltry internet service has paved the way for many of the emerging blogs and media ventures. In a country where personal computers were banned as recently as 2008, the connection of an undersea internet cable, the expansion of state internet cafes and the opening of the first public Wi-Fi hotspots have allowed minimal access. But this access comes at steep prices and for limited amounts of time. Independent journalists, many of whom log on to the internet for only a few hours a week, must shell out $2 an hour for public Wi-Fi, in a country where the average salary is $30 a month. They are among the lucky. The overwhelming majority of Cuba’s 11 million citizens have no internet access at all. To get their material in the hands of the disconnected population, journalists and bloggers distribute their content on CDs, flash drives, and via the state e-mail system which many Cubans have on their mobile phones.
A change in tactics by authorities has also provided an opening for new journalism. Long-term incarcerations, characterized in the 2003 Black Spring that sent 29 journalist to prison, are no longer common practice. That’s not to say that its easy or light. Today, most detentions last less than three days. Critical reporters still face frequent summons, threats and invasion of privacy. Cuba has the harshest and most restrictive press laws in the hemisphere, and bans privately-owned media in the constitution.
Again and again, reporters interviewed by CPJ said that the boundaries for censorship are in flux. One blogger, Taylor Torres, compared state censorship to a crystal wall: “It’s a wall you know is there but can’t see. Sometimes the wall moves a bit and lets you go a little further, and you think everything is changing. But suddenly you crash against this wall.”
Carlos Lauría is Program Director and Americas Senior Program Coordinator and Alexandra Ellerbeck is Americas Research Associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).