Good Journalism as the Best Vaccine against Authoritarianism

Journalists Luz Mely Reyes from “Efecto Cocuyo” in Venezuela, and Cuban journalist Abraham Jimenez, a Washington Post columnist living in exile. Photo: Confidencial reproduction.

Luz Mely Reyes from “Efecto Cocuyo” in Venezuela, and Abraham Jimenez, a Washington Post columnist living in exile, tell how they’re coping with censorship.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela are countries where violations to freedom of the press are constant, without the protection of the rule of law. Confiscations of media outlets, jailing and harassment of reporters, blackouts of their websites, and the resulting massive exile of journalists are part of daily life in these three countries. But the willingness of the independent media to confront the authoritarian regimes is fundamental in circumventing an informational blackout.

In Nicaragua, the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has shuttered 54 media outlets and confiscated three others. Eight journalists and media workers are currently in prison, and some 140 journalists have been forced into exile. Meanwhile, in Venezuela and Cuba, the regimes headed by Nicolas Maduro and Miguel Diaz-Canel respectively, apply measures to block their citizens’ access to the digital media.

Journalist Luz Mely Reyes, co-founder and director of the Venezuelan website Efecto Cocuyo, notes that after more than 20 years of censorship in Venezuela, the country has “information deserts”. An incalculable number of journalists have had to leave the country and haven’t been able to return. In addition, for the last few years, the wall around the independent press is anchored in the justice system.

Reyes, a journalist who’s received international recognition, pointed out that journalists from the digital media in Venezuela have been accused and put on trial for supposed crimes of slander. These penal processes have ended in sentences “forbidding them to leave the country”; or the opposite, as happened four years ago to writers from the online investigative reporting site who were forbidden to return to Venezuela.

“The dismantling of the media industry in Venezuela has gone through several stages,” Reyes recounted during a panel discussion on the online television news program Esta Semana. “In 2017, blackouts of certain media sites began to occur; now, in 2022, they’ve adopted a policy of blocking all the independent digital media, including media from outside the country and within Venezuela. The policy also affects private telecommunications operators,” she explained.

In Cuba, the situation “isn’t very different,” indicated Cuban journalist Abraham Jimenez, a columnist for the Washington Post who went into exile in January 2022. Although island residents have only had access to the internet since 2015, the emerging digital media have been effective in informing citizens. Hence, they’ve become the objects of surveillance on the part of the Cuban regime.

The digital media, “began to tell the country’s stories, in the dark zones that up until that moment hadn’t been taken into account. Obviously, that bothered the Government a great deal,” Jimenez expressed. From that moment on, the Cuban regime began to design “a repressive strategy, to silence all those media outlets.”

The Cuban regime’s strategy for censoring the digital media began with “blocking these media platforms on the internet”, in such a way that “Cubans had no access to read their articles, unless they knew how to use the VPNs (virtual private networks),” Jimenez explained. Beginning in 2017, the regime escalated “the harassment, a terrible daily procession of house arrests, express detentions, persecution, wiretapping private communications.” This caused many of the journalists on digital media to leave the country.

A new journalism from exile

Although the panorama of press freedom in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela is “tremendously sad”, Jimenez believes “we’re in a new scenario, where journalism must be exercised from exile”. Fortunately for the independent media outlets, the population places a lot of trust in them.

“Obviously there’s a lot of fear, a lot of worry, but precisely because the country (Cuba) is in a state of impoverishment that’s extremely serious, and the citizens don’t have a voice (…) so all those people who are suffering and who know and live in that impoverished reality, that very grave reality, want to express what they’re living through,” Jimenez commented.

Jimenez noted, “there was a lot more fear” in the first years of the persecution of digital media on the island. However, now those media outlets have become the spokespersons for everything that has happened in the country. “You can’t see everything that has happened in the new Cuban civil society without the independent press. The independent press is what has accompanied all those processes of the opposition, all those processes of creating independent organizations,” he continued.

Luz Mely Reyes insisted that “the vaccine we have” for combatting this hostile panorama, “is producing more and better journalism”. Despite the authoritarian drift in the region, “journalism of a very high quality is being practiced,” she commented.

Alliances have also been important in standing up to the state censorship. “We’ve developed a whole strategy of collaborative journalism, and not only among media outlets, but with organizations of civil society that had already been working in Venezuela for a long time. We in the independent media began to see ourselves as part of that civic space, something we hadn’t understood before, because we generally came out of private media organizations,” Reyes explained.

Nonetheless, she lamented that the strategies for coverage and distribution of information continued “in a state of experimentation, of figuring out how to function within an authoritarian system, where the media and journalists are declared enemies. Likewise, trying to find ways so the journalists themselves can open different windows to be able to do what we love and the vocation that’s brought us together, which is the practice of journalism.”

On the other hand, the transition from traditional newspapers to digital platforms and the surge of new media on the internet have created the need to guarantee the sustainability of these efforts.

“The greatest challenge is to continue existing”

In Jimenez’ view, the principal challenge of journalism in countries like Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela is “to continue existing” and “continue telling the country’s stories.” “Just because we live under this crossfire, and now with much of our generation in exile, we’re not going to stop telling the country’s stories,” he reflected.

He also feels that in these three countries, the ongoing strong waves of migration mean, for example, that “Cuba is no longer circumscribed only within the reality of the island. That whole mass of people scattered all over the world also form part of Cuba, and it’s also important to tell the stories of those Cubans who have left, precisely because of that reality on the island.”

Another challenge for independent journalism in exile, “is not to let the quality drop,” Jimenez declared. They must “continue developing strategies so that those inside of Cuba can have access to the independent media platforms, and also develop strategies to reach more people, in order to capture more sources of information.” Finally, “journalism must hold power accountable, even if confronting a power of this type, means, unfortunately, that we must suffer the consequences,” he stressed.

Luz Reyes insisted that another of digital journalism’s great challenges is sustainability. “Since we’re independent media, we need resources to sustain ourselves. In order to carry out good journalism, resources are also needed. So, we need to be aware that the sustainability of these media sources, in Cuba as well as in Nicaragua, is important,” she emphasized.

Along the same lines, Reyes noted the need to talk about ways of financing and supporting the independent media, “be it from philanthropic groups or organizations that are aware that we in the media must move within an authoritarian framework.”

She concluded: “as long as we’re working on the content, and exercising independent journalism, there will be audiences – both within and outside the country – that are going to seek that information and spread it.” That’s the reason she insists on the need to “persist in turning out the best journalism we can.”

Read more interviews here on Havana Times.