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Huffington Post blogger blocked from accepting journalism award by Cuban government

Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban blogger for The Huffington Post who garnered attention in recent months for offering frank criticism of her country’s Communist government, said last month that she was barred by Cuban officials from traveling to the U.S. to accept a coveted journalism award.

Sánchez has been publishing the blog Generación Y – full of social commentary on daily life and political struggles from her hometown of Havana, and offering some of the most blatant criticism of her country’s one-party system found within Cuba – for the past two years. Despite strict government censorship in Cuba, she has managed to keep her blog alive and active by evading police and sometimes emailing entries to her friends in other countries to post. Time magazine listed her as one of the world’s 100 most influential persons in 2008, stating that “as one of the under the nose of a regime that has never tolerated dissent, Sánchez has practiced what paper-bound journalists in her country cannot: freedom of speech.”

In May, Cuban authorities denied Sanchez permission to fly to Madrid to accept the Ortega y Gasset Prize in digital journalism for creating Generation Y, which gets more than 1 million hits a month.

Then, in early October, she became the first blogger to win one of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes given by Columbia University for journalism that advances inter-American understanding. But she was again denied an exit visa by the Cuban government, rendering her unable to attend the event where she made history.

She made a video recording in response to her visa denial, which she posted on her blog and which was played at the Cabot Prize award ceremony on October 12. “We Cubans are like small children,” she explained in the message, “who need Father’s permission to leave the house.”

Blogging in Egypt a Dangerous Endeavor

Egypt is rapidly becoming one of the worst places to blog. The country has been placed on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) “Ten Worst Countries to be a Blogger” list, alongside other well-known culprits such as China, Iran, and Cuba. And this last week alone, three bloggers were detained and held without charge.

Abdel Rahman Ayyash (Al-Ghareeb) and Magdi Saad (Yalla Mesh Mohem) were arrested at the Cairo airport on July 21, 2009 after returning from trips abroad. Ahmad Abu Khalil (Bayarek) was arrested at his home after an early morning raid by security forces. To date, Ayyash is believed to be held by security forces in Mansoura while Saad is being detained at security forces headquarters in Cairo. Khalil’s whereabouts remain unknown.

These arrests occurred three weeks after one of Egypt’s most famed blogger, Wael Abbas, was detained for a day at the Cairo Airport while returning from Sweden, where he had openly criticized the Egyptian government. Abbas is one of Egypt’s leading bloggers and his blog, Misr Digit@l , averages a million visits a month. Abbas, an IT specialist, began blogging in 2005 but shot to blogosphere fame in 2007 when he posted video of police officers carrying out acts of torture in a police station. Abbas’ blog post led to the rare arrest and conviction of the police officers involved, and inspired many Egyptians to begin blogging. But he has also encountered increasing persecution for his blogging activities.

Most recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced that the organization had been helping Tamber Mabrouk and his family after Mabrouk was singled out for denouncing his employer, Trust Chemical Industries’, dumping of untreated waste water. As a result of Mabrouk’s posts on his employer’s practices, as well as other corruption within the Egyptian Government, Mabrouk lost his job, was forced to leave his apartment after he was threatened with eviction, and was ordered to pay a 6,000 euro fine, more than 100 times the average monthly wage in Europe. RSF has been providing financial support to Mabrouk and his family while he struggles to find new employment.

The word “blog” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer ; also : the contents of such a site.” In 2004, the word was picked as Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Year” after topping the list of most looked-up terms ,and in 2005, it was officially included in the dictionary. At it’s essence, a blog, along with the multitude of free blog-hosting websites in existence today, offer the citizen journalist ample opportunity to share thoughts and information with the rest of the world. Blogs represent the best use of modern technology encouraging the free flow of expression. Any restriction imposed on blogging, and any reprimand for blogging activities, constitute an egregious violation of freedom of expression and significantly lessen the quality of a free flow of ideas worldwide.

Censorship in Cuba: Leaps but not Bounds

By Katie Lee Hull

While restrictions on travel to and from Cuba are slowly being lifted, strict regulations on media and information remain for Cuban citizens. Since taking over for his brother in February of 2008, Raul Castro has lifted bans that used to make it near impossible for Cubans to access information on the internet. Hotels are one of the few places on the island with access to internet, and up until recently, Cubans were banned from tourist hotels. But even now that the ban has been lifted, the government still manages to keep the internet out of reach by charging exorbitant prices that keep both personal computers and internet connection out of the price range of most Cubans.  
But even with restrictions, many still manage get their voices heard. Yoani Sanchez is one such blogger whose site, Generation Y, is censored in Cuba. Named as one of Time magazines 100 most influential people, her blog makes its way around the island nation on everything from computer memory sticks to lose leaf paper.

Just being censored by her government no doubt helped catapult her to fame both in and out of her country, and at the same time, her international reputation is probably the one thing keeping her out of jail. Currently, 21 bloggers are in jail in Cuba, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

She hasn’t been allowed to leave Cuba to accept Spain’s prestigious Ortega and Gasset prize for digital journalism, which she won last year, or to attend the publication party held in Italy to honor her new book, Cuba Libre, which is comprised of a collection of her blogs. Sanchez writes on her blog that “If the situation continues, I will have to start telling my life in the improbable tense: ‘I could have been there except,’ ‘I would have presented the book if not for…’ or ‘I would manage to travel if I shut up.’ Today I’ve been to the launch of Cuba Libre, in the virtual way that only a blogger can.  I spoke by phone with those present, answered some questions, and the connection failed before I could say ‘Goodbye.'” 

Read more about Internet restrictions in Cuba here.