From Information to Action / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

14ymedio biggerGeneration Y, Yoani Sanchez, 12 November 2015 — My grandmother only knew how to write the first letter of her name. She would sign documents with an almost childish looking capitalized “A.” In spite of being illiterate, Ana always advised me to study and learn as much as possible. Nevertheless, that laundress who never went to school taught me the best lesson of my life: that tenacity and hard work are needed to accomplish one’s dreams. She instilled in me the urgency of “action.” Action with a capital “A,” like the only letter of her name that she could write.

However, action can become a problem if it is not appropriately accompanied by information. An uninformed citizen is easy prey for the powerful, a guaranteed victim for manipulation and control. In fact, an individual without information cannot be considered a whole citizen, because her rights will constantly be violated and she will not know how to demand and reclaim them.

The most expansive authoritarian regimes in history have been characterized by a strict control of the media and a high disregard for freedom of information. For these systems, a journalist is an uncomfortable individual who must be tamed, silenced, or eliminated. These are societies where a journalist is recognized only when she repeats the official government rhetoric, applauds the authorities, and sings praises to the system.

I have lived forty years under a government that considers that information is treason. At first, when I learned to read and began to pay attention to the national media, with its optimistic headlines and data on the country’s economic over-achievement, I blindly believed what those newspapers were saying. That country that only existed in the ink of the Cuban Communist Party’s national newspaper was similar to the one my teachers taught me about in school, similar to the one from the Marxist manuals and the speeches of the Maximum Leader. But it did not resemble the reality.

From the frustration between my desires to know and the wall of silence that the official Cuban press imposes on so many issues, the person I am now was born.

My first reaction in the face of so much manipulation and censorship – like that of so many of my fellow citizens – was simply to stop reading that press which served those in power, that propaganda disguised as journalism. Like millions of Cubans, I sought information that was hidden, censored news articles, and I learned to hear the radio transmissions coming from outside even with the interference that the government would impose on them.

I felt like I would drown if I wasn’t informed. But, then another moment came. A moment when I switched to “action.” It wasn’t enough to know everything that was being hidden from me and to decipher the truth behind so many false statistics and such editorial grandiloquence. I wanted to be part of those who narrated the Cuban reality. Thus, I began my blog Generation Y in April of 2007, and with it I took the path of no return as a reporter and a journalist. A path filled with danger, gratification, and great responsibility.

During the past eight years, I have lived all of the extremes of the journalistic profession: the honors and the pains; the frustration of not being allowed to enter an official press conferences and the marvel of finding an ordinary Cuban who gives me the most valuable of testimonies. I have had moments where I have exalted this profession and moments in which I wished I had never written that first word. There is no journalist who does not carry the burden of her own demons.

Now, I lead a media outlet, 14ymedio, the first independent news platform inside of Cuba. I am no longer the teenager who turned her eyes away from the official press, looked for other alternative news sources, and later began her own blog as if she were someone opening a window into the entrails of a country. I now have new responsibilities. I lead a group of journalists, who every day must cross the lines of illegality to perform their jobs.

I am responsible for each and every one of the journalists who are a part of the newsroom of our news platform. The worst moments are when one of them takes longer than expected to return from covering a story and we have to call their family to say that they have been arrested or are being interrogated. Those are the days that I wish that I had not written that first word…or that I had not written that first word the moment I did, but much earlier.

I feel that if we had moved towards action, and if we had exercised our right to inform much earlier, Cuba would now be a country where a journalist would not be synonymous with a tamed professional or a furtive criminal. But at least we have begun to do it. We have moved from information into action, to help change a nation through news, reporting, and journalism. It is Action with a capital “A,” like the one my grandmother wrote on those papers though she never really understood what they were saying.

Note: Speech delivered by Yoani Sanchez on 10 November in New York, at the ceremony for the 2015 Knight International Journalism Awards. The director of 14ymedio was given the award last May by the International Center for Journalists for her “uncommon resolve in the fight against censorship.”