Independent Cuban media criticize government decree establishing sanctions on sites hosted outside of the country

A new decree by the Cuban government regarding internet on the island has raised criticism from independent media and citizens on social networks who point to the risks that the rules could be used to undermine freedom of expression and access to information in the country.

In force since its publication on July 4, Decree-Law 370/2018 establishes legal norms for the "informatization of society" in Cuba, dealing with the use and development of information technologies on the island. In article 68, the decree establishes as violations, among others “f) hosting a site on servers located in a foreign country, other than as a mirror or replica of the main site on servers located in national territory” and “i) to disseminate, through public networks of data transmission, information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people.”

The sanctions include a fine between 1,000 and 3,000 Cuban pesos and “confiscation of equipment and media used to commit the violations.”

Journalist Elaine Díaz wrote on the topic for the sites Periodismo de Barrio, of which she is director, and El Toque, and has questioned Cuban authorities about the decree through Twitter. She said she communicated with the Ministry of Communications and asked whether, as a Cuban citizen residing on the island, she could be fined if she decided to have a blog hosted on WordPress and not on a national server. According to her, two Ministry officials responded that yes, she could be fined in that case.

Hours after Díaz published on Twitter about her conversations with Cuban government officials, the Ministry of Communications published on its profile on the social network that clause f) of the decree, in the case of individuals, “refers to national platforms and applications of services that are offered on the Internet and used by citizens, it does not refer to blogs, personal or informative sites.”

Questioning from Díaz and other Cuban citizens in response to the Ministry’s Tweet is that a post on a social network does not have the value of the letter of the law, and that the decree needs to be modified to explicitly include this exception, as published by IPS Cuba.

“This clarification [from the Ministry] is not contained in the decree-law, therefore, what we are asking is to rectify what the decree-law is saying,” Díaz told the Knight Center. “But until now they have not said whether they are going to change the decree-law or not.”

She also said that the Periodismo de Barrio site, for example, is hosted on a foreign server, since "it cannot be hosted inside Cuba because the regulations of ETECSA are very clear and say they can not host news media.”

ETECSA, the Telecommunications Company of Cuba, is the only state agency that offers web hosting service on the island, according to Global Voices. On its website, the company affirms that it can not host on its servers "publications that constitute news media."

Cuban website Tremenda Nota also noted that the clause of Decree-Law 370 regarding hosting of sites on servers located outside the country, “in addition to violating the freedom of choice and increasing suspicions about the monitoring of content that is practiced in Cuba, it could be used against Cuban non-state media, which are housed entirely outside the country, since they are denied legal recognition and the possibility of acquiring .cu domains.”

With this measure the government outlaws dozens of blogs, news media and magazines that have emerged in the last decade and are characterized so far by escaping state control,” the site 14ymedio wrote.

“The moral and good manners”

ETECSA also establishes that the content housed on its servers must meet the requirement of, among others, that “they do not contradict any provision of law or government act and do not violate morality, public order and good manners” – something similar to clause i) of Decree-Law 370, that determines as a violation “to disseminate, through public networks of data transmission, information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people.”

Regarding this excerpt of the decree, Tremenda Nota observes that “it is written in a sufficiently ambiguous way to apply it discretionally against whomever, when appropriate. What is the social interest? What are acceptable morals and good manners? Who determines it?”

For Díaz, the impact of the decree is “at the symbolic level,” especially for this excerpt, which she considers “a kind of veiled management of the issue of freedom of expression, because it depends on what the government understands as good morals, as good manners.”

“What has happened on previous occasions is that alternative websites and news media were blocked, media that do not belong to the state, because they publish content that the government does not like, even if it is well-founded, reported, even when all the sources appear, that is, the criterion is the same to block websites in Cuba, it has nothing to do with good manners, with good morals, but one of the criteria is simply ideological,” she said.

The Knight Center contacted the Ministry of Communications of Cuba, but did not receive a response as of publication of this post.