In Cuba, “el paquete semanal,” or “the weekly package,” can carry many different things. A hard drive or CD that can be home-delivered or available for pickup, it can be filled with the last season of "Girls" or the hottest new Mexican soap opera, the latest digital edition of The New York Times or the Spanish gossip magazine “Hola.”
This clandestine network of offline content is the way Cubans found to get access to information and TV shows that aren’t available on the island.
“In Cuba people read us through the illegal market of information,” said Yoani Sánchez, one of the first Cuban bloggers and founder of the news site 14ymedio.com, in an interview with IJNet.
In a country where about 5 percent of the population has access to the Internet and where the government extensively censors it (Reporters Without Borders listed Cuba as an "Internet Enemy" every year since the list was created in 2006), Sánchez began a daring experiment a year ago: she decided to start a news website.
“It’s been like giving birth to a child,” she said.
Between the official media, that only publishes what the government sees fit, and the opposition press, she aims to follow what she calls a third, independent way that aspires to produce professional, high-quality journalism.
It’s not the first time Sánchez experiments with digital media in Cuba. She became an influential voice after starting Generación Y (Generation Y), in 2007, a personal blog that documented life on the island.
The blog quickly gained an international following -- it reached 1.2 million monthly visits in February 2008 -- and is now translated in 17 languages.
Blogging in a country where access to the Internet is scarce and expensive wasn’t easy. Yoani emailed her entries to friends that lived outside the island so they could post it on her blog and was also detained by the government for her activism.
But the outside world was watching, and she gained global recognition and numerous awards: she won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism award and was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of the world in 2008, to name a few.
With 14ymedio, she wants to make sure Cubans get the necessary information so they can make informed decisions in a post-Castro Cuba.
The type of journalism she preaches would seem basic to anyone living in a country with a free press: it will rely on credible sources and value information over opinion or propaganda.
“In Cuba we’re drowning in opinions. There are 11 million Cubans, and 30 million opinions. ... We are trying to teach people to practice a different type of journalism,” Sánchez said.
She knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Cubans can’t have an open home Internet connection. They have access to a basic, limited email service and, when they are able to connect to the Internet, it’s usually at hotels that charge $5 an hour. Even then, the speed is slow and many sites are blocked, she said.
Between the censorship (they are blocked on the island) and the low Internet penetration, her and her 11-staff team had to find creative ways to get the information to their audience.
14ymedio.com, which is also translated to English, receives 315,000 visits a month from people outside of Cuba. People inside the island access their site through proxies or read PDF versions saved in the “weekly package.”
Although they don’t know yet how many people read them through the weekly package, they can tell a certain story hit a nerve when the government responds to it.
Now that the U.S is normalizing relations with Cuba and the island is opening to the outside world, all eyes are on its transition.
Sánchez is keenly aware of this historic moment, and wants to make sure her newsroom is prepared for it. They want to get more training on multimedia, figure out a sustainable business model and become a professional newsroom that sticks to deadlines. Since professional journalists in Cuba fear repression and choose not to work independently, many of the reporters working for the site come from professions other than journalism, Sánchez said.
“Our first year we got this project up by pure grit,” she said. “When you have something to say, you find the way.”
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Yahoo