Feasibility Study on blogging in Cuba

Feasibility Study on Blogging in Cuba

In November 2009 Projects-Direct.Net together with the Media Diversity Institute undertook a feasibility trip to Cuba and met leading Afro-Cuban bloggers and opposition groups who organise alternative libraries and reading groups.  The trip assessed the practicalities of working with bloggers, their technical requirements, project management logistics and developed contacts. 

The trip found  that Cuba is the third-worst jailer of journalists in the world. These imprisoned journalists are often warehoused in inhumane conditions, deprived of nutritious food and adequate medical care. Web sites and bloggers are routinely threatened and harassed by security police. Laws and regulations restricting Internet access continue to be among the most repressive in the world. In a 2009 report on online repression worldwide, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Cuba as the fourth-worst country in the world in which to be a blogger.

In Cuba, a dissident writer could recieve a 20-year prison sentence for writing “counter-revolutionary” articles for foreign websites, and a five-year one for connecting with the Internet in an illegal manner. Few people dare to defy the state censorship and take such a risk. Online journalists face ongoing intimidation and threats. There are currently 55 prisoners of conscience detained in Cuba, most of them serving long sentences for criticising the Cuban government and advocating basic human rights. Among them are 22 independent journalists.

Two parallel online networks co-exist on the island: the international network and a tightly controlled Cuban Intranet consisting of an encyclopedia and some government news websites. Outside of the tourist hotels, only a few privileged people have special clearance to connect to the international network. The regime lacks the means to set up an automatic filtering system. But they limit Internet access through exorbitant connection costs of $1.50 per hour to the state-controlled Intranet, and $7 per hour in a hotel to access the international network, even though the average monthly salary is $20. The government also limits access through infrastructural problems, notably slow connections. Cubans are unlikely to browse on the internet. They will go to internet cafes and download specific materials, which they then share with friends.

Despite the vast legal and technical obstacles, a growing number of Cuban bloggers have prevailed over the regime’s tight Internet restrictions to disseminate island news and views online. The bloggers, mainly young adults from a variety of professions, have opened a new space for free expression in Cuba, while offering a fresh glimmer of hope for the rebirth of independent ideas in Cuba’s closed system. While the independent media movement of the 1990s was led by opposition journalists, the bloggers tend to have more professional concerns.

At least 25 independent, journalistic, and regularly updated blogs are being produced by Cuban writers. The official Cuban Union of Journalists say there are 200 officially approved blogs produced by government journalists.

Cuban bloggers still find ways to upload their stories. They write at home on personal computers and load their information on flash drives that they can take to groups, independent libraries, cafés, hotels, or diplomatic venues. Most bloggers e-mail their posts to friends abroad who load them onto their respective Web sites. Others print, photocopy, and bind their posts into impromptu publications, which are passed from hand to hand. A black market in technology spares also thrives.

While the number of independent Cuban bloggers is expanding, the total numbers remain small.   The government was swamping the 25 independent voices by encouraging hundreds of official blogs.  Therefore the action will encourage other Cubans to become bloggers, and provide them with the skills and technology to do so.

 While most Cubans had no access to the internet, computer ownership has been allowed since 2008. This has led to a growth in flash drive (or computer memory stick) ownership. Flash drives allow Cubans to store all their information on a mobile memory stick and plug it into a computer whenever they have the opportunity. Information is passed informally through networks. Much of this information comes from blogs and the internet.

Despite low connectivity, publishing blogs on the internet abroad gives Cuban writers validity and esteem back inside Cuba, and encourage readers to access materials through flash drive sharing. 

The Cuban materials that are currently available is primarily from white Cuban bloggers, with an interest in mainstream political issues. Many of the Cuban blog materials available are also written outside Cuba.

The study was developed into a proposal for funding, and MDI hosted further events in Havana.

 Tim Williams has run other feasibility studies in Malawi, Zambia and Trinidad for BBC World Service Trust.

 [MP1]Should we change this into more formal CN language?