New project aims to make independent news more accessible for Cubans

By Mariana Muñoz

Cuban journalist Elaine Diaz has strategized a way to distribute independent news content to the masses in Cuba, a place where reaching a diverse audience is difficult due to limited accessibility to the Internet and restrictions on content.

Diaz plans to formally launch Periodismo de Barrio this October via “paquetes semanales,” external hard drives commonly used by Cubans to share online information. The project will also be available online.

The journalist developed Periodismo de Barrio, which covers vulnerable communities affected by natural disasters, during her time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

According to ONCUBA, more than 30,000 Cubans participate in creating, editing and distributing paquetes semanales, or weekly packets, reaching a minimum of 600,000 homes and more than 3 million Cubans.

They have become popular for distributing TV shows, movies and other content and sell for 25 Cuban pesos (a little less than $1 USD), dropping in price as the week progresses.

While other bloggers already appear on these packets, the content they produce is not specifically designed for this method of distribution. Diaz aims to make the content appealing by designing it with the weekly packets in mind.

In an email interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Diaz said she aims to facilitate the free flow of information in her country with Periodismo de Barrio. By publishing via paquetes semanales, she can reach a diverse group of individuals, including those who lack access to the Internet.

Roughly 5 percent of Cubans have residential access to the Internet, leaving them with the only other option: using a government-run location. Access in these facilities, however, is usually expensive and averages a cost of $5 (USD) per hour, which is just about as much as a Cuban worker earns weekly.

On June 17, official news site Juventud Rebelde reported that, in the coming weeks, government-owned telecommunications provider Etecsa plans to open 35 new hot spots in public spaces around the country at the lower rate of $2 (USD).

Those who do access the Internet, however, are still limited in what they can view. Content is fully supervised and most blogs and independent news sites, such as Yoani Sanchez’s 14ymedio, are blocked on the island. All of these factors make it difficult for citizens to be aware of the issues happening around their country.

Publishing content in paquetes semanales depends widely on its popularity and non-political nature. Producers of the weekly packets explicitly state that they will not distribute political content because this grants them a level of tolerance from the government. Therefore, Diaz has to negotiate with producers of the content and build popularity.

“Periodismo de Barrio is not a political website,” she said. “But everything has a political side so we have to gain credibility and a loyal audience in order to survive.”

The focus of Diaz’s project is especially important considering that Cuba is no stranger to severe weather conditions. Last April, an intense rainstorm brought 188 millimeters of rain and left three dead in Havana.

She hopes that her project will have several impacts in the Cuban journalism sphere.

“Periodismo de Barrio must try to be the kind of media in which the vulnerable communities see their concerns reflected without any sensationalistic and irresponsible touch,” she said. “It must be a laboratory of journalistic experimentation where creative writing, the use of pictures and videos, and the introduction of roles such as fact-checking can find some room.”

As a non-profit news media outlet, Diaz is depending on donations and crowd funding to get her idea off the ground. She plans to hire a developer, three journalists and a part-time designer.

“Our main challenges will be achieving long-term sustainability, the ability to offer competitive pay and retain staff, raising funds that cover full costs and trying to “make more with less,” she said.

As a nonprofit, Periodismo de Barrio does not have any sort of legal status in Cuba, leaving it vulnerable to any kind of governmental action. However, Diaz points out that there are also other publications, edited by Cuban citizens and distributed online that have the same vulnerability and have been tolerated so far.

“I´m not expecting acceptance,” she said. “I´m expecting tolerance.”

Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution explicitly states that “the press, radio, television, movies and other organs of the mass media are State or social property and can never be private property.”

Much of the country’s mainstream media is controlled by the government; the country ranked 169 out of 180 in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

While countries around the world have established Freedom of Information Acts that give citizens access to information from the government, Cuba has not.

Freedom of information is very limited, and in fact, the 2015 index ranks Cuba the lowest of any country in the Americas.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.