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People use the internet at a hotspot in Havana, Cuba in December 2018. Journalists and bloggers say recent internet regulations could legitimize censorship. (REUTERS/Stringer)

In new Cuban internet measures, journalists see a trap

By CPJ Central & South America Staff on September 12, 2019 7:21 AM ET

International media announced the dawn of legal private Wi-Fi in Cuba this July. But a decree published the same month signals that content controls are expanding alongside access, local journalists and bloggers told CPJ.

Independent news is already widely censored in Cuba, which CPJ ranked this month among the world’s 10 most censored countries, and it’s not yet clear what impact the decree will have. In one of the least connected places in the world, only a tiny fraction of the 11 million-strong population has a home connection, according to the country’s lone, state-owned telecommunications provider, ETECSA. Others depend on mobile internet or public Wi-Fi hotspots, at prices that prompted a social media campaign in June to #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet, or lower the cost of getting online. The recent measures governing internet access authorize people to extend public Wi-Fi signals into private spaces—a previously illegal but largely tolerated hack—without dismantling the state’s monopoly. And journalists said the accompanying decree could further erode their standing in the media landscape, at best introducing costly bureaucratic requirements, and at worst providing a veneer of legitimacy for the punishment of critical reporting.

Article 68 of Decree 370 bans “hosting a site on servers located in a foreign country” and disseminating “information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people” on public networks. The decree, in force since its publication on July 4, purports to establish legal norms for the "informatization of society," though independent news site 14yMedio reported that the government was strengthening “control over social media content.” Penalties include the “confiscation of equipment and media used to commit the violations” and fines equating up to a few hundred US dollars, substantial sums in Cuban pesos.

The decree caused immediate consternation among the digital media community in Cuba, according to interviews conducted by CPJ. “What do they mean by ‘moral’?” said a Cuban blogger who runs a website hosted abroad. “Socialist moral? Revolutionary moral? It’s a trap.” The blogger spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity to protect his security.

Journalists who spoke with CPJ were unable to name an independent Cuban blog or news website that is not hosted overseas, where they are somewhat beyond the reach of the communist authorities. “None of the servers of independent outlets are in Cuba, because we know how dangerous it could be,” said Carlos Alejandro Rodriguez from the digital magazine Tremenda Nota. “So the main effect of Decree 370 is this, we went from unregulated to illegal.”

“Until now we were in a gray zone,” blogger Yoani Sánchez from 14yMedio told CPJ. “All outlets are theoretically ‘social property’ in the hands of the Communist party. There is no way to have a registered independent outlet. All there is here in Cuba are foreign news agencies and the independent outlets hosted on foreign servers.”

Authorities in Cuba block critical content hosted overseas at irregular intervals on an ad hoc basis, without notifying the site, CPJ has found. The most recent crackdown dates from February, and as of early September, Tremenda Nota, 14yMedio, and several other such websites were still inaccessible. On July 5, the digital magazine ADN Cuba announced that it had been informed by readers that it was newly blocked on the island. The blocking coincided with the publication of Decree 370, that report said.

“Blocking websites has been a successful tactic used by the Castro regime to censor content hosted on foreign servers,” said Rodriguez. “The majority of people who read us are abroad. Now, since being blocked, fewer people read us in Cuba. Young people use a VPN, a proxy,” he said, referencing censorship circumvention tools like virtual private networks. “But older people who had not been able to access the internet before don’t know how to do that.”

“It’s crazy,” the blogger who requested anonymity told CPJ of the obligation to host websites locally. “Is there anything more absurd than thinking how [Decree 370] affects a site that is blocked in Cuba?” What’s more, he said, “the process to host your site in Cuba is complicated, bureaucratic.” ETECSA announced new website hosting services in April. “The system they are proposing is an odyssey, with out of date technology and at very high prices,” the blogger said.

A day after Decree 370 was issued, the Ministry of Communications said on Twitter that it applied to “national platforms and applications of services offered on the internet,” adding that “it does not refer to blogs, or personal or informative sites.” But this failed to assuage many journalists’ concerns. “It’s just a tweet, it’s not in the law. What’s the value of that?” said Sánchez. “Additionally, they don’t recognize us as an informative site, so we don’t know if we are affected or not. Nobody knows. They have not clarified anything.”

CPJ has documented Cuban journalists being fined and even imprisoned in retaliation for their journalism, and some journalists said that Decree 370 may provide a legal tool to punish the independent press. “There are some regulations that, in theory, protect free speech in Cuba, but are all ignored by the same authorities that enacted them. And there are many more that limit or even ban freedom of speech. When you are working, you are walking a razor’s edge, and without the need of a law, they go after you,” said Rodriguez. “Now they have legal basis to justify their actions, and will begin imposing fines and confiscating the equipment of journalists on the island.”

“They have understood that they need to expand access to the internet,” said the blogger who requested anonymity. “But they need to control it, out of fear of what may come.”

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