How a Cuban Journalist Got the Axe from a Government Radio Station

By Fernando Ravsberg

Publishing the opinion of Granma’s assistant director in its entirety has cost Jose Ramirez Pantoja his job and he’ll probably never be able to work as a journalist ever again.
Publishing the opinion of Granma’s assistant director in its entirety has cost Jose Ramirez Pantoja his job and he’ll probably never be able to work as a journalist ever again.

HAVANA TIMES — This week, my colleague Jose Ramirez Pantoja received his definitive firing from Radio Holguin and therefore [with the existing system of blacklisting] from any government media.

His crime? Publishing on his personal blog the speech given by the assistant director of the official Granma newspaper, Karina Marron, in its entirety, even though some “chosen” paragraphs had already appeared in the national media.

Here is our conversation with Jose and his point of view about what happened. If the sanctioning authorities want to express their opinions, they can also do so. We’re open to hearing their side.

What did you study and where have you worked?

I studied audiovisual communication at the Holguin branch of the Superior Arts Institute, which is today the University of the Arts (2000-2005). In 2000, the CMBF radio station hired me as a correspondent in Holguin and when I graduated, they gave me a diploma in broadcast journalism. In 2006, I was hired by Radio Holguin and I became a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC). Between 1998 and 2005, I also worked as a journalist in the Cultural Communication Department at the Provincial Culture Directorate.

Why were you fired from your job?

For publishing the speech given by Karina Marron Gonzalez, the assistant director of Granma newspaper and member of UPEC’s national committee, at the UPEC National Plenary on June 28th 2016, on my personal blog. I took part via videoconference, because of my role as the president of the of the UPEC delegation at Radio Holguin.

Did you secretly record the speech?

No, on the contrary. I took out my recorder in front of all those present and I walked towards the TV, putting the recorder near the speakers and I recorded six speeches without anyone chairing the event in my province contesting this.

When the speech appeared on your blog, had nobody published it yet?

Yes. On June 28, the Cuban Journalists Association website published an article where they cited fragments from Marron’s speech. Then, extracts also appeared on the TV.

What was your intention when you made the speech public in its entirety?

Is it right that a manager of a press media has the power to leave a journalist unemployed just because they published a speech made by another colleague at a professional meeting on his personal blog?
Is it right that a manager of a press media has the power to leave a journalist unemployed just because they published a speech made by another colleague at a professional meeting on his personal blog?

When I saw that the TV news program had mentioned the Plenary and that the UPEC website had also already published excerpts from Karina’s speech, I deduced that it was publishable and I decided to transcribe it in full and upload it to my blog with the fundamental goal of letting people know that journalists in Cuba are able to have a serious and responsible debate at the highest level. I also published it thinking that it would spark a debate in line with the speech’s own nature to create controversy and to exchange different opinions which are always much needed here.

What does your boss at the radio station have to do with you publishing this on your personal blog?

That is one of the contradictions in this case. How is it possible that you need a manager of a media organization to approve what journalists publish on their personal blogs? Who does the blog belong to then? In my case, the management of my workplace claimed that when a journalist publishes on his blog or on social media, they are doing it in the name of the media they work for. This is quite a controversial viewpoint.

What are the laws that exist then for personal blogs?

If they exist, we haven’t been told about them.

What did they argue to get such a drastic sentence as being laid off definitively?.

Karina Marron’s speaking at the UPEC gathering. As the media belongs to the people, is it right to hide from the people the opinions journalists have about the role played by those who manage the media?
Karina Marron’s speaking at the UPEC gathering. As the media belongs to the people, is it right to hide from the people the opinions journalists have about the role played by those who manage the media?

The radio station that effected the sanction outlines:

“The colleague in mention, was given the opportunity to take part in a videoconference as a guest on June 28, 2016 which formed part of the Cuban Journalists Association National Plenary.  He recorded, without the necessary consent and approval to do so, the words of journalist Karina Marron, assistant director of the Granma newspaper, who on this occasion gave a speech critical in nature, where she assessed questions relating to the organization’s own functioning and the results it had over the last year, giving her personal opinion about Cuba’s information policy and the duty of young journalists, as well as the possible impact of economic measures that are on the horizon.

“The person who signs this only transcribed Karina Marron’s words in full and in spite of not having received any order to cover the event, published the speech on his Facebook page, thereby violating the information policy which applies to all media institutions, which establishes the fact that work must have a social interest and criticisms must be previously approved by a Manager of the media.”

What did the appeal you took to the Labor Justice Body bring about?

On August 12th, the president of this board told me orally that they had dismissed my appeal. According to the right I’m entitled to by law, in the face of such a decision I can appeal my case before the Municipal Court for work-related cases. Now, I need to hire the services of a lawyer and continue this legal process until a judge decides.

Did they tell you why they decided to give you such a harsh punishment?

The document I received on August 15th, sides with the administration, given the fact that the UPEC Plenary is considered government information, even when the organization itself and the NTV published news on the Plenary. The Labor Board’s argument concludes with the following Marti-esque sentence: “The enemy should only hear our voice of attack… This is Patria (homeland) in the media. It is a soldier.” Undoubtedly, the Labor Board has confused the name of the publication with the term Patria. I am very unhappy with the Labor Board’s ruling.

What are you planning on doing now on a legal and personal level?

Legally, I’m going to take my appeal to the Municipal Court for work-related issues which I have the right to do. Personally speaking, I’m very disappointed by everything that has happened, by the twisted way that the whole case has been handled and for not having the support of my workplace in the first place and then the labor union and UPEC.

While the legal process draws on, I’m going to have to look for whatever job I can get just to survive. With a disciplinary action like this one, it’s going to be very difficult for me to find work even though the law states that I can still be hired by any media organization. The question is: What director would dare to hire me? Maybe in the non-government sector I can find a job, especially if I look for a job and not for a profession.

This case seems to reveal the new dimension censorship has taken on in cyberspace, personal blogs and even social media. Note: the post that led to Pantoja's dismissal is no longer on his blog.
This case seems to reveal the new dimension censorship has taken on in cyberspace, personal blogs and even social media. Note: the post that led to Pantoja’s dismissal is no longer on his blog.

What do you think about how the Cuban media works and what would you change?

There’s a lot to discuss about this subject. An example of this is the disciplinary action I’ve been given which I think has left a bitter taste in the profession. In my opinion, Cuban media needs greater independence to be able to truly fill the space that it needs to fill in society.

Cubans need less triumphalism, meetings and covering events in the media, a media that truly reflects the reality of our country. Just a few days ago, Julian Gonzalez was released from his duties as the Minister of Culture. Has the Cuban media told us why he was replaced?

In my opinion, the media, for the sake of its main objective which is to inform the people as its inalienable right, has to tell the truth no matter how hard it is to hear and to delve into the issues that affect people, to denounce what’s wrong. The media isn’t there to go following our leaders so that they can talk about their great achievements.

Cuban media needs to stop being so rosy and sweet, however, what journalist is ready to go through a situation like the one I’m living right now, a situation which clearly questions the “No to secrecy” or the “We’re not afraid of differences in opinion or discrepancies”, both of which have been stated by Raul Castro himself.



4 thoughts on “How a Cuban Journalist Got the Axe from a Government Radio Station

  • A difficult situation. A colleague of mine from Hungary once showed me some data from a communication study he did there before the transition. His point was to show that if one was a journalist or a scientist, one could say anything one wanted–as long as they selected the right audience. If an idea was controversial, it was to be shared only within party leadership circles. There the idea was useful because it helped leaders anticipate the views and actions of dissidents. That same idea shared more broadly would get the writer into big trouble. That is the current situation in Cuba, right?

    I have long thought that a journalist’s first duty is to protect him- or herself. To be a journalist in Cuba is to be forced to understand what the powerful will view as threatening. Making these judgments is crucial to one’s survival, and they’re not reliably made by focusing in the idea itself. They’re made by imagining what would happen if the idea was spread broadly. One can be blinded by an idea, you know.

    You’re probably right about the media’s main purpose, but without taking care to protect yourself, there will be no media, only public relations. The triumphalism a Cuban journalist has to write produces a salary, but consider two things: One, empty triumphalism is probably little read, or if read little believed, so you’re not exactly doing a lot of damage. Two, little by little, alternative forms of spreading ideas are diffusing, and those responsible for controlling the spread of ideas will tire at the increasing difficulty of achieving control. So a journalist can produce the triumphalist ideas and then, carefully, spread what he or she sees as the truth in other ways, ways that protect their identity and allow them to live and see another day.

    Reply
    • There is some truth in your final paragraph. The dissemination of information is slowly increasing in Cuba as the young especially utilize cell-phones and CDs. You are also correct in indicating that there are ways to protect identity and that is essential for those who express views that are contrary to those of the Castro communist regime. MININT holds the responsibility for controlling and preveting the spread of liberal ideas and that is done mainly through the CDR whose role was defined by Fidel Castro as:
      “A collective system of revolutionary vigilance so that everybody (ie: the regime) knows who lives on every block, what they do on every block, what relations they had with the tyranny, (the Batista regime rather than his own) in what activities are they involved and with whom they meet.”
      The CDR is obliged a t minimum to make a full report upon every citizen every year and those records are now computerized – there is no right of any form of privacy.
      Open criticism of the regime is a criminal offence with jail as the consequence.

      Reply
  • A second observation. When I read your article I was struck by the idea that incomes for journalists come only from a state agency. I may be wrong here but that’s my assumption. If you write for Granma, you’re paid by Granma. In turn, Granma’s budget is only partially covered by money from readers. The rest comes from the state. Am I correct?

    So if journalists’ income is from the state, what I say below about a journalist’s responsibility to protect him- or herself is is pretty clear. The problem is, who else would pay a journalist? I don’t know that the Cuban public has enough income to devote to buying publications right now. If journalists were able to ban together and go in this direction, I don’t know how many jobs for journalists it would produce. I suspect not many. For this reason, I think that practicing Cuban journalists need to do whatever they can to keep their state-paid positions. It is not the best thing but it buys time, and it keeps the doors open to sources of information that a reader-financed journalist may no longer have.

    Looming behind these observations is a third form of financing journalism. It’s the one that the U.S. adopted, and that is to sell the attention of readers to advertisers. Even when newspapers were powerful in the U.S. only 20 percent of their revenue came from readers. The rest came from selling readers’ attention. This sale of attention became the foundation of our consumer culture. It seems attractive but, as I’ve commented elsewhere, it likely would lead to disaster for Cuba. Maybe as a compromise you could allow the sale of attention through print media (books and magazines) because the attention sold is not in real time. If you extend this financial model to radio, television and the internet, you’d be capturing and selling actual attention in real time. That’s what’s hurting U.S. culture so profoundly at the present. So the selling of advertisements in print might be considered, but think long and hard before you extend the practice to electronic media.

    Finally, I guess there’s a lot I don’t yet know about Cuban media and journalism. I hope to see more pieces like yours on this platform.

    Reply
    • You write richardmuu that: “I think that Cuban journalists need to do whatever they can to keep their state-paid positions.” That is exactly what they already do, reflecting the PCC Party line and the directions of the Propaganda Department of the PCC.
      Magazines do not exist in Cuba and books that are contrary to communist thought are banned!
      For example, Cuban schoolteachers are unaware of Dr. Zhivago as it was banned. You must be joking in thinking that the regime would permit any form of commercial advertising.
      At 20 centavos the sales of Granma are limited and yes you are correct in saying that the state pays the costs of the paper, ink, printing and distribution and the meagre wages of the employees.
      There is no independent media in Cuba which even now is listed number eleven of the most censored countries – under Fidel it was in the top ten, so I suppose that the improved position must be credited to Raul.

      Reply

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