The Media Today

Cuba’s internet and journalism blackouts

July 16, 2021

On Tuesday, Dina Fernandez, a Cuban YouTuber who goes by the name Dina Stars, was doing an interview on Todo Es Mentira, a Spanish TV show, at her home in Havana. She heard a knock on the door. Stars told Marta Flich, the show’s host, that state security officials were outside. As she went to talk to them, someone filmed discreetly from a bedroom. After a few moments, Stars entered the bedroom, sat down on a bed, and told Flich that the officials were taking her away. “On live television, I hold the government responsible for anything that could happen to me,” she said. “I have to go.”

Stars was on Spanish TV, and had been on other international networks before that, to talk about protests that have shaken Cuba since Sunday, when thousands of people took to the streets in outrage against the government and deteriorating economic conditions. Cuba tends to treat dissent with an iron fist, and these demonstrations had been the biggest in years. Stars was in the streets on Sunday, and uploaded videos of the protests online. Not long ago, that would have been impossible: for years, Cuba restricted the internet, and only began to liberalize access in the past decade. In 2015, the government installed a few dozen hotspots in public spaces; 3G mobile plans were authorized in 2018, and home WiFi networks were legalized a year later. The access to 3G, in particular, has been a key driver of the recent protests, as demonstrators livestream to social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and coordinate their activities via encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal. 3G access has “supercharged horizontal communications between emergent civil society groups,” Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College, wrote for Slate—eroding “the two key pillars of information control essential to the survival of all totalitarian regimes: fear of the consequences of speaking truth to power, and isolation from others who harbor similar frustrations.”

ICYMI: New details on the friction Trump caused inside Facebook

Alp Toker, the director of Netblocks, an organization that monitors web connectivity worldwide, told Wired that Cuba has recently had an “accidentally free internet,” with “a lot of monitoring but not as much censorship, because access was just so limited.” The government has, however, routinely blocked access to certain websites—including independent news sites and, during smaller waves of protest, social platforms. Following the demonstrations on Sunday, officials shut off access to a wide range of social platforms and messaging apps on mobile; briefly, the blackout extended to almost the entire internet, but the government has since permitted access to some sites in order to maintain an appearance of normalcy. (Many Cubans have been able to access social platforms uninterrupted using VPNs and other hacks.) According to Henken, officials haven’t just blocked access to information, but they also appear to have fed bogus information in order to disorient protesters. Henken cites José Raúl Gallego, a Cuban journalist based in Mexico, who has worked to debunk an online rumor claiming that the province of Camagüey has declared its independence; Gallego believes officials have pushed that story to give protesters false hope. It’s hard to parse what’s really going on, though, since the internet restrictions have made it difficult for journalists outside of Cuba to monitor the situation there, and for journalists in Cuba to report on what’s happening.

Since the protests began, journalists in Cuba have faced traditional forms of repression, too. For years, authorities have sought aggressively to control the media narrative, harassing and detaining journalists who contradict it; Reporters Without Borders ranks Cuba among the worst countries in the world for press freedom. On Sunday, police in Havana broke the nose of Ramón Espinosa, a photojournalist for the Associated Press, and detained at least two journalists—Héctor Luis Valdés Cocho and Maykel González Vivero, the latter of whom was covering LGBT+ participation in the protests. Officials nationwide detained at least seven more reporters: Henry Constantin, Iris Mariño, and Niefe Rigau, of La Hora de Cuba, in Camagüey; Niober García and Rolando García, of Palenque Vision, in Guantánamo province; and Orelvis Cabrera and Camila Acosta, of Cubanet, in Matanzas and Havana. Acosta also works for ABC, a Spanish newspaper; Spain’s government has demanded her release. On Wednesday, Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger, told the Washington Post that security services were stationed outside the homes of journalists and activists—a tactic that Amnesty International characterizes as effective house arrest.

A decade ago, when social-media-driven protest was in its infancy and the Arab Spring was causing regimes to teeter across the Middle East, many techno-optimists believed that the internet could liberate repressed societies. But as Henken notes, the years since have shown that “while social media-enabled movements can be effective at breaking things, they are often powerless at building things—like new democratic regimes—that require consensus, compromise, strong ties, hierarchy, and deep understanding.” Today we should perhaps instead conceive of open access to the internet as a bare minimum right, not only for protesters, but for the journalists who are trying to document social movements. Stars, for her part, was back online Wednesday. She posted a message on Instagram telling her followers that officers had released her. “They arrested me for instigation to commit a crime, for promoting the protests,” she said. “They didn’t torture me. I am on the side of truth.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The Media’s Climate Blindspot

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.