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Cuba’s emerging media: challenges, threats and opportunities

Cuba’s emerging media: challenges, threats and opportunities

Elaine Díaz Rodríguez | January 29, 2018
Illustration by Mijal Iastrebner

From 2001 to 2017, fourteen media organizations were launched in Cuba that are already having impact on and off the island. Most of their teams have fewer than a dozen journalists, and many of them are volunteers. All these media sites have reporters working from Havana, but 50 percent have offices or newsrooms in foreign cities, such as Miami, Mexico City and Valencia, Spain.

They cover a broad range of topics: politics, society, environment, economy, technology, culture and sports. Most of them have received threats or have been harassed by fake social media accounts. While some have solid business models, others haven’t even started thinking about how to generate revenue. Their audiences are scattered over the internet, and include Cubans living on the island with infrequent access to the internet, and almost exclusively in public spaces, Cubans living in the diaspora and foreigners who want to learn about Cuba.

These media organizations innovate without realizing they are being innovative: they develop applications to download content offline, raise funds in a kind of “Creole” crowdfunding system that flouts national laws and the United States’ blockade of the island, produce podcasts and create partnerships.

Almost all of them survive in an openly illegal terrain known as "allegality." Non-state media in Cuba defy the very Constitution of the country, which in Article 52 explicitly prohibits the existence of private media.

They have won international awards and recognition that endorse the quality of their content. In 2017, El Estornudo’s Jorge Carrasco became the first Cuban journalist to receive the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Award, and the Postdata team was a finalist in the Data Journalism Awards.

These publications have caused such a stir that at a meeting with officials of the Cuban Communist Party in early 2017, the vice president said: "The OnCuba digital platform is very aggressive towards the Revolution and we are going to shut it down. If they want to make a scene, so be it. Let them say we are censors.”

These non-state media organizations have one thing in common: their primary goal is journalism. These conclusions are based on the analysis of 14 non-state media in Cuba: Periodismo de Barrio (2015), Cachivache Media (2016-2017), 14ymedio (2014), Cibercuba (2014), El Estornudo (2016), Diario de Cuba (2009), El Toque (2014), Hypermedia Magazine (2016), La Joven Cuba (2010), Negolution (2016), OnCuba (2012), PlayOff (2015), Postdata (2016) and Progreso Semanal (2001).

Almost all of them were launched after 2014. 70 percent of non-state media in Cuba (10) were created between 2014 and 2016, meaning they only have three years of experience. However, many of the younger ventures have received recognition from international journalism organizations such as the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for a New Iberoamerican Journalism, and their work has been published in larger media companies, including Univision and Internazionale magazine in Italy.

All of them focus on national issues and only 35 percent also cover stories in the Cuban provinces. Twenty-one percent cover local news. Eighty-five percent address social issues, followed by culture (57%), politics (50%), sports (42%) and the economy (35%). Some specialize in specific niches, such as the environment (Periodismo de Barrio), technology (Cachivache Media), entrepreneurship (El Toque), business (Negolution) and sports (PlayOff). For the rest of the publications, coverage is usually more general.  

Who makes Cuba’s emerging media?

Young people. Teams. Women. Thirty percent of Cuba’s independent media organizations were founded by one person, while the other 70 percent were launched by two to eight journalists. Such is the case with 14ymedio, El Estornudo, PlayOff, Cachivache Media and Postdata, among others. Following a regional trend, more than 40 percent of the founders are women.

Fifty-eight percent of the founders are Journalism and Social Communication graduates and five of them have pursued graduate studies. Most of the executive and editorial management positions are held by men, and all of their managers are journalists, except in CiberCuba, PlayOff and La Joven Cuba.

Who is reading and where from?

The audiences of the digital publications we studied vary significantly. There are media sites with less than 4,000 unique users per month, and others that have more than 4 million. It is notable that some of the audiences overlap in media, such as CiberCuba or general information outlets OnCuba and 14ymedio.

For the rest of the publications, which tend to produce long-form, specialized content for a specific niche, attracting new users does not seem to be a priority.

It’s also important to note that these numbers correspond to website traffic, but do not reflect the total number of users. Due to limited internet access on the island, traffic is often generated through other means, including emails, PDF magazines published offline, or in the so-called Paquete de la Semana (a weekly package of digital news and entertainment that is distributed via USB drives throughout Cuba).

Although their content is addressed to Cubans living on the island, only 41 percent of these media succeed in having residents of this country as their main source of traffic. For 50 percent of these organizations, the majority of readers come from the United States, specifically the Cuban diaspora residing in Miami.

The second country of origin of users varies between Venezuela, Uruguay and Spain, while the third one is further diversified: Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, etc.

Traffic from mobile devices continues to rise among non-state media in Cuba. CiberCuba, which is blocked in the island, reaches 70 to 79 percent of its audience via mobile devices, and the implementation of Facebook Instant Articles, which made it more accessible to users of the social network living in the country.

Based on our observations, Facebook is the most-used social network by these media organizations. One hundred percent use Facebook, followed by Twitter (92%), YouTube (78%) and Instagram (57%). None of them use apps that require a more consistent connection to the internet, such as Snapchat, Telegram or WhatsApp.

Social media strategies vary from publication to publication. In 14ymedio’s case, it should noted that its founder, Yoani Sánchez, had more than 700,000 Twitter followers when she launched the site, which is why they focus on social media as the main way to bring traffic to the website.

El Estornudo has developed exclusive social media profiles where they publish daily. “Píldoras,” for example, is a photo gallery accompanied by short stories about ordinary people living in Havana and Miami. They also have a weekly section where they publish illustrations and animations by Cuban designers.

Periodismo de Barrio (a media site founded by the writer of this report) added a part-time journalist to the team in 2017 to develop their social media strategy. Among their most successful innovations is their publication of more than 10 photographs on Instagram every week, and the way they have adapted 10 of their stories into slideshows that are less than 3 minutes long.

Three of these media organizations have mobile apps. CiberCuba has the more impressive statistics, with approximately 100,000 downloads and 30,000 regular users per month. Because their website is blocked, the app is the main access point for local users.

How relevant is the content produced by these Cuban media?

 

El Toque, September 2016

"The locals say that the Los Danieles batey [a Cuban word for settlement] is so intricate that not even the thieves approach it. It is so far off in the country, so isolated, that the electric system does not reach it." Thus begins an article published in the digital magazine El Toque in September 2016.

In 2012, just before the local elections, the residents of this community decided not to vote, and in the most recent elections, only six people from the 18 families that still live there participated. El Toque’s piece attracted a lot of attention from readers living in Cuba, highlighting the importance of telling local stories with national significance.

Cuba is often perceived as an island with limited access to the internet and a state media system that leaves no room for dissent. However, the emergence of the media sites mentioned in this story demonstrate that the national journalistic ecosystem is more complex and diverse than many might think.

Despite all the limitations they face, new media launched between 2001 and 2017 innovate and have an impact. Some of the most significant successes in recent years have been:

- Covering issues omitted or under-reported in the national press;

- Experimenting with new genres and formats;

- Diversifying content distribution spaces;

- Establishing alliances with other national and international media;

- Winning awards and other recognition from institutions, organizations, companies and international governments.

For example, El Estornudo focuses on two main issues and narrates them from several perspectives: the Cuban exodus to the United States (the migratory route through Central America, the stranded immigrants in Panama or Costa Rica, the crossing of the border through Mexico); and the living conditions in different unhealthy neighborhoods of Havana (marginal areas where rural migrants proliferate that the state does not recognize or register in the census, and the forced deportation of those same migrants to their places of origin).

Hypermedia magazine has recruited important Cuban intellectuals from the diaspora, including Rafael Rojas and Gustavo Pérez Firmat, to contribute to the magazine, increasing its prestige. The Cuban-American writer Gustavo Pérez Firmat was named one of the most influential Latinos in the United States in 2004. In addition, with the aim of promoting narrative as a journalistic genre, Editorial Hypermedia has awarded its Reporting Prize three times.

Postdata has employed gamification techniques to report on Cuban cinema. In an issue dedicated to cinema, they developed a trivia game that allowed users to test their knowledge.

The stories that have had the most impact in Negolution are those related to social ventures that go beyond profit and have a positive impact on the community.

Through these stories they have attracted contributions from inside and outside of Cuba and increased social awareness on topics such as recycling, hiring, benefits and treatment of workers, the relationship with the communities where the projects are developed and corporate social responsibility.

In 2010, Cuban intellectual Esteban Morales was separated from the Communist Party of Cuba after publicly voicing his concerns about the corruption in the country. La Joven Cuba was one of the sites that published articles on the topic and in the years since, has conducted several interviews with Morales. In 2012, they organized a National Meeting of Cuban Bloggers that addressed issues related to Internet access and the right to free expression in social media and blogs. Shortly after, La Joven Cuba site was blocked at the University of Matanzas. In 2013, the block was lifted.

Among its products, Cachivache Media created El Trastero: a podcast which already has more than 30 episodes and is available on iTunes and Soundcloud.

One of 14ymedio’s most important challenges came on March 20, 2016, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited the island. For the first time, an independent Cuban media outlet was accredited by the White House to cover part of the visit – an important step that brought 14ymedio global recognition.

In May 2016, Mónica Baró, from Periodismo de Barrio, took part in a workshop on covering water issues, organized by the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation. Following the workshop, more than 33 short stories were written by 26 journalists from 13 Cuban provinces. The series included illustrations and provided job opportunities to four designers and 26 journalists.

 

Illustration by Miguel Alejandro Castro for "Pozo," published by Periodismo de Barrio

Dangers, threats and misconceptions

Almost all of these emerging Cuban media have been the target of threats and other forms of harassment. Some journalists based in Cuba have been interrogated by the Department of State Security, and others have been harassed on social media by fake or anonymous profiles and pages.

At the end of December 2014, 14ymedio reported on its site that several members of its team had been arrested. Reinaldo Escobar was arrested when he left the building, handcuffed and taken to a patrol car waiting nearby. 14ymedio reporter Víctor Ariel González was also arrested.

The day before these events, an officer had arrived at journalist Luz Escobar’s home, to warn her not to go to Plaza de la Revolución, where the artist Tania Bruguera had planned an event demanding freedom of expression. That same day, the editor of the publication, Yoani Sánchez, was placed under house arrest.

This lack of legal recognition hinders the exercise of journalism in Cuba. On October 11, 2016, six members of Periodismo de Barrio (including the author of this article and two of our contributors) were arrested in the municipality of Baracoa, Guantánamo.

As we reported on our website, the rationale for the arrests was that in Baracoa, Maisi and Imias, reporting activities could not be carried out because those areas were under a state of emergency. We were interrogated and our equipment was seized. A later review of the Cuban legislation revealed that no such state of emergency had been declared; however, all journalists were forced to leave the territory.

Around the same time, Maykel González Vivero, a contributor to El Estornudo, was detained by Cuban government authorities for 72 hours. They confiscated his laptop and the rest of his equipment. A year later, during his coverage of Hurricane Irma, he was arrested again and he recently reported being a victim of "humiliating procedures" in an article published by Diario de Cuba, where he also works.

Reporter Sol García Basulto was arrested on the night of November 4, 2017 by state security forces when she was traveling to Havana. A Camagüey correspondent for 14ymedio, she was intercepted during the trip to the capital by officers who handcuffed her and confiscated her belongings. She was released at about two in the morning, and warned that she could not leave the province for 60 days.

As reported in this story, García Basulto was detained while she was traveling to Havana to visit 14ymedio’s newsroom and begin filing the paperwork necessary to travel abroad. The reporter was going to apply for a visa at the consulate of Panama to take part of an investigative journalism course at the invitation of the Latin American Journalism Center.

In the last months of 2017, Harold Cárdenas, one of the editors of La Joven Cuba, has been subjected to intense online campaigns to discredit him, mostly by anonymous users. In addition, several journalists who contribute to both emerging and state media have been dismissed or sanctioned.

Innovation, awards and recognition

Despite the technical and operational challenges faced by journalists who are launching new media initiatives on the island, there still is room to push the limits beyond what has already been done, and they are winning recognition from renowned international journalism institutions.

Recently, El Estornudo won the 2017 Gabriel García Márquez Award in the text category with Jorge Carrasco's work entitled "The Story of a Pariah,” which tells the story of "Havana's most famous transvestite.” When Distintas Latitudes published the 25 most interesting journalism pieces of the year 2016, four stories by El Estornudo appeared on the list. Its editorial director, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, received the fifth edition of the "Nuevas Plumas" narrative journalism award for his piece “The noble beasts,” also published in El Estornudo.

During its first year, Periodismo de Barrio was recognized in important international competitions. The story "La mudanza,” by Mónica Baró, was one of the three finalists of the text category in the 2016 Gabriel García Márquez Award. Elaine Díaz, director of Periodismo de Barrio, and author of this report, received a scholarship from the Earth Journalism Network to cover the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity, held in December 2016 in Cancun, Mexico. This enabled the publication to further its coverage of environmental issues at the regional level and to establish a working link with Peru’s La Mula.

CiberCuba has been a pioneer in social media publishing through Facebook Live, Messenger bot and Instant Articles. Postdata has formed an innovation team where journalists and data analysts work together for the first time.

The team at Diario de Cuba has developed a space for georeferenced data journalism, with a focus on particularly sensitive and current issues in Cuba. The results, which combine digital maps with data collected by journalists and contributors, not only answers the classic question of where the events are taking place, it also serves as a tool for analysis that contributes to the freedom of information.

PlayOff is the second PDF magazine that has emerged in Cuba and is distributed in the weekly paquete of digital news distributed via USB drive.

Among this group of independent digital media, several interesting initiatives are worth mentioning, including international alliances such as the one that El Estornudo has formed with the Spanish publication, Contexto, and The Huffington Post, where it publishes a weekly column. Periodismo de Barrio has a similar alliance with Global Voices.

Elaine Díaz is SembraMedia’s Cuban ambassador, as well as the founder and director of Periodismo de Barrio. She is the first Cuban journalist to receive the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and was a professor at the University of Havana from 2008 to 2015.

This post was originally published on SembraMedia's blog and has been translated from Spanish and published on IJNet with permission. ICFJ Knight Fellow Janine Warner is the co-founder and executive director of SembraMedia.

Fifth image from "History of a pariah," courtesy of El Estomundo.

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