Yoani Sánchez explains how technology has made Cubans more free

A USB memory stick or flash drive represents freedom for many Cubans. Blogger and journalist Yoani Sánchez stated this during the opening panel on the second day of the 17th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ).

“That is much more than a technological device. This small object that fits in a pocket, this is freedom,” said Sánchez, founder of Cuban digital news site 14ymedio. “For many Cubans, this is the difference between being informed or misinformed, between silence or words, between censorship or producing journalism.”


Yoani Sánchez
Yoani Sánchez, founder and director, 14ymedio, Cuba (Mary Kang/Knight Center)

During her presentation, Sánchez explained the challenges for making digital journalism in one of the places “with the least internet connectivity” in the world – about five percent of the population has access, according to Sánchez – and how they have used the available technology and their creativity to overcome these challenges.

According to Sánchez, because of the conditions in their country, Cubans have learned to dive into the illegal market to get everything from medicine to food. “And also we have done the same with information.”

Information, before USBs were used, was more like rumor. With evolving technology, the way to transmit information has evolved to “real illegal networks,” distributed through flash drives, external hard drives, CDs and other devices.

“These are the great liberators of information in Cuba. And the infrastructure that today allows the state monopoly on the press to be broken,” Sánchez said, showing a flash drive. “Little by little, Cubans began to be virtual citizens in a country where we could not yet be real citizens.”

It was in this environment that 14ymedio was born as a digital native media in May 2014, not by choice, but because “it was the only option,” with the assurance that the government would not give them permission to print a newspaper, the journalist said.

Since the site’s creation, Sánchez and her team have had clear objectives. The first of these was to achieve economic independence that does not affect its editorial line because “we want to complain about Raúl Castro and Barack Obama.” To achieve this, they have resorted to different strategies such as event planning and advertising and will soon launch a project for “friendly subscriptions.”

Another objective was to legalize their situation somehow – to find “cracks” in the law that permitted them to work. In Cuba, journalism is a profession that cannot be held by “self-employed” people (ie. people working privately), Sánchez explained. They found that typing is one of the professions that does not have restrictions.

“We decided that our team works under a typist’s license. So that’s what we are: typists that type our own ideas,” Sánchez said with a tone of humor.

Her other goal was to offer a variety of information that distances them from the constant “contradiction” that independent media in the country have with the government. Thus, they also offer cultural news, dealing in themes like Cuban exile or prices of common grocery store products.

The team passed its “litmus test” last March when, after almost two years of work, they covered two historic events: the visit of President Obama to Cuba and the Rolling Stones’ concert in Cuba.

Despite having succeeded, they still have problems with connectivity because, as Sánchez explained, “we have a digital newspaper and we ourselves are not connected.”

So they have resorted to other strategies not only to publish, but to reach out to the Cuban people. Their most important tool is email as it is one of the few spaces that is allowed by connectivity available on the island. According to Sánchez, most of the information from 14ymedio is distributed by email.

Yoani Sánchez
Janine Warner (L), founder and executive director, SembraMedia, interviews keynote speaker Yoani Sánchez, founder and director, 14ymedio, Cuba (Mary Kang/Knight Center)

But they do not forget those who cannot access the internet. Through flash drives, they deliver an edition of 14ymedio in PDF format that is clandestinely shared on the corners of Havana each week. Now they are even dabbling in reaching out to other cities with the same method. They also reach readers via text messages.

“Gradually we have created an audience, but we want more. This is the year that 14ymedio wants to jump into the audiovisual world,” said Sánchez, who explained that among her future plans is a studio to create newscasts, to develop data journalism that permits them to try to end the secrecy of the past 50 years. They also want to have their own application, taking into account that the mobile phone is “perhaps the most important channel of communication available to Cubans.”

Despite the obstacles to producing journalism in Cuba, Sánchez and her team are convinced of the importance of producing journalism which is related with a different future for their country.

“We have a great concern about who will be the people that vote or that decide the future of Cuba. I’m always asked […] ‘Who will be the next president of Cuba?”, I say ‘I do not know. I worry about who will be the next citizens,’” Sánchez said. “These citizens need information to vote. Because if they don’t have information to vote, they will choose badly. They will choose the more populist discourse, that which makes the siren’s call, that which lies, that which is more charismatic. If they have information, they can choose something else.”

“So 14ymedio wants to be the newspaper of the Cuban transition. To accompany the citizens of the island in the process that we will inevitably and fortunately live,” she concluded.

ISOJ 2016: Yoani Sanchez Q&A, from Knight Center on Vimeo.