Citizen Journalism in Cuba

For what it’s worth, citizen journalism in Cuba is surprisingly developed. Yoani Sanchez, is one of the most prominent Cuban citizen journalists, whose insights are certainly worth looking more into, on Twitterher website, and the Huffington Post, which features a lot of her english writings. For the restrictions placed on every other kind of jounalism in Cuba, it’s essentially the best and safest option, and potentially the most fertile soil for a vibrant journalistic culture to grow.

Physical brutality and detainment are among the challenges that citizen journalists face in Cuba. They endure the risks of being their own sources, seeking out information for themselves, and sharing it with others in small networks of trusted independent journalists. At the same time, when they contact local people to ask for information on what’s going on in their area, their input is “closer to allegations than to verified information“, as written in an article, “Island in the Storm”, by Yoani Sanchez. Citizen journalists exist in Cuba as a series of networks including, that also function as support organizations, facilitating the safe passage of information, which doesn’t always  reach across the island.

Because of Cuba’s immense but slightly informal surveillance apparatus, the CDR journalists have to follow an exceedingly complicated social media/information sharing scheme. They use inconspicuous offline methods, like flash drives, DVD’s and CD’s. Additionally, with the immense price of internet access, and the fact that its highly monitored, web resources like twitter not only become economically unwise, but also dangerous.

Yoani Sanchez is exemplary in the use of these media.  She even overcomes the challenges in internet access, and operates several blogging platforms. Her story (largely accessible through her own writings and thus subject to some bias), exists in what is similar to a series of excerpts from an autobiography tying her journalistic identity to a new revolution, paralleling the dictators who have ruled the country for over half a century. Those same dictators refer to her as having been put on the payroll of the American empire, and she has also been described as Anti-Cuban. But judging from what she writes about, she more so comes across as staunchly anti-Castro, and not necessarily pro-American, although her access to internet and use of American-made media, and the underlying financial support this indicates, may arouse some suspicion.

The tide may yet be turning. Cuba recently hosted a contingent of students of journalism to visit California State Unitversity, Fullerton. Exiled journalists have been speaking out more, encouraging change.


Restrepo Reaction

Impartiality is key, but in this case, it doesn’t fit the lock.

Restrepo is an incredibly complicated story. As an embedded journalist accompanies a platoon during a campaign in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan in 2008, he photographs, films and tells their story using footage from the campaign as well as recorded interviews with the soldiers later on. Together the platoon, laughed, cried, suffered loss, and enjoyed victory, but the majority of the experience amounts to a mundane course of everyday life for otherwise ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. What they endured together transcends the simplistically objective, and calls for commentary on the worth of subjective experience in journalism.

Part of this experience is reflecting on sensitive topics, like placing young men in combat situations in foreign countries, when they hardly had any life experiences before enlisting. “This is a difficult situation for even an aware person”, Hetherington states. One soldier had a tattoo “infidel” across his chest,  pointing to a clear irreverence for the situation he’s walking into. There was also a scene in which the platoon found a cow snared on a fence, and they cooked it and ate it. After it turned out that the cow belonged to villagers, they had to repay them, but gave them relatively weak compensation. Are these appropriate? What is the significance of these men and their actions being a reality of war? These are questions Hetherington set out to raise.

Hetherington gives his perspective on his embedding tour, confessing to some of the views that drove him to create the film in the first place. Underscoring how mundane life gets, even in combat, Hetherington admitted “getting bored”. He also admitted to the importance to forming relationships to telling his message. In one article he said,  “My strategy is, initially, to build a bridge to people rather than turn them off with really tough images by challenging them. By making a film about a group of soldiers that you get to know – that you are intimate with, that you laugh with and end up crying with – is a way for you to engage with what is really going on.” When one of the soldiers died during Hetherington’s embed, he inserted a sentimental piece recounting the soldiers importance to the platoon. But is taking a position like this un-fair, per se? Does the presence of his own views taint the objectivity of his coverage? It doesn’t matter if it was fair, if one approaches the film with the understanding that it couldn’t be objective.

After watching Restrepo, I question the ultimate goal of embedding journalists. One army official stated, “[F]rankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare.”, but that renders embedded persons as but an extension of the military’s ammunition, and threatens their journalistic integrity. If anything, I imagine the purpose to be much like what Hetherington has done, a simple documentation of life on the front lines, but nonetheless valuing the presence of subjectivity.

Pledge Allegiance to the…Blog?

And to the domain name for which it stands.

New media create a new generation, daresay a nation of youths and net-users of all ages with largely borderless perspectives, fostered by blogs and web-based media outlets.

News about Cuba has long been a rather predictable affair. From the Americans, the line has generally been to illustrate it as an insufferable communist dictatorship just miles away that Americans wouldn’t want to go to, even if they could. From the Cubans, it’s a self-respecting country just like any other, only trying to defend its integrity against a enormous, dangerously close, raging imperialist power. There seemed to be relatively little nuance in these stories. Until the Internet.

Vox, in particular, gives an insightful analysis of Cuba’s situation. It tells of “9 Questions about Cuba You were too embarrassed to ask” which is surprisingly rich in detail and nuance. The article gives a multilateral understanding of Cuba’s motivations, but does not fail to mention that it is a dictatorship with a poor human rights record. This is effective in its numerous ways of accommodating readers. It starts at the most basic question, “What is the US-Cuba Deal”, and progresses at a comfortable rate to experts' inferences, referencing the history of communist countries' opening up. Despite the richness of information, the language is informal, and the article features a "music break" video in the middle of the article. Even for the most time starved people (e.g. students) the article is accommodating with its 9th "I skipped to the bottom, what's going to happen next" section.

“Why the Embargo Should End” explained by Vox.

It’s important to view this example in contrast to other contemporary ones. Buzzfeed features the usual “clickbaity” things about Cuba, evident in even the most cursory search18 Things To See And Do In Cuba, Everyone is making the same joke about Cuba, 32 things you probably didn’t know about Cuba, one of which is the free penis enlargement surgeries. As refreshing from the usual news as this may be, it raises questions as to how effective a listicle can actually be. If Buzzfeed is a leader in this genre of news, can a longer, more informative piece by Vox be as effective?

Prime clickbait

To the contrary, Vice’s expose about ISIS (or Daesh) did a great job bringing together divergent understandings of the group that now commands an area the size of Belgium. Those of ISIS itself, and everyone else. For Cuba, Vice also gives a nuanced version, or to the extent that it can do so in such a polarized relationship, it gives not just two, but many other sides of the story. Including that of Assata Shakur, On HIV in Cuba, and the voices of people detained by Cuba and the US alike. joining with Vox in showing that there is more going on in Cuba than communism and poverty.

Maybe we should also take a music break?

 Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” video builds tension, using the site of the assassination of JFK to show at the end that “people shoot down what they don’t understand”.  (Her explanation)

Web-based media have the space and the resources to report without the burdens of competing for ratings or sustaining print and broadcast expenses, as do traditional media. Yes, there is a form of competition for page views or sharing of articles, but these all differ in that they are not mutually exclusive for viewers. This doesn’t necessarily force a choice between, say, Buzzfeed and Vox. Web-based media can produce information that viewers can access more frequently, at their leisure and for longer than they would spend watching TV or reading a newspaper. Even the microblogging site, Tumblr features a variety of content on Cuba. This results in a more informative experience, and is only enhanced by the ability to add links, fusing more information into an article, multiplying viewers’ access to information, and losing none of the entertainment value.


With Liberty and Hyperlinks For All.

Access “Denied”

Access to information is formally limited in a sleepwalking Cuba, but thanks to new technology, looks are deceiving according to a Monday report from Havana

Given the staggeringly and prohibitively high cost of internet access in Cuba, many are denied access to the world’s greatest source of information–not by law, but by virtue of economic status. Despite that, even some Cubans still persist: to check reservations requests from tourists seeking to stay in their homes, send emails, or to update their Facebook statuses in lines that are up to two hours long. These people account for the 5% of people who are reported to be connected to the internet. All this is done in internet cafes displaying the zealously hand-painted vivid colors of a long-dead socialist dream — on streets with “Eisenhower-era Buicks and…rusting Moskvitches” honking by, as Astley describes. Only government sanctioned bodies can produce any television, radio, or newspaper content, bodies which are in large part affiliated with the Communist Party of Cuba. As a result, there are five television channels, six radio stations, and just under ten press publications. Foreign subversive broadcasts, like the US Radio República (spanish) are jammed. Independent libraries are forbidden and a donation of Spanish books was burned in 2003, even ones like medical texts that were not banned by the government, because some several thousand pamphlets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were found within it. The vast majority of Cuban citizens are adrift in an anachronistic gulf that continues to separate them from the broader global consciousness. So it seems.

AFP 536926978 I HUM CUB -

Cubans wait in line at an internet cafe. (Photo: Yamil Lage, AFP/Getty Images) — Accessed from USA Today

Cubans would indeed appear tragically cut off from modern society and stuck inside of a “dream” as Astley put it, but this is all part of the plan.

Modern Day Cuba evokes a sense of Cold War nostalgia. (Photo: Elio Delgado Valdés) — Accessed from Havana

Much of the access which does take place is under the radar. Their activity is off the books (or smoldering ash-piles thereof). The soon antiquated medium of proper newspapers and even broadcast television and radio have been largely abandoned by Cubans anyway, in exchange for the more difficult-to-regulate data flows that are “downloaded from…somewhere”. The Internet has proven a much more threatening adversary than the Cuban government estimated, and a stronger one than they could combat. With the advent of youth engineered technologies like SNet and the collaboration of young Cubans pooling their resources to use it, the proliferation of flash drives and external digital storage for the transportation of media files and even sending news overseas, Cubans refuse to be globally adrift, uninformed, and unentertained.

The Many Faces of Cuba

After the diplomatic thaw last month, Cuban citizens continue to endure oppression, uncertainty about their fate, and now see friction between policymakers in those resumed relations. Nonetheless, the plurality of perspectives within Cuban resistance, and even vested institutions, becomes clear.

Now is a momentous time in Cuban history, and in the legacy of President Barack Obama. After secret meetings leading up to the 17 December announcement of diplomatic restoration, Cubans look with an eye full of hope towards the future–the state and its half-century-old enemy have finally bid a farewell to (diplomatic) arms. Even so, not all are out of the fight.

Some Cuban citizens still endure a suffocating chokehold on their freedom of expression and freedom of access to information. Via hidden WiFi connections enabled by a network of ethernet cables strung from rooftop to rooftop, the creators of SNet, or “Streetnet”, maintain clandestine internet connectivity —and it is thriving. The existence of Snet is no wonder, either, considering the staggeringly high price of government-sanctioned internet access for most Cubans, whose income is somewhere around $20 a month. The service remains out of reach for individuals and a group of people may pool their resources for access to just one node of the network. As a means of political change, however, streetnet’s operators do not take the risk of drawing attention to themselves, to avoid running the risk of being shut down. Politics and pornography are strictly forbidden. “We don’t mess with anybody. All we want to do is play games, share healthy ideas. We don’t try to influence the government or what’s happening in Cuba … We do the right thing and they let us keep at it,” said one builder of Snet, Rafel Broche Moreno, to the Associated Press. Even though Snet’s claims to do the right thing, its very existence is a willful act of subversion, infrastructurally at least, but that’s about as far as they’re willing to go.

aupn7xhj7bwr4whbhtzq Rafael Broche Moreno, one of the builders of Snet. (Gizmodo)

Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, however, does go somewhat further. She has been long-known internationally for her efforts, being listed as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2008. Predictably, this recognition is not without its dangers. In 2009, Yoani and two other dissidents were attacked and apprehended by plainclothes security forces en route to a peaceful demonstration in Havana. Two weeks later, her husband was also attacked.


Sanchez, discussing importance of flashdrives in conveying information under intense communications scrutiny. (FCIR, Photo by Tracey Eaton)

Technology is changing things. After all, it was a tweet that roused the attention of Sanchez and Claudia Codelo fans and resulted in the denunciation of their arrest and eventual liberation. This is all against incredible odds, in a country where internet access costs $6 to $12 an hour, which Sanchez claims “is an act of censorship in itself.” According to that same article, even tweets are expensive; “a single tweet costs 1.10…Sanchez’s 16000 tweets cost over 17000 dollars. How she can manage to support her business is a subject of questioning and even harsh criticism, noting that she receives most of her support from outside of Cuba and therefore asserting that has a conflict of interest, shifting her partiality to those supporting her, rendering her unable to truly garner her countrymen’s support and by extension, the right to represent their struggle.

Despite the many fronts in the battle for Cuba’s future, many stand to gain from its economic liberalization, including those involved in airlines, credit cards, telecom, agriculture, and other US firms. Perhaps most notably on the Cuban side, the future of the cigar industry is quite bright. Nonetheless, with as much as there is to gain, it has been said several times that change will occur slowly, in fits, and in starts, in part because of a considerable distance between Cuban and American policymakers despite the thaw.

Cuba is at a crossroads. In a country whose national information apparatus asserts that it is besieged is ironically uncertain about what will come of renewed peace. In response to the changes and what national leadership envisions of the Cuban people, Communist Party member Alzugaray stated “Some people in the Party want to think we are a monolith. We are not.” A lesson worth learning for more than just the Party.

Cuba after the thaw – From a trickle to a flood

Listed as “not free” by the Freedom House’s 2014 index of free countries, earning a 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the least free, Cuba is a dangerous place to be a journalist. In the year 2013, the government of Cuba “continued its systematic use of short-term ‘preventative’ detentions—along with harassment, beatings, and ‘acts of repudiation’—to intimidate the political opposition, isolate dissidents from the rest of the population, and maintain political hegemony,” (Freedom House). However, this only encompasses sparse instances of public demonstration and use of unapproved communication methods (such as unlawful internet or satellite usage), rather than the repression of content originating from established news outlets. This is because the state controls established outlets, and any independent media sources are banned and considered enemy propaganda. With the imminent change in US-Cuban relations, however, this may change.

See NBC News’ report on the revival of US-Cuban diplomacy:

It may be a slow process given the glacial pace of telecommunications and political change in Cuba, evident in the tight restrictions placed on foreign journalists. For reporters traveling from the United States, they must undergo an intense selection process to enter the country, and must have permission to record anything once they are there. (World Movement for Democracy) Even in light of that, Cuba is unique in that it has remained a single-party political system in such close proximity to the US: its long-time political opposite and a diverse media landscape. After having weathered an embargo that endured for half a century, it seems the Cuban government wishes tomove away from this strategy, untie its moorings, and flow with a rising tide of favor towards US-Cuban exchange. The continuation of diplomatic relations may represent the start of a true thaw in the icy standoff, a reprieve for aspiring journalists in the island nation, and a potential promise of assurance of the freedom to dissent without reprisals.