As Cuba slowly opens up, there's hope this will lead to more media independence in the country, which is near the bottom of press freedom rankings. DW Akademie and the ARD invited media experts to discuss the situation.
Left to right: Matthias Reiche, Rosa Muñoz Lima, Pablo Días Espi, Bert Hoffmann, Bernd Pickert and Francis Sánchez
Cuba is opening up economically and politically, with diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States being restored after relations were severed in 1961. But do these changes really signal a ray of hope for Cuban journalists and independent media in a country where the government tightly controls traditional media as well as the Internet?
This was the focus of a panel discussion held by DW Akademie and the German public broadcaster, ARD, in early September in Berlin. The event, part of DW Akademie's Medien International discussion series, brought together journalists and experts who are closely following developments in Cuba. "There are now more freedoms [in Cuba] than there were before," opined moderator Matthias Reiche, radio correspondent with the German public broadcaster, MDR, and former correspondent for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, as he opened the discussion.
Changes bypassing official media
Cuban journalist and author Francis Sánchez didn't share this view. "There's no sense things are changing in the media," he said, adding that the government's push to improve Cuba's image abroad was one of the reasons for this. Restrictions, some of which are extremely subtle, continue to suppress independent journalism within Cuba, explained Sánchez, who founded the independent online magazine, Árbo Invertido. Even just getting online is difficult for independent journalists because it is so expensive, he said, whereas journalists working for the state media can access the Internet for free.
"The Internet costs me more than five US dollars an hour," Sánchez said. That, he pointed out, is a lot of money in a country where the average monthly income is little more than 20 US dollars. As such, media freedom in Cuba is about media freedom for others, not for independent journalists like himself, Sánchez said. "There are still lines that you're not allowed to cross," he said, "especially when it comes to the government preserving its hold on power."
Bernd Pickert, Latin America expert for the German daily newspaper, Die Tageszeitung (taz), was more optimistic. "There's a lot happening within Cuba's government-controlled media," he said, citing the example of state-employed journalists now being able to travel outside of the country for training. That is a "novelty and a great opportunity," Pickert said. Pickert also pointed to the formation of new informal channels for information exchange as a sign of increasing media freedom. One of the ways this is happening, Pickert said, is that media outside of Cuba republish content from websites and blogs blocked within Cuba, thus allowing the censored information in a round-about way to become available within Cuba. Professor Bert Hoffmann, Cuba expert and senior fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies, sees Cuban leaders becoming more tolerant, especially when it came to online content. "Traditional mass media such as radio, television and print are under much tighter restrictions than blogs and mailing lists," he said.
Online but not on the Internet
Madrid-based Cuban journalist Pablo Díaz Espi is editor-in-chief of the online news site, Diarío de Cuba. He's perfected a system of using mailing lists to distribute his site's content within Cuba, one of the least connected countries in the world. The majority of Cubans who go online connect to the country's national intranet rather than to the World Wide Web. This intranet gives Cubans access to an in-country email system – which can be used to send information Cubans wouldn't otherwise be able to access online. "We send out a newsletter twice a week that contains everything we publish online," said Díaz Espi, "and it goes out to 12,000 email addresses." He believes this newsletter has a considerable impact, which is why it's being so closely monitored by the state.
Francis Sánchez (far right) says the Internet is free for state journalists but not for independent ones
Rosa Muñoz Lima, a Cuban-German journalist working for Deutsche Welle, said new media, just like the unique Cuban intranet, offer opportunities for greater press and media freedom. But traditional mass media - and in particular television - still dominate Cuba's media landscape, she said. This is mainly because of people's limited access to the Internet, which is not only expensive but also incredibly slow. In addition, computer hardware can be difficult to come by.
These kinds of limitations, though, don't necessarily mean the next generation of Cuban journalists will be at a disadvantage. "Journalism training in Cuba is more advanced than the current situation actually allows," said Muñoz Lima, who worked for Cuban state media before joining DW.
Bernd Pickert from the taz newspaper agreed, and added that exchanges with international journalists was a priority. In September he'll meet ten Cuban journalists from both private and state media who are coming to Germany to attend a workshop. This is an important project, Pickert said, but it still has its limitations. "It would have been much more difficult to hold the workshop in Cuba," he said.
Little easing of press restrictions
The main takeaway from the discussion, which also included personal experiences and comments from the audience, was that Cuba's media is still not as free as overseas observers would hope.
A representative from Reporters Without Borders sitting in the audience pointed out that even though the media had more leeway now, the environment was still highly restrictive. "At least two Cuban journalists and one blogger are currently serving lengthy prison sentences," he said. Pablo Díaz Espi also noted that numerous paragraphs in the Cuban constitution continue to allow for 'undesirable' journalists to arbitrarily be sent to prison. "It doesn't look like the communist party is getting ready to change that," he said. Online journalist Francis Sánchez warned of too much enthusiasm. "The Arab Spring won't be coming to Cuba," he said.