Millennials lead private media opening in Communist-run Cuba
By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - A handful of independent, web-based news outlets in
Cuba are chipping away at the Communist-run island's half-century state
media monopoly, challenging the official version of reality.
While low levels of internet access across the Caribbean island limits
the outlets' domestic reach and they are not fully free to speak their
mind, they are opening up the range of voices and sparking a debate
about the role of the media in the one-party state.
"State media talks about things no one cares about and hides the truth,"
said Abraham Jimenez, 27, who co-launched the online, long-form magazine
"El Estornudo" (The Sneeze) in March with a group of friends.
"The Sneeze was something of a reaction to this context. We want to tell
While the Cuban constitution forbids privately-owned mass media and
there are no independent newspaper printing presses in the country,
web-based outlets have so far been tolerated as long as they are not
"counter-revolutionary", a nebulous term generally used against those
the government accuses of trying to undermine it.
President Raul Castro's government blocks internet access to dissident
media, such as the country's most famous blogger Yoani Sanchez, as well
as stridently anti-Castro, Miami-based outlets.
The new outlets, mainly run by millennials, have distanced themselves
from dissident groups. Although they are often are highly critical of
government policy and describe in detail everyday hardships, they are
not calling for an end to Cuba's socialist project.
Jimenez says his grandfather worked as a guard for revolutionary icon
Ernesto "Che" Guevara. He does not consider himself a dissident and says
his criticism is not to achieve political goals, but to present a
realistic and balanced view of Cuba.
"If you never talk about a country's good things, that's also not
journalism," he said.
The new openness is emblematic of a wider, albeit cautious, reform
program under Raul Castro, who has allowed Cubans to purchase cellphones
and laptops, installed 200 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country and even
fostered a small private sector.
For some, the mere fact a debate about the role of the media is taking
place is a sea change.
"In the Cuba I grew up in, that debate would never have existed," said
Hugo Cancio, founder of media platform OnCuba who says he moved to the
United States 35 years ago after being expelled from school for making a
joke about revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
The new tolerance may not last. The Communist Party newspaper Granma has
published a series of increasingly angry attacks calling for
restrictions on the new competitors, who have lured away some of its
journalists by offering higher salaries and more freedom.
The critics link the new media to U.S. government financed outlets such
as Miami-based opposition Radio Marti and Television Marti that seek to
undermine the Cuban government.
"Cuban institutions have a legitimate right to adopt required measures
in the face of tendentious journalism," the paper's Iroel Sanchez wrote
on Wednesday in a column. Sanchez called the new outlets "Trojan horses"
set on attacking Cuba's existing journalists and creating a "media
The new media mavens, like the rest of Cuba's entrepreneurs, already
face tough challenges. For one, most cannot get government accreditation
as journalists. Financing and logistics are also tricky.
Insiders at OnCuba, which overlooks Havana's sweeping seafront and by
describing itself as foreign media has become the only one of the new
media crop to win official accreditation, say it has softened its
editorial line recently in order to keep its permit.
Cuba remains one of the world's least connected countries. Fewer than 5
percent of homes are estimated to have internet and access at Wi-Fi
hotspots around town costs $2 per hour - a hefty sum in a country where
state wages average $25 per month.
"We used to leave the office, go to a park to connect and then return,"
said Robin Pedraja, 29, editor of Vistar, a digital magazine about youth
culture, speaking moments before a photoshoot with an up-and-coming
Cuban singer at its airy office, decorated with contemporary Cuban art
and enjoying a fine views of Havana.
"Now we have a system that grabs the signal in a park and brings it to
the office, although we are still paying. It's a bit expensive but
better than what we did before."
Vistar is a glossy magazine also popular abroad - each edition is
downloaded on average 50,000 times - and says it earns revenue from
advertising, including Mexico's Sol beer and Silver Airways, which
serves Florida, the Bahamas and now Cuba.
Other more news-focused outlets have a smaller circulation and are cash
poor. Collaborators for "The Sneeze" work for free from home, fitting it
in around their day jobs. The paper says it rejected an offer of hefty
funding from a U.S.-based foundation.
Another publication, "Periodismo de Barrio" (Neighborhood Journalism),
run by Harvard-educated 30-year old Elaine Diaz, states in its ethical
code that it will not accept financing from anyone that may have been
involved in "actions to destabilize Cuba".
Most of the owners of smaller outlets say they finance them with money
from other jobs or savings, and avoid foreign funding that could
compromise their integrity.
WEAPONS OF COMMUNICATION
The emergence of alternative outlets has added to fuel to a smoldering
debate between reformists and conservatives in the heart of Cuba's
communist system about the pace of economic and social change necessary
for the system to survive.
Castro himself lambasted state-run media five years ago, complaining it
was often "boring, improvised and superficial".
"We need to leave behind the habit of triumphalism, stridency and
formalism in broaching the topic of national news," he said at the 2011
Communist Party Congress.
In a sign of the internal debate this has caused, Granma's deputy
editor, Karina Marron, made a closed-door speech in June saying nobody
chose journalism to write propaganda and calling for reform. The speech
was leaked on the blog of a state media journalist and went viral. The
reporter was later fired.
Meanwhile, on Granma's pages, Sanchez and others routinely attack the
new outlets, which have a growing social media presence.
OnCuba, which also targets U.S. readers, has 259,616 likes on Facebook,
Vistar has 15,776, and younger and more news-based outlets like The
Sneeze and Neighborhood Journalism have several thousand each.
For the time being, television remains most Cubans' main source of news,
given that internet is still a luxury. Cubans tune in to the
thrice-daily state news programs or to foreign satellite programs
pirated from the United States.
As such, the new outlets are finding ways to reach their audience
without the internet. Each edition of Vistar for example goes out as a
PDF on El Paquete, a package of media distributed by USB sticks across
"It won't be like the Berlin Wall coming down all at once and
drastically changing perceptions," said Michaelanne Dye, a researcher
who co-authored a study on internet usage in Cuba.
"Rather, through slowly increasing internet access, new, unofficial
media sources, and an opening economy, pieces of the "wall" are being
chipped away, bit by bit."
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Christian Plumb and
Frank Jack Daniel)
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