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.”
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.”
Below, more on press freedom around the world:
- The Netherlands: Last Tuesday, outside a TV studio in Amsterdam, a gunman shot Peter R. de Vries, a prominent crime reporter, five times, including once in the head. De Vries had recently acted as a confidant to and spokesperson for a key witness in the high-profile trial of an alleged crime boss. Yesterday, de Vries’s family confirmed that he was dead. “Peter fought to the end but was unable to win the battle,” the family said. “He died surrounded by the people who love him. Peter lived by his conviction: ‘On bended knee is no way to be free.’”
- Georgia: On Sunday, Alexander Lashkarava, a TV cameraman in the country of Georgia, was found dead at home, less than a week after a homophobic mob beat him up in the midst of unrest in Tbilisi, the capital. More than fifty reporters were attacked on the same day; journalists have since accused Georgia’s government of complicity in the violence, and demanded the resignation of top officials. On Tuesday, protesting reporters disrupted a government press conference. On Wednesday, four TV stations—including Pirveli, where Lashkarava worked—went dark for twenty-four hours as an act of protest.
- Russia: Yesterday, the government of Russia effectively outlawed Proekt, an independent news site that has published stories embarrassing to the Kremlin. Officials added Proekt to their list of “undesirable organizations” and added eight of the site’s journalists—including Roman Badanin, the top editor—to a register of “foreign agents.” It is now illegal to work for Proekt, and for other news organizations to quote from its work. Proekt is the first news outlet to have been explicitly banned under the undesirability law.
- Belarus: On Wednesday, law enforcement in Belarus raided the homes and offices of dozens of reporters and activists. Among other organizations, the raids targeted the headquarters of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, where officers broke down the doors. The raids continued a pattern of deepening repression of the press in Belarus—hundreds of journalists have been arrested in the wake of protests last year, including Roman Protasevich, who was effectively abducted from a flight in May.
- The UK: Last month, The Sun, a right-wing tabloid in the UK, published private security footage that showed Matt Hancock, the country’s health minister, having an affair with an aide inside his private office. Officials quickly opened an investigation into the leak under Britain’s data-protection laws, and yesterday raided two homes, seizing electronic equipment. Victoria Newton, the editor of The Sun, has said that the footage was provided to the paper by an “angry whistleblower” and that she would rather be sent to prison than reveal the identity of the source.
- The world: This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report documenting how officials in Botswana used technology developed by Cellebrite, an Israeli surveillance firm, to search a journalist’s phone. The Daily Beast’s Shannon Vavra writes that reporters and activists in other parts of the world, including Myanmar and Hong Kong, have also been targeted with Cellebrite technology. “All the time when journalists are arrested, their phones or computers are seized and so the presence of technology that claims to be able to bypass encryption and extract information from journalists’ devices … that’s alarming and has a chilling effect on freedom of the press,” CPJ’s Jonathan Rozen told Vavra.
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, a jury in Annapolis, Maryland, found the gunman who killed five staffers at the Capital Gazette, in 2018, criminally responsible for the attack. The gunman had pleaded guilty, then entered an insanity plea that the jury rejected. “I feel like justice has been done, but I’d rather have Rob, John, Gerald, Rebecca, and Wendi here,” Paul Gillespie, a photojournalist at the Capital Gazette, said. Alex Mann and Lilly Price, who have been covering the trial for the Capital Gazette, have more details. (ICYMI, I wrote recently in this newsletter about the third anniversary of the shooting.)
- Rolling Stone named Noah Shachtman as its new editor in chief. The Times reports that Shachtman, who most recently held the same title at the Daily Beast, plans to bring the Daily Beast’s “newsy approach and web metabolism” to Rolling Stone. He also comes with a music pedigree: per the Times, “from college into his 30s, he played bass in a series of ska, reggae and dub bands, including the 3rd Degree and Skinnerbox NYC. Along the way he played New York’s CBGB, Washington’s 9:30 Club and other storied venues.”
- Steven Perlberg reports, for Insider, that the unions representing staffers at the Times and Hearst magazines are pushing back on their bosses’ expectations that they will return to the office at least a few days a week starting in September. “People moved back home, upstate, [or] across the country during the pandemic,” a Hearst staffer said, “so even a three-day-a-week return feels like a big ask.”
- Yesterday was MSNBC’s twenty-fifth birthday. To mark the occasion, the network announced that it will expand its output on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service; three anchors—Jonathan Capehart, Mika Brzezinski, and Nicolle Wallace—will debut shows on Peacock, as will Michael Beschloss, MSNBC’s presidential historian. Capehart’s show will be a collaboration with the Post, where he is a member of the editorial board.
- Last month, the Seattle Times sued city officials for breaching public-records laws. An official ethics investigation found that the office of Jenny Durkan, the mayor, had failed to retain and disclose text messages as mandated by state law. In response to the suit, the city of Seattle has not only denied wrongdoing but countersued the Seattle Times, in a bid to recoup its legal costs. An attorney for the paper called the countersuit “highly unusual.”
- Erik Wemple, of the Post, asks why journalists shouldn’t be allowed to tape court hearings, after a judge in North Carolina briefly jailed Gavin Stone, the news editor at a local paper, for directing a reporter to record a murder trial. “Though penalties vary,” Wemple writes, rules banning courthouse recordings are common, “bedeviling reporters as they struggle to capture quotes by writing longhand in their notebooks.”
- The World Health Organization has corrected details about early COVID cases that appeared in a report issued jointly by the WHO and China on COVID’s origins, thanks to Post reporters who flagged discrepancies. Officials blamed “editing errors,” but stood by the report’s conclusions. It’s still unclear who made the errors—a lack of transparency, experts said, that could further dent trust in a report critics already saw as incomplete.
- Roadrunner—a documentary about Anthony Bourdain, the TV chef who died by suicide in 2018—hits theaters today. The film stitches together Bourdain’s voiceovers from old TV shows, podcasts, and audiobooks. Morgan Neville, the filmmaker, also commissioned an artificial model of Bourdain’s voice to fill in narration. The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner has more.
- And ratings at GB News—a right-wing TV channel that has been described as the “British Fox”—fell to such low levels this week that one ratings agency measured them, at one point, as zero. GB News has steadily lost viewers since its launch, last month. On Tuesday, many of those who were still watching declared a boycott after Guto Harri, an anchor, took a knee in solidarity with English soccer players who were subject to racism.