SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – “I have a problem with Facebook. It says it won’t allow more than 5,000 friends,” reads a recent update on Yoani Sánchez’s Twitter page. Sánchez isn’t some teenage pop star bragging about her mounds of friends on Facebook, rather a 34-year-old Cuban dissident who is quickly becoming a star in her own right.
In Havana, Sánchez quietly holds court on Generation Y, a buzzing blog hosted by a German-based website called Desde Cuba (www.desdecuba.com), or “From Cuba.” The site aims to offer independent Cuban voices amid the murmur of the island’s state-run media.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) counts 25 such Cuban blogs featuring a journalistic focus, and 75 other nonnewsy blogs that have popped up recently. Cuba also has some 200 blogs written by state journalists.
“Despite the challenges – legal and technical obstacles – this whole community of bloggers prevailed,” said Carlos Lauria, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Many of these blogs are exploring important economic and social issues ignored by the official press.”
In countless ways, the island of 11 million is an anomaly. The heavy-handed media restrictions on the island make Cuba the world’s largest jailers of independent journalists, according to Lauria. Yet Cuba’s online journalism scene is slowly netting recruits in the same way citizen journalism has grown across the rest of the hemisphere.
Though limitations to freedom of expression vary from country to country, more Latinos are turning to the Internet to dabble in citizen journalism – and the cacophony of news is causing a commotion.
“The Internet is a tool that helps people exercise their right to expression,” said Omar Rábago, deputy officer of freedom of expression for Article 19, a press freedom advocacy group that has been monitoring the trend in the region.
Latin America’s estimated average Internet connectivity is approximately 12 percent of the population – with more than half of the region’s users in Brazil and Mexico. Yet despite a wide digital gap, Latin America’s journalists are slowly getting wired.
Take Amelia Rueda. She may not be internationally famous, but in Costa Rica, the middle-aged reporter has become a household name. “I started journalism writing on a typewriter,” she said. Now she’s an online trailblazer.
Sitting at her computer, the challenge is breaking news in just 140 characters – the maximum space given to Twitter users for each post. Rueda has amassed almost 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts bits from exclusive interviews and short blurts of news, often linking back to her website, www.ameliarueda.com.
“I’ve lived through the development of lots of media, and right now I feel like Internet and alternative media can become networks for support, to generate ideas, to promote and provoke important change and important answers,” she said.
Costa Rica – with 32 percent of its population connected to the Internet – is increasingly aware of its online journalism, and even has begun praising it.
In April, the country handed the Pio Víquez National Journalism Award to a blogger. Judges reached the consensus that Christian Cambronero’s “Fusil de Chispas” blog, with its colorful, often biting entries and humorous graphics, produced 2009’s Costa Rican journalism at its best.
But journalists aren’t the only ones using the Internet’s social media, Luis Carlos Díaz, a new media guru in Caracas, Venezuela, said President Hugo Chávez’ fondness for state-run media has made the Venezuelan public hungry for citizen journalism. The country now has one of the highest rates of Twitter users in Latin America.
“Since the government’ has taken over more media outlets – two newspapers, six TV channels and many radio stations – the voices of dissent or opposition are much fewer than before, so many people have turned to the Internet,” Díaz said.
Chávez responded by opening his own Twitter account, forcing the verbose leader to squeeze his usually lengthy utterances into a tight-fitting tweet. He now has more than 400,000 online followers.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega still hasn’t figured out how to limit his message to the confines of Twitter, but his government has realized the importance of the Internet in shaping public opinion – even in a country with less than 5 percent connectivity.
The government has also learned that the Internet is a cost-saver for its alternative media.
When the Sandinista government’s newspaper El 19 failed to make much of an impact when it was launched in 2008, it quickly abandoned the print product and moved to digital form.
Nicaragua’s opposition has also tapped into Facebook and other social networks to organize protests and vent their frustrations with the Ortega government in a virtual realm where they don’t have to fear being attacked by Sandinistas. The Facebook group “Daniel Ortega doesn’t represent me” has 2,700 members.
The Sandinistas responded by forming the Facebook group “La Prensa doesn’t represent me,” referring to the leading opposition daily newspaper. That group boasts 38 members.
Hold that Tweet!
Social media has also proven to be a fast way of breaking stories from more remote areas where clunky camera crews or other media platforms can’t arrive in time.
“In northern Mexico, there are many videos on YouTube that reveal the narco violence and what’s actually happening. It’s information that often doesn’t reach the larger national and international media,” said Article 19’s Rábago.
He noted that many clips, such as a recent, 10-second video of a drive-by shooting, are filmed and uploaded on cellular phones by non-journalists. “These aren’t opinion leaders – they’re plain citizens,” he said.
Citizen journalists also broke the news about Costa Rica’s deadly Jan. 8, 2008 earthquake.
Community relief and recovery efforts were also channeled through sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“These are legitimate communication processes, more than just information. It’s a horizontal reciprocal process, in which each participant can at once act as informer, reader, listener and spectator,” said Tico blogger Cambronero.
Citizen photojournalism has also grown with sites like Flickr, which make it easy for photographers, professionals and novices, to showcase their digital work on popular global portals.
But social media use can go awry and even spark a national outcry, as happened last year in Guatemala. protests broke out after a video appeared on YouTube showing deceased lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg – in a previously recorded statement – blaming President Alvaro Colom and his aides for his murder (NT, May 22, 2009).
protests broke out after a video appeared on YouTube showing deceased lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg – in a previously recorded statement – blaming President Alvaro Colom and his aides for his murder (NT, May 22, 2009).
On May 10, 2009, Rosenberg was shot dead while riding his bicycle. Within days of Rosenberg’s death, the video had received more than 120,000 views and social networks were flooded with calls for Colom’s resignation. However, it was later determined that Resenberg most likely arranged his own death.
The Panamanian government also feels the need to respond to controversial website posts. The government of President Ricardo Martinelli has threatened to sue an independent Costa Rican news website, Nuestro País, for defamation after the portal launched a series of articles about U.S.- Panama relations and alleged links between the Panamanian government and narco kingpins.
In some cases, the Internet is being used to deter freedom of expression. Rábago said Article 19 has noticed growing trends in Internet harassment of journalists.
“Through e-mail and website use there’s been bullying and even threats against journalists. And sometimes it’s hard to identify where it’s coming from – it could be a criminal or just someone having a laugh,” he said. “The anonymity of the Internet also enables that kind of freedom.”
Citizen, Meet Journalist
The Internet is also allowing collaboration between professional journalists and citizen journalists, according to Dean Graber of the KnightCenter for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas.
He points to Solo Local, a blog out of Bahía Blanca, Argentina. It’s mostly written and moderated by veteran journalist Sandra Crucianelli, but also features content produced by non-professional newspersons, some of whom were trained by Crucianelli.
However, Graber says, not all journalists are willing to collaborate; some professional reporters see citizen journalists as a threat to their jobs.
“We know that’s not going to happen. There will always be traditional news organizations that are owned by corporations – maybe more nonprofits in the future – that are well financed and have resources to get reporters around to respond to the major events of the day,” Graber said. “That’s something that citizen journalists can’t compete against on a regular basis. We also know that citizen journalists have a lot to add to that coverage.”
While mainstream media still sets the news agenda, citizen journalism is gaining ground, Graber said.
“What appears in the daily newspapers throughout the region is still important news for setting the agenda, as are the nightly news broadcasts. But those aren’t the only news agenda sources any more. Citizen journalists have proven they can influence the agenda as well,” he said.
Yet as new citizen media outlets are born, those who are consuming the news can find it “really difficult or challenging to make sense out of this mix,” Graber said.
Ultimately, he said, listeners and viewers need to learn to distinguish quality journalism from irresponsible or misinformed Internet chatter. But in the true spirit of free expression, Graber says “I tend to think more is better.”