You may know part of Yoani Sánchez’s story by now, but the Cuban journalist is still blueprinting her future — and the future of independent media in Cuba.
The Knight International Journalism Award winner made a name for herself when she began a personal blog in 2007 called Generación Y (Generation Y). Sánchez’s detailed writings about life on the island — which housed only state-run media outlets — drew a lot of attention from people outside Cuba. More importantly, Sánchez worked hard to ensure fellow Cubans could read Generación Y as well.
With help, she circumvented government censorship by distributing PDFs of her blog posts on USB drives. Since Internet access was — and still is — limited in Cuba, readers within the country could access Generación Y through proxies. To publish her posts, Sánchez had to send the text of blog posts to friends off-island through email, and tweeted using Tweetymail and SMS.
Despite these barriers, Sánchez decided to expand beyond her blog. In May 2014, she launched 14ymedio, Cuba’s first independent news platform, with the support of a small group of investors. While most of the 14ymedio's reporting is done within Cuba, the startup is registered in Spain and has collaborators in Madrid, Mexico, Miami and Havana. It is published in Spanish and English, so Cubans who left the country at an early age — and future generations — can learn more about their native land.
14ymedio avoids any funding from governments or political groups, and it continues to build a sustainable business with advertising, partnerships and events. A crowdfunding campaign and membership model are also in the works.
To distribute content within Cuba, 14ymedio still relies on proxies and thumbdrives, but they are also able to send out text-only email newsletters to the country’s estimated 2 million local email service users. In addition, as Cuba and the U.S. have begun to rebuild ties, Internet connectivity has slightly improved. Since July 2015, the Cuban government has opened 35 new WiFi hotspots, but many websites, including 14ymedio, are still censored. The price is also an issue: One hour of connectivity at these hotspots costs US$2.50 (CUC$2.50).
The additions have “been like a drop of water in an ocean of necessity,” Sánchez told IJNet.
Cuban media remains a sea of government-run newspapers, TV and radio stations. With 14ymedio, Sánchez aims to forge a path for other independent news outlets to flourish in Cuba. So far, her news platform remains the only independent voice in the country. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Havana, only 14ymedio was invited to a closed-door press conference.
IJNet sat down with Sánchez to discuss how she trains 14ymedio journalists and her advice for reporters in repressive environments.
IJNet: Many of 14ymedio’s journalists aren’t trained reporters. Now that Cuba has become more open, do you still employ these types of journalists, or are professionally trained reporters approaching you to work at 14ymedio?
Yoani Sánchez: My experience with journalists that have graduated from the system is that they are already in that square of censorship.
It has been easier for me to train journalists who were not journalists than to bring those journalists who were trained as journalists out of that censorship mentality.
The idea of formation is one of our pillars at 14ymedio. Not only the formation for our team: Independent journalism in Cuba needs to improve and professionalize. It needs to separate denouncing something from information and activism from journalism.
For many years in the absence of an independent press, the journalist has had to assume a lot of roles: The activist, the opposition leader, the journalist, the political figure — all of that in one bucket. The moment is now to begin separating those.
What types of things are you teaching to people joining 14ymedio as journalists?
First, observation. It’s incredible, because when you live for so many years inside of a reality, you don’t really see anymore. What I’m trying to teach them is that when they go out in the street, even with all the experience they have living in this country, [to see Cuba] through the eyes of someone who has never lived there.
I’m also teaching them to not conform to a “no.” We live in a country where institutions and the powers that be are not used to giving information to its citizens. Every time you ask about statistics or data about the country, the answer is always no. I’m teaching them not to paralyze themselves and to look for that information in spite of the wall of secretism. I tell them technology is an incredible ally for independent journalism in Cuba.
Most of all, what I’m trying to teach them is we can do journalism about the powers that be without doing personal attacks to individuals or verbal violence.
Since I’m in the world of digital journalism, I’m also teaching them that it’s better to deliver the news late than to deliver the news incorrectly. Modern day journalism is being hurt tremendously by this idea.
We want to do texts that have a longer life and that we spend more time on, even if we’re updating our homepage less.
What tips do you have for journalists working in repressive environments?
To guard their private lives. When you have someone working in a repressive environment, it’s not just about the repression and being sent to jail. A lot of the hurt goes to the family and the people they love.
I would also recommend to not let themselves be pushed by the forces that be and produce journalism based on resentment. Most of these regimes provoke this action where the journalist is only narrating the bad, and it shouldn’t be like that. Another important tip is have nothing to hide: Not even the most sophisticated encryption programs can hide information from authoritarian regimes, so learn how to live in a glass castle where you can see everything.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and English. Alejandro González, who is in charge of 14ymedio’s growth and partnerships, served as an interpreter.
Main image by Ashley Nguyen