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For Cuban blogger Sánchez, a government 'distinction'

Yoani Sánchez at home in Cuba. (Reuters)

Acclaimed Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has had her share of honors lately. Last year alone, her blogging, which offers a personal and critical view of life in Cuba, was honored by the Dutch Prince Claus Fund, the International Press Institute, and the Danish Centre for Political Studies. This week, Sánchez received a very different type of distinction--from the Cuban government. She was featured on Monday night's installment of "Las Razones de Cuba" (Cuban Reasons), a state-sponsored TV program and website that chronicles perceived threats to the government and singles out independent journalists as enemies of the state. 

Monday night's half-hour program was dedicated to the topic of "Cyberwar." ("Not a war of bombs and weapons, but one of information, communications, algorithms, and bytes," the announcer intoned). About halfway through the half-hour broadcast, sinister music announced Sánchez's appearance, next to the word "cybermercenary." The program went on to list her international accolades along with the prize money that accompanied each award. Next came some fuzzy footage of Sánchez entering foreign embassies in Cuba. She was criticized for having secured an interview with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.

The program's message was clear: Independent bloggers such as Sánchez are being paid by foreign interests to undermine the state.

Luckily, we are told as the music changes, there are hundreds of bloggers who believe in the government. "Las Razones de Cuba" ends on a positive note with Cuba striding triumphantly into the future with an army of pro-government techies to overcome the menace of cybermercaneries such as Sánchez.

While "Las Razones de Cuba" is designed to discredit and humiliate the critics it features, being singled out on the program can have a positive side effect. In an interview with CPJ on Tuesday, Cuban blogger and lawyer Laritza Diversent explained that a mention in "Razones de Cuba" generates substantial publicity in certain circles.

In a blog post last week, Sánchez herself commented on the program's unintended effect after watching Dagoberto Valdes, director of the online news magazine Convivencia, get a mention on the program:

A websurfer is well aware of the hits an attack on national television can bring to any website, even in a country with connectivity as low as this one. But beyond my enthusiasm for these statistics, I realize that my friend is taking a public stoning on prime time television. Dago is strongly denigrated with no right to reply, demonized in a way that causes several colleagues to call me, frightened, "Will he be imprisoned? Shot?"

Public campaigns against critical online voices are not new, CPJ research shows. The government sponsors hundreds of blogs devoted to promoting Cuba's image and attacking its critics. In addition, independent bloggers are called in for questioning, followed, denied visas to travel abroad, and told to curb critical commentary or face sanctions, CPJ found.

In reaction to the program, Sánchez and a number of her colleagues have created their own program, "Razones Ciudadanas," a sort of citizen round-table, whose first chapter was posted Monday night on the video-sharing site Vimeo. In the video, six men and women sit in a semi-circle and have an informal discussion about something more frightening than a perceived "cyberwar"--the enormous barriers that Cuba citizens face in expressing independent ideas.

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