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In Cuba, online media pry open state grip on news

Abraham, Elaine and Jose are under 30, and they've pulled off the unthinkable in Cuba - they are producing online news, prying open the state's half-century grip on the media.

[HAVANA] Abraham, Elaine and Jose are under 30, and they've pulled off the unthinkable in Cuba - they are producing online news, prying open the state's half-century grip on the media.

The Castro government created a crack in the Cuban media wall, allowing this small revolution, when it opened up internet access to the public in 2013.

What followed was a progressive rollout of 200 Wi-Fi hotspots across the Caribbean island of 11.2 million people.

Access is limited. Few Cubans can afford the sky-high connections fees of $2 per hour and the government only rarely authorizes an internet connection at home.

Still, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists counts about 3,000 blogs and portals dedicated to Cuba that are published on the island or by Cubans living abroad.

Sites like The Sneeze (El estornudo), Neighborhood Journalism (Periodismo de Barrio), El Toque and the most well-known, OnCuba, are key voices in this flourishing cyber-media field.

Some of the journalists were educated at the University of Havana's communications school, the traditional launch pad for careers at state media and the Communist Party newspaper Granma.

"We all came from classes at the University of Havana, and we were kind of left homeless, in the sense that for us, the state press isn't an option," Abraham Jimenez, the 27-year-old who heads The Sneeze, told AFP.

Mr Jimenez and his colleagues launched the portal in March. Like other independent media, they chase a variety of funding sources, including selling what they can to survive month-to-month.

"Internet access is very expensive, we don't have an office or anything," Mr Jimenez explained, saying that articles and photos are sent by email abroad to be put online.

"Without state economic support, we must look for other ways to manage finances," said Elaine Diaz, 30, director of Neighborhood Journalism.

"Some turn to paid advertising, or payment for content or a service, or partnerships with other media or nonprofit organizations, or a cooperative financing group," she said.

At times, like at The Sneeze, it takes another job to survive - the price of realizing the dream of being an independent journalist in Cuba.

With sleek homepages, full-screen photos, polished writing and reporting that tends toward features rather than hard news, the publications for the most part are trying to depict the reality of Cubans' everyday lives.

But unlike others, such as 14yMedio launched in 2014 by journalist-dissident Yoani Sanchez, or independent portals published in Spain, like Cuba Daily, or in Miami, Cubanet and CiberCuba, these new media eschew confrontation with the authorities.

We present "very honest viewpoints, stemming from life experiences, and we don't want to respond to the combative visions of extremists," said Jose Nieves, 28, the editorial coordinator of El Toque.

The authorities, who block access to the main dissident portals, tolerate these new sites. But the first rumble of a counteroffensive is being detected in the state media and on social networks.

In Granma, official blogger Iroel Sanchez recently condemned "journalistic bias, marked by superficiality, lack of context and inaccuracy, which serves the media war and those who hope to dismantle socialism in our country."

But the state's messages can be more direct, like the September firing of a reporter for radio Sagua la Grande who collaborated with independent media, or the one-day arrest of Diaz, the head of Neighborhood Journalism.

She was arrested in early October because she lacked an official permit to cover the damage from Hurricane Matthew in the far west of the island.

The law only recognizes state media and accredited foreign journalists, and the online media operate in a legal limbo.

For now, the new media outlets present no real threat to the Communist authorities, whether by their tone or their audience.

In Cuba, only a tiny fraction of the population goes online regularly. And, reading the independent press generally is not a priority.

"I'm probably the only crazy one connecting by WiFi to send an article or read the press," said The Sneeze's Jimenez.

"Everyone would rather talk to their mother who left (Cuba), with their brother, or look for a tennis partner," he joked.