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What It’s Like to Launch an Independent News Outlet in Cuba

What It’s Like to Launch an Independent News Outlet in Cuba
By ERNESTO LONDOÑO OCTOBER 20, 2015 12:57 PM October 20, 2015 12:57 pm

Elaine Díaz, the first Cuban journalist to receive a Nieman Fellowship
at Harvard University, returned home earlier this year and resigned from
the University of Havana, where she taught for seven years. Last
weekend, she launched a news startup, Periodismo de Barrio, or Community
Journalism. I asked her about her plans, the new era in relations
between the United States and Cuba and her impressions of the United States.

You recently quit your job to launch an independent news site in a
country with no press freedom laws, no independent printing presses and
extremely limited Internet access. What were you thinking?

I believe in journalism as a force that can improve societies. I also
believe that there are problems in local areas in Cuba that need to be
addressed. A process as complex as the economic and social reforms that
are taking place in my country at this moment, in the midst of
broadening ties with the United States, needs as many voices as you can
get to illuminate the Cuba that is emerging.

Describe the types of censorship in Cuba today.

To properly describe censorship in Cuba I would have needed to have
worked at a state-run media outlet and I never did. My taste of
censorship on the island stems from pieces I published on my blog, La
Polémica Digital, the Digital Controversy.

How were you censored?

There were occasional reprimands from my bosses at the University of
Havana, a state-run institution, for critical posts. I have friends who
were punished or removed from their jobs as a result of articles they
posted online. Interestingly, there are people within state media who
are eager to spread news that they couldn’t publish. I once wrote an
article exposing corruption at a boarding school. The former deputy
director of the state-run Cuban News Agency printed the post and left it
in the office of the Ministry of Education. They launched an
investigation and the director was fired and faced legal charges.

What subjects will your team focus on?

Do you know how long a person can wait in Cuba to rebuild a home after a
hurricane? Seven years, ten years, fifteen years, a lifetime. Periodismo
de Barrio is a non-profit outlet that will report stories about local
communities affected by natural disasters and those that are vulnerable
to hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, landslides and man-made
calamities. We want to tell the stories of those people. With a little
luck and good work, we hope to find solutions to their problems.

How will you pay the bills?

In Cuba, journalists employed by state media outlets make between $25 to
$30 a month. For that reason, many moonlight at other outlets, including
international news organizations. We are currently paying journalists
$100 per month. It’s not much. But it is what I can afford with the
money I saved during my fellowship. Going forward, we may consider
working with non-government organizations that support international
journalism and crowd-funding.

How will you reach readers?

Besides our website, we intend to publish on Reflejos.cu, a site within
Cuba’s intranet that hosts blogs and is accessible to Cubans who have
government-provided Internet connections at work and at home. We hope
our content will be included in el paquete, multimedia packages that are
distributed weekly to Cuban homes in hard drives that people use to
download movies and reading material on personal laptops. We also will
distribute articles to community leaders and government officials using
flash drives, and occasionally printouts.

Is it problematic to take money from American organizations?

It depends on where the money comes from. Several universities and
organizations in the United States have been supporting initiatives in
Cuba for years and are well known. There are also groups that get money
from the American government for “democracy promotion.” We want nothing
to do with the latter.

Independent journalists in Cuba are often branded as “dissidents.” What
does that word mean to you and are you worried about being labeled as one?

If a dissident is someone who expresses dissent, then I’m one of them.
If a dissident is someone who belongs to the political opposition, then
I’m not one. I’m not worried about being labeled a dissident. I’m not
worried about labels at all. People usually label others with little or
no information about them in Cuba. I can live with that.

Does the new era in American relations with Cuba make it easier for you
and other journalists who want to do independent work?

It has created a more relaxed atmosphere, an environment in which
thinking differently is no longer interpreted as “giving ammunition to
the enemy,” because “the enemy” is now a government with which my
president sits down to discuss our differences. We would like to work
with organizations that are located in the United States and support
journalism projects around the world, and with those who have done
serious work in Cuba in recent years. New regulations implemented by the
Treasury Department make that possible.

How easy is it to get interviews with government officials or official
information that is not in the public domain?

So far, we have gotten many interviews. Some people have turned us down.
In each case, we have explained what Periodismo de Barrio is, who we
are, where we have worked before. People ask if we belong to media
outlets associated with the political opposition. We answer truthfully:
no. People tend to trust us or at least they give us the benefit of the
doubt.

Will you write about politics?

In Cuba, everything is related to politics.

Do you expect you will have to self-censor to some extent?

I hope not.

During your time in the United States you befriended many American
journalists and visited several newsrooms. What did you come to see as
the biggest strength and biggest weakness of the American press?

Journalists in the United States have a robust legal framework that
protects the exercise of our work. The biggest weakness? I worry that
overhauling traditional business models has eroded the vocation of
public service that must be at the heart of journalism.

How did your year in Boston change your perceptions of America and
Americans? What were the most pleasant and unwelcome surprises?

I realized American journalists suffer from many of the same kind of
issues I faced in Cuba. I commiserated with them and realized the scope
of the financial crisis our industry is struggling to overcome. The
hardest thing was getting sick, and realizing that the deductible of my
insurance policy was incredibly high. Once, I sent a photo of a rash on
my hands to a Cuban doctor in Sierra Leone so he could diagnose it. I
have never felt so afraid of getting sick as I did during those 10
months in the United States.

Source: What It’s Like to Launch an Independent News Outlet in Cuba –
The New York Times –
takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/what-its-like-to-launch-an-independent-news-outlet-in-cuba/?_r=0

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