by Fernando Ravsberg*
HAVANA TIMES — Some years ago, foreign journalists working in Cuba found out about a series of regulations applied to their work (thanks to an information leak). They had kept these regulations a secret, making it very difficult for us to follow them.
This illustrates the main issue faced by the Cuban press: no one knows the rules of the game or the divisions of the playing field. We journalists play blindfolded, never knowing when (or why) we’re going to get a red card and get kicked out of the game.
The matter came to mind when I found out that a law, decree law or series of norms designed to regulate press work on the island were in the works. However, I haven’t been able to find a single Cuban colleague who’s directly taking part in any debates in this connection.
Apparently, a group of experts has been working and made considerable progress in the drafting of this legislation. My colleagues speculate they will later gather the opinions of journalists, but merely as part of a consultative mechanism.
The Cuban Playing Field
The constitution declares that the country “acknowledges the freedom of expression and press of citizens, in conformity with the ends of socialist society.” Judging what the ends of “socialist society” are, however, is the exclusive prerogative of a tiny group of Party bureaucrats.
It’s such a complex mechanism that I, for instance, opted to simply do my job as best as possible, without worrying about the “rulings” handed down by the court of the Holy Inquisition. Ultimately, I think it’s been worth it, even though it entails having my employment options severely curtailed.
That’s why I was happy to hear that Cuba would be passing press legislation: at last, the rules of the game will be public; journalists will know their duties and bureaucrats will be forced to respect our rights.
The least a press law can do is clearly define the relationship between journalists, the media, society and State powers – the rights and duties of each of these actors – such that the freedom of the press enshrined in the constitution can be guaranteed.
Why the Silence?
The secrecy surrounding this legislation makes some of my Cuban colleagues suspicious. No few people fear that they will use these laws to extend the control of the Party’s Ideological Department to cyberspace, to social networks, blogs and “alternative” media.
The head of that department already touched on the issue, asking for the establishment of norms that would forbid Cuban communicators from writing articles in those media different from those authorized for publication in official media.
The “alternative” activities carried out by Cuban journalists demonstrate that the ruling is in favor of official press higher-ups and not the professional quality of the work being produced. The Internet has allowed us to clearly identify where the problem lies.
The way to overcome this contradiction in an intelligent way is not to censor digital communication spaces, but to transform the country’s press, so that journalists can publish there the reports seen in the so-called “alternative press.”
For Everyone and by Everyone?
Freedom of the press is a fundamental human right, something the Cuban constitution acknowledges by prohibiting private ownership over the media and declaring they may be controlled only by the State or society (one wonders whether it refers to the public, cooperatives or what).
An issue as important as the drafting of this law should perhaps begin with the gathering of opinions of all journalists on the island through a debate organized by different media, a debate that includes their aspirations and needs.
It would be healthy if these exchanges of opinions were carried out without the presence of censors, in order to avoid subsequent reprisals, and because it is time for the sector to show it is mature enough to meet without “chaperons.”
Citizens should also be invited to share their opinions. We’re talking about a public service and everyone should be entitled to express what kind of a press they want, as well as establish social and institutional control mechanisms that will allow them to protect their rights in view of journalistic or political malpractice.
If broad participatory mechanisms are set up to glean the interests of citizens, journalists and the government, this law could be fitted to today’s Cuba, to the needs of the people and to the challenges that lie in store for them.