New Limitations Placed on Cuban Journalists

By Fernando Ravsberg

Santa Clara journalists: "censorship exists and binds the exercise of revolutionary journalism."
Santa Clara journalists: “censorship exists and binds the exercise of revolutionary journalism.”

HAVANA TIMES – Cuban journalists received the order prohibiting them from working on the side in non-government media but the “resolution” was only communicated verbally. They say it is an initiative of the management of each press outlet, however, it is occurring in unison across the country.

No written document or any political institution takes responsibility for the prohibition and journalists consulted do not even know what will happen to those who fail to comply. My grandfather used to say that if you sow fear you harvest obedience.

Advocates of the prohibition told us that “this rule also applies at the BBC, CNN and El País”. The funny thing is that they copy the prohibitions but not the wages received by those international media journalists.

When a reporter gets paid US $20 a month and is banned from performing other better paid journalistic collaborations on the side, they are being pushed to crime, professional corruption, to change jobs or leave the country.

That’s what the young colleagues from Santa Clara explained to the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC) in an impeccably argued letter, both from the professional point of view and from the political, as that are both journalists and members of the Communist Youth League.

But it was a futile effort because, as recognized by the assistant director of Granma, Karina Marron, UPEC has no decision-making power, has no force and is worn down discussing the same problems at meeting after meeting.

In that same intervention, Karina recalled that those who decided “to study journalism did not choose it either to work in political propaganda or advertising nor did they choose to remain silent on the sidelines, because otherwise they would have chosen another profession”.

Los periodistas cubanos sufren de censura, de bajos salarios, de falta de fuentes y de escasez de recursos. Foto: Raquel Pérez Díaz
Los periodistas cubanos sufren de censura, de bajos salarios, de falta de fuentes y de escasez de recursos. Foto: Raquel Pérez Díaz

The reality is that the model of the Cuban media is taking in water on all four sides and the problems go beyond ethical or ideological issues. The national press is so inefficient it no longer even serves to promote government policy objectives.

Some good examples are their silence when a transsexual is elected a delegate of the People’s Power Assembly; when thousands of Cubans end up stranded in Costa Rica; when a blackout affects half the island, or when they fail to question Obama at a press conference.

But these mediocre decisions are not made by journalists, as shown in the satirical short film “Brainstorm” by Eduardo del Llano. The scissors that censors all media in Cuba is in the hands of a very small group of officials.

They maintain tight control over the national press but had lost some of the fear exerted on journalists. The opening of informative cyberspace ended the monopoly because anyone could publish what was vetoed in the official press.

The colleagues in Santa Clara make it clear in the first sentence of their letter: “As journalists we chose the right to publish in digital or print media that do not represent offenses to the full dignity of men and women, nor pose a threat to the sovereignty of our country.”

What journalist anywhere in the world would not subscribe to that idea? But here (in Cuba) they are “accused” of writing for other media for money, as if receiving a minimally decent pay for our work was a sin that makes us mercenaries.

The problem goes beyond money, proven by Sergio Alejandro, director of the international pages of Granma. He did not receive pay from private media when he published on his blog his text on Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica, while his newspaper remained mute.

The greatest charm of unofficial media is that “no one alters our texts or do we negotiate our revolutionary positions. Now more than ever we are and we must be fully responsible for our opinion,” explained the journalists from Vanguardia in Santa Clara.

Meanwhile, in the national media they are tied hand and foot because “censorship exists and binds the exercise of revolutionary journalism. As a hydra with a thousand heads, censorship affects especially the words, ideas and nuances of the texts.”

And now the censors want to ban journalists from collaborating with any unofficial media. That is how they seek to extend censorship to cyberspace, a vain attempt to inaugurate the era of pseudonyms and simulation.

Most journalists know that the official press has lost so much credibility that it is not even doing effective propaganda. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz
Most journalists know that the official press has lost so much credibility that it is not even doing effective propaganda. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

If the government and journalists allow these “verbal rules” to take hold or worse, if included in the press law being formulated, it will mean a huge setback for journalism extending the double standard and disarming the nation against the big foreign media.

The Cuban population does not believe in the official press, journalists reject stupid censorship and the government demands efficiency. You cannot leave the creation of a new information policy in the hands of those who led the media thus far and sank it into the worst of crisis.

All conditions are present to break the shackles of the past, creating public media under the authority of journalist collectives with legal mechanisms for citizen oversight. Such would be a press in which people create and where young people want to work.

Everything is at stake in today’s Cuba, the model of society that it is giving birth to needs a media that informs, that defends the interests of the nation, that protects the most vulnerable, that investigates problems thoroughly, that points to the inept and denounces the corrupt.

8 thoughts on “New Limitations Placed on Cuban Journalists

  • Journalist collectives and citizen oversight seem like steps in the right direction, but how to finance the work? I don’t know how easy it would be to get a copy of it, but there’s a pretty recent book (in English, unfortunately) by Dan Hind, The Return of the Public, that brims with practical ideas about finance. It’s published by Verso so those who can’t countenance the left might not want to read it, but it’s also pretty inexpensive. The ideas would be radical for both Cuba and the U.S. yet more easily tried in Cuba.

    In countries like the U.S., people who work with ideas and words tend to ignore the financial context of what they do. When they do notice the financial context they disparage it as if the prospect of even considering it were aesthetically repulsive. It’s been an interesting attitude to witness during the decades I’ve studied media but I’m growing tired of it. To disdain understanding of how one makes a living with words is to lose, pretty quickly, the effective chance to do so.

    Mr. MacDuff writes below of many independent reporters in free democratic countries. That used to be true. Today we could fit all of the full-time reporters covering international news into my garage. Maybe we’d find 50 such folks today, so it’d be a tight squeeze but we could do it. Similar declines have occurred in the number of journalists able to work in domestic news production. What is happening?

    If one ignores how communication is financed and just opens one’s country’s media to anything, highly capitalized firms will step in. These firms’ financial model is not to take money from the government, which cheers libertarians. But these same firms also don’t take money from their readers/viewers. This mystifies libertarians for a few moments. I think it reminds them that even though they promote free markets, they don’t actually understand them because they spend all their waking hours criticizing government. Once something becomes private, they are happy and they stop looking at how the private sector works.

    So in the U.S. we’ve had generations of well-meaning intellectuals, people who try to make their living with their words, who have, over time, been boxed into an ever-smaller space within U.S. culture. They now tend to live in a handful of cities and college towns (I call the intellectual ghettos). They speak increasingly only to each other. When they look beyond their ghettos for a moment they see only ignorant people led by demagogues. Their proof: the content of the large commercial news operations. They reason that since these firms operate in a market, their contents reflect the interests of the people. This reasoning is dead wrong.

    U.S. intellectuals work within the space where one is paid for one’s knowledge production. What about the rest of the country? If we go back to the puzzle of big, private media firms charging nothing for their knowledge production, we see that it consists of their throwing content at people to grab their attention. That attention is aggregated and measured by some other firm like Neilsen or Arbitron (Facebook measure its attention product internally) and then sold for real money to third parties like Coca-Cola or L’Oreal. When we invented this system to finance broadcasting in the 1920s, it was not a big deal. In the time since its invention, it has grown and is coming to choke our culture to death. When a firm’s business is to gather your attention, its employees lose interest in who you are as a thinking person and what information you might want or need. It instead gives you content that increases the chances that your eyes will linger on what they have offered. (The number of U.S. journalists shrinks because the business is not to inform. It’ that simple.) Try conversing with someone who is not interested in hearing what you have to say. The conversation won’t last long. That’s why intellectuals in the U.S. increasingly reside in intellectual ghettos, little spaces where the sale of attention still does not rule our waking hours. Problem is, most U.S. intellectuals do not notice what’s happening because of their disdain for understanding how media are financed (and today, for the small pleasures they take at how much smarter they think they are than the rest of the population).

    In itself, such a business model wouldn’t hurt Cuba much at first…well, let me back away from that claim. You don’t have a lot of disposable income in the aggregate, and you don’t have lots of stuff to buy. Commercial media would stimulate your longing for things even more than you long for them now. Politically, you would put incessant pressure on your political institutions to have your media emulate us. Astute Cuban politicians might actually say yes, and would position themselves as Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese politicians have done to cash in on the change. It is now an established transition path. In Cuba’s case, many Cuban might see it as nothing more than becoming a modern culture like the U.S.

    Except you wouldn’t become us. Comparatively speaking, your productive sector, including agriculture, is marginal. You could prosper by finding niches to operate within the global economy, but you’d have to be very smart about how you went about this. The fact that you are only 11 million is a plus, as is the fact that you are, again comparatively speaking, highly educated, and not just formally but from what you learn in daily life. If you let a commercial media operation emerge that emulates the U.S. attention model, your population won’t grow or shrink but your intellectual resources will wither, and with them will wither your chances of succeeding with innovations in the global economy. It will also destroy the fabric of daily waking life.

    You have to find another way to finance your media. I see no alternative if you believe you have a Cuba that means something special, something more than Russia or China or Vietnam.

  • The present political and economic system in Cuba is becoming fatal for the present regime. The major change in dynamics today vs. a few years back is the small yet potent force that has access to information that is off limits to the average Cuban. That force will now be the start of what could be the end for the incompetent group now controlling Cuba and its people. It’s just a matter of time and like all forms of dictatorships from the past, they will not see it coming. Freedom of information is a given right for all living in the world today and the Castro’s have no clue why verbal or written orders forbidding this will have the opposite effect.

  • Although you obviously live in a mental morass, you ought to learn to read. I have yet to read in these pages a single constructive comment from you.
    Your modus operandi is to criticize others, without any reason other than your accumulated ignorance. For the educated who write in these pages – whether supporters or critics of the Castro regime, you comments are worthless.

  • Just what “free democratic countries” do you have in mind? You obviously have no knowledge of how the media really works in those countries. Some freedom. The almighty dollar determines what is said and what is not, and those directly involved know the limits and will not cross them, Some freedom.

  • In the free democratic countries there are numerous independent reporters. In Cuba, none! The world’s leading international news agency – the BBC – in addition to its own high calibre reporters also makes use of independent ones. Freedom of the press is practiced in the democratic world but not in Cuba, currently listed as the 11th most censored country in the world.

  • This “new” regulation is nothing new. It is the practice in all capitalist and noncapitalist societies. Just try to work “on the side” for some other media in the US and retain your employment with your primary employer. That “new” regulation is already the norm in practically every country in the world.

  • …as I’ve always said, it’s about control. The government needs to control the people. No free thinking allowed. No going off the reservation. The interest of the Cuban people be damned. Thats why outside the gossip centers “radio bemba” the Cuban people are generally ignorant of what’s happening, in a true sense, outside the country.

  • My wife is a former national morning news anchor in Cuba. She told me a story about a long time Cuban evening news anchor who I won’t name (deep voice, big mustache) who addlibbed once during a news story. No big deal right? Several históricos called the broadcast at 25th & M in Havana to complain. He was sent home for a month. When the news producer tells you to read the news, you read exactly what was approved by the Propaganda Ministry. Not one jot or tittle more or less.

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