OnCuba and the rise of independent journalism

By Katherine Hamilton | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Ever since the reign of the communist regime in Cuba, media has been an entity under the government’s tight control.

Recent developments in Cuba’s access to technology has brought along the rise of independent journalism, giving a fresh take to politics and current events. Wi-Fi became available to Cubans in July 2015, lending to the growth of Wi-Fi hotspots in outdoor courtyards and parks across the island. With newfound access, the scope of what is possible for young journalists has greatly broadened.

Journalist Claudia Perez from OnCuba, an independent online magazine, said that when she graduated in 2012, her job wouldn’t have existed. Journalism majors in Cuba only had a few options: to work for a government run publication, or to be a foreign correspondent, both of which were difficult jobs to attain.

Now, there are at least five or six independent magazines being funded by small groups of friends out of apartments or offices, none of which she recalls having any legal backing.

“One of the biggest challenges for us is getting into the mainstream,” she said, adding that for her, being able to work for a publication like OnCuba is something she could never have imagined.

The mission of OnCuba is to link Cubans from all over the world, not just those on the island.

“We think of ourselves as a bridge,” Perez said. “It is important for the future of our nation to have healthy communication with the Cubans living outside Cuba because of the big number and the influence they have over Cuba.”

Many people in Cuba have family members who move away to other countries. Keeping rapport not only about personal issues between families, but also about national and international issues is seen as a key step in opening up communications between Cuba and the rest of the world.

OnCuba wants to utilize their platform to cover many of the topics any other platform would discuss. Perez said that in addition to politics and hard-hitting news, the publication likes to focus on the Cuban people and their personal stories. To them, independent journalism is about having the power to start a dialogue whether the topic is great or small.

Running an independent news outlet does not come without controversy. Independent magazines like OnCuba are relatively new and unregulated, leaving room for a substantial gray area. Not all stories are received well, especially in a climate where media has been controlled for the last half-century.

“When you look at stories of Cuba in the press, you will find very polarized positions,” Perez said. “There is a great deal of media content talking about the perfection of Cuba, and on the other hand, there is a lot about the disaster of Cuba. [OnCuba] understands that [the truth] is not rooted in either side. We talk about what is in the middle. That can be dangerous because the two extremes will punish you. Each side understands that you’re not with them, so you are the opposition.”

OnCuba stirred some controversy when they told the story of a Cuban doctor who died of Ebola while on a mission in Africa. Typically, when doctors pass away, government run publications will only mention shock and sorrow over their loss without much detail. OnCuba released a contrasting story, detailing the personal life of the doctor and his struggles. The doctor was revealed to be gay, which is still a tense subject amongst Cuban activists and the government. The OnCuba story mentioned the doctor’s dysfunctional family, noting brotherly theft, as well as his desire to work abroad to buy a home for his elderly mother.

According to Perez, the government did not like these topics being discussed out in the open. Many Cubans felt uncomfortable as well, not knowing how to handle a story of such candor. While the story faced rejection on several fronts, Perez feels OnCuba showed that “He was someone who was real and had real problems. He was not perfect.”

Perez noted that the story was valuable because it evoked thought and made people wonder, “Who was this guy?”

Government-run media like the Granma newspaper, have often been accused of being out of touch with what the Cuban people want.

“I could hardly say that anyone likes it because it is so boring,” said Perez. “It’s the same over and over again and never gives people what they need. They are controlling in every newspaper, even the provincial ones because they are government run.”

Publications like OnCuba have their finger on the pulse of change, providing more and more Cubans every day with an enlightening and entertaining way to keep up with the news and learn about what is going on in the world around them.

“This is an opportunity to be different than the Cuban media,” Perez said. “They talk about statistics and cold data more than people’s stories. I hardly find in the media what I feel in the streets. We need to move the debate and talk about these stories because they are important for us.”

With the continuing development of and interest in technology in Cuba, independent magazines like OnCuba will most likely be seen rising to the forefront of popular news unless there is severe government intervention. Cubans do not have freedom of press and may not have it for a long time, but until then, autonomous publications funded by those who truly value the power of media will be there to assist in the growing hunger for news tailor-made for the Cuban people.

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