Cuba’s Media Charts New Course

By Circles Robinson

Since coming to Cuba six years ago, getting the news from the island’s print or broadcast media has been something of a chore. Coverage is often artificially upbeat and boring. The country was and is anything but dull, but you hardly get that impression from the newspapers.

Today, Cuba’s publicly owned print and broadcast media seem to be on a slow path to improvement, delving into subjects that were previously taboo. Like my Cuban colleagues, I had been looking forward to this summer’s Congress of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC) to help affirm a new course. The last such event had taken place nine years ago.

As schools had let out and many of Cuba’s workplaces went into their sweltering low-key summer mode, reporters from around the country and invited journalism students met for three days in early July at the Havana Convention Center to discuss the country’s information policy, the educating of future reporters, and bread and butter issues like salaries.

Cartoons and Open Criticism

As the journalists entered the hall, they received a copy of the Granma daily newspaper, which devoted an entire page to political cartoons lampooning the issues to be discussed.

One cartoon showed a journalist working on the computer while a woman in a window behind him comments: “Well, He’s hooked up to the Internet but he’s still disconnected from reality.”

In another caricature, an official sitting on a throne-like chair says: “Reporter, just to show that I cooperate with the press, I’m going to give you a list with the questions you have to ask me.”

The cartoons reflected what the public and many reporters have been saying for a long time.

A report, issued as part of the conference, said the same thing in more formal language:
“Insufficient information on daily Cuban life is still hurting the credibility of the Cuban media, forcing the population to fill in the information gaps by other means.”

Several of Cuba’s top leaders attended the conference: First Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, Vice Presidents Esteban Lazo and Carlos Lage, the ministers of Culture and Telecommunications, Abel Prieto and Ramiro Valdez, and the Communist Party’s top international relations officer, Fernando Remirez de Estenoz, were present throughout. Several deputy ministers and other officials were also present for portions, including President Raul Castro and Parliament Chair Ricardo Alarcon, and the ministers of Education and Economy.

What was most refreshing about the presence of so many authorities was that they spent their time listening attentively to the concerns of the country’s media professionals. I would estimate that less than 10 percent of all the comments made at the congress came from the top officials present. It was a rare pleasure to be among politicians who recognize that they don’t have all the answers.

Honest Controversy over False Consensus

Ariel Terrero, a TV commentator and print media journalist, stressed the importance of credibility, acknowledged to be lacking in the Cuban media. He said that reversing the situation would entail profound analysis and a critical approach. He noted the lack of information from ministries and called for more transparency at that government level. However, he also emphasized the journalists’ responsibility to work with honesty and tenacity.

Several reporters criticized the role played by self-censorship in limiting their work. The reality is that Cuba has been forced to defend itself against 50 years of hostility from the United States and extreme caution has definitely played a role in the island’s journalism.

Santa Clara TV journalist Luis Evidio Martinez also commented on the challenge of audience/reader credibility. He felt it was a mistake to give in to the temptation of “de-problemizing” the country. He further noted that silence is what arms Cuba’s detractors. Martinez also said Cuban commentators should have the right to err, saying he prefers “honest controversy to false consensus.”

Rolando Perez Betancourt, well-known columnist and movie critic, chimed in on the same topic: “Perhaps by holding back our fire on our own deficiencies we have actually done an important favor to the enemy.”

The critic added: “The public gave us our just due,” —at the meetings last year following a call by President Raul Castro to discuss the nation’s problems— “for not reporting on what we should.” He questioned the benefit of silence, “opting not to shoot at the target as the best way to avoid missing the mark.” He also stressed that you can’t expect reporters “to coincide 100 percent with the established opinion about something.”

Exemplifying the hurdles Cuban journalists face to do their job effectively, Maria Julia Mayoral, a reporter for Granma, spoke of her efforts to cover the National Assembly (parliament) beat. “It’s alarming that we can’t write about what’s discussed in committee debates.” She said the reporters that cover the National Assembly have a great deal of information but are told not to use it, adding, “and there isn’t any follow up.”

Frank Gonzalez, director of the Prensa Latina news agency, said all information that does not jeopardize security should be available to the public.

In a criticism of how the Cuban media makes use of op-ed pieces, Edda Diz Garces, from Trabajadores weekly, called for “less rhetoric and better arguments” in defending positions in a credible way “with irrefutable facts and figures.” She also noted that too often many Cuban websites resemble each other with virtually the same articles.

Young Voices

Several young people spoke out at the journalism congress.

Leslie Salgado of Canal Havana TV noted that many of the problems of reporting in Cuba are old hat. She insisted: “The information policy has to change, and that change is in us and the decision-making bodies. The situation of closed doors and officials refusing to provide information has got to end, because the people are demanding that we report with veracity, and a critical and reflective eye.”

Salgado went on to say what many her age were thinking. “I don’t want to be here at the age of 30, repeating the same thing about our disappointments with the practice of our profession.” She noted that students begin to get discouraged by the third year of journalism study. Their frustration continues when they begin working and facing limitations in doing their job.

A young reporter from Matanzas Province emphasized the treatment of indifference that new journalists receive at some news organizations, and the resulting lack of encouragement. Likewise, he said there’s little opportunity to carry out work in the provinces —where there is far less material and logistical resources— leading to more migration to the capital.

Desertion from the field of journalism to more economically beneficial jobs in tourism was mentioned as a serious dilemma by several of the young journalists and some seasoned delegates. Likewise, emigration abroad was cited as a big concern.

The younger generation especially is often tempted to view leaving the country as their best option for economic betterment. This deprives the country of valuable human resources and feeds into Cuba’s growing problem of an aging population.

Phantoms and Salaries

The tremendous cutback in print runs and frequency of publications during the hard post-Soviet years of the 1990s turned many publications into virtual phantoms, said two delegates.

There was agreement that the newly expanded special Friday edition of Granma, with double the number of pages, is providing much needed opportunities for writers. Gladis Egues, from the Editorial de la Mujer (Women’s Publishing House), echoed this move asserting that the print run and distribution of publications like Mujeres (Women) and Muchachas (Girls) also needs to be increased from the current very low levels.

Charly Morales, a young reporter from Prensa Latina, pointedly used humor to address a topic that was on a lot of people’s minds… the salary situation. In describing the acrobatics his colleagues must undertake to exercise their profession and earn a living that meets their basic needs, he brought the entire hall into roaring laughter and asked the Party leadership for some direction on the matter.

The question merited responses from vice presidents Esteban Lazo, Machado Ventura and Carlos Lage.

Lazo noted that while there was expectation of the announcement of a pay hike at the congress, such a raise for journalists, as other sectors, must be postponed to later in 2008 or 2009, as recent sharp price increases on the country’s imports have caused economic difficulties.

A salary increase might not be so difficult to offer to a small sector like the journalists, said Carlos Lage, the operations chief of the Cuban economy. However, he made it clear that pay hikes must be related to product availability. “We must be responsible and increases must be part of an integral policy so we don’t return to that period in the early 1990s when people had money but nothing to buy,” said Lage.

Machado Ventura summed up the government’s position on the matter by saying that the nation’s means (budget) “can’t be stretched artificially.”

The Course for Media Change Is Set

President Raul Castro was present at the final session. He too used humor to address the audience, mentioning that some of the problems posed by the journalists were as old as the ancient Gutenberg printing press.

Vice President Lazo then gave the closing address. He urged the Cuban media to “leave behind styles and bad habits that diminish their effectiveness.” He emphasized the importance of implementing the Communist Party’s recommendations (outlined in 2007) that the media reflect Cuban reality and contribute to confronting its problems.

That statement reinforced the notion that the guidelines are in place and that now it’s up to each individual media to break from passivity and put a more dynamic journalism into practice.