Changing Journalism in Cuba

On the scale of press freedom published by Freedom House, Cuba is 7th from the bottom. However, some interesting stories have emerged this week about the way Cuban journalists are striving to learn skills and publish independent work.

Whilst relations with the U.S appear to be thawing a little, the issue of press freedom remains a stumbling block in discussions between the two countries. The Big Story says President Raul Castro singled out the issue of online educational courses in journalism as a particular stumbling block.

The online courses of particular concern to the president are run within the U.S. Interests Section, the de facto U.S embassy which runs from within the Swiss Embassy in Havana. A journalism programme is taught alongside English language and I.T, and students gather within the Interests Section to receive online tuition from U.S professors via video link.

Interviews with The Big Story reveal the barriers and risks that the students face but also their motivations to improve the quality of life in Cuba.

‘The Internet is largely irrelevant since home connections are highly restricted and access through government centers remains prohibitively expensive, with the cheapest hour now costing roughly 10 percent of the average monthly salary of $20. Nevertheless, people who practice independent journalism risk being labeled “counter-revolutionaries,” a charge Ponjuan rejects. “I don’t consider myself counter-revolutionary, on the contrary,” she said in her cramped house in a poor section of Havana where she also runs a free community library out of her living room. “I just want a change for the better for the country.” Hildebrando Chaviano, a former government lawyer turned dissident, said the beginning and intermediate journalism courses he took at the Interests Section have helped him sharpen his writing skills for stories that appear in the online news site Diario de Cuba and elsewhere. “We are not trying to destroy the country; our interest is that it functions better,” he said. “To do that, you have to criticize it. The government is allergic to criticism.”’

Fast Company reports on an interesting journalism project by Cuban Nieman Fellow Elaine Diaz.

The article points to an opportunity within the wording of the Cuban constitution.

‘In Cuba, the constitution says that “the press, radio, television, movies, and other mass media . . . can never be private property.” But it doesn’t say anything about the Internet’.

Diaz’ publication Periodismo de Barrio will concentrate on reporting of issues surrounding natural disasters (Cuba is particularly affected by hurricanes and tropical storms), and will offer particular advice to vulnerable communities. However, in a country where the access to the internet is restricted by economics as well as legislation, the distribution of digital media works in a different way;

‘Periodismo de Barrio will publish online, but it will also attempt to reach Cubans in a way they more commonly consume media: an offline version of the Internet called the “weekly packet.” Loaded with content like recent television shows, magazines, and games, enterprising small businesses distribute these “packets” on external hard drives that drop in price as the week goes on. If all goes as planned, Cubans will soon plug their drives into computers and televisions and discover Periodismo de Barrio’.