HAVANA, Cuba – As of 1959, Cubans renounced the custom of publicly expressing their opinions, particularly political ones, as if the question of who and how they are governed was not something that affects all of society. The legally recognized press became a government artifact, responsible for giving shape to the collective conscience; to guarantee, for the rapture or the terror, obedience. To separate the capacity to inform from the interests of the Revolution (which by definition can’t be democratic), is an imperative of the journalistic vocation.
It was also the original sin of Reinaldo Escobar — independent journalist, author of the blog Desde aquí (From Here) — who today comments on aspects relating to the phenomenon of press freedom in the country today.
Lilianne Ruiz: What do independent journalists in Cuba do to access sources of information? Is it possible to access the institutions?
Reinaldo Escobar: The main source of information for a journalist is the area of reality susceptible to turning itself into news. A media professional usually has his own network of contacts in the area of that reality he specializes in, be it boxing, fashion, concerts or palace intrigues. In a country like Cuba, where institutions monopolize official information as a source of power and control, access to sensitive documentation is only given within a complex framework of permissions.
As a general rule, it’s not the official media journalists who searche the archives, nor are they the ones who investigate the revealing data. Quite the contrary, it is the institutions who show the authorized journalists what they are “directed” to publish, from the highest level. So the independent journalist has to behave basically as a spy to find out, for example, the failure of the latest sugar crop, or how much money tourists bring in. The information area that the independent Cuban journalist has greatest access to, is restricted to the activities of the opposition and the consequent repression that this entails. Even so, it is not feasible to go to the police stations and ask questions about those arrested, or to attend a trial or visit the prisoners.
Lilianne Ruiz: How can there be a free press without economic freedom?
Reinaldo Escobar: Like any other right, the right to freedom of expression has a material base that facilitates or restricts its realization. In the conditions in Cuba, those who aspire to a free press independent of the government know they will never have access to the radio microphones, the TV cameras, or the newspaper presses.
The options that are left are to collaborate with the already established media outside the country, and to try something from within. If you intend to print a magazine, a bulletin, or something similar, you will have to confront the costs of paper and supplies and the type of printer available, so it will be very difficult, for example, to distribute a thousand copies of a twenty-page weekly edition. Those who choose audiovisual, once they have a set of cameras and good microphones, plus a computer to do the necessary editing, face the challenge of multiplying their product, through disks or flash memory.
It turns out it’s not advisable to wait to enjoy economic freedom to acquire the material base of our right of freedom of expression. The Internet allows us to have cost-free spaces where we can post texts, photos, videos, with the advantage of it being an interactive medium.
Lilianne Ruiz: How does public opinion get expressed with such low connectivity in Cuba?
Reinaldo Escobar: The concept of “public opinion” originated in societies where the rights of freedom of information and freedom of expression exist. No one’s ever made reference to how public opinion reacted in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Would it occur to anyone to reference public opinion in North Korea?
I believe that the realizable goal is to reach at least the opinion leaders: artists, entrepreneurs, civil society activists; those people who are heard by many others. The attempt to reach all the people ends up being paralyzing. Under current conditions of Cuba, only the Communist Party, handling the media as a privately owned monopoly, can accomplish that and we can’t compete with it.
If we put the negative results of low connectivity on one side of the balance, and on the other side we put the real reach allowed by the Internet, we will have a favorable balance. There is also the option to remain silent, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.
Lilianne Ruiz: What are the risks of independent journalism in 2014?
Reinaldo Escobar: There is a tendency to identify independent journalism with controversial journalism. Someone could be a freelance correspondent to report on the passage of migratory birds and there probably wouldn’t be any problem with that, but we must not discount that one day they will knock on the door to “talk with him.”
If we look at it in retrospect, after the Black Spring of 2003 (when many independent journalists were sentenced to long prison terms) the reprisals have been limited to brief detentions, defamatory campaigns, the siezure of some media and other occasional physical abuse. The true risk is the potential and, above all, the randomness. This creates a real atmosphere of terror hanging over independent journalists who, to the eyes of the observers, are either irresponsible lunatics or courageous heroes.
Lilianne Ruiz: Are there laws or institutions that protect independent journalists?
Reinaldo Escobar: In the exterior there are the Inter-American Press Association, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Center to Protect Journalists in New York, and other institutions in Europe and Latin America. Within the country you can count on the support of the legal group Cubalex or the Cuban Law Association, the Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, among other independent groups, who have advised many in situations where State Security has seized their tools of the trade without proper legal procedures. But there is not a single law, nor anything in the Constitution, nor any formalized institutional protection to serve these knights errant of the news.
Lilianne Ruiz: In such circumstances, what makes these journalists persist in their work ?
Reinaldo Escobar: The same reasons that led so many missionaries to spread the Gospel in areas inhabited by cannibals.
Lilianne Ruiz: Is independent journalism in Cuba a form of activism for human rights, including a force of political opposition?
Reinaldo Escobar: Perhaps the most effective way to fight for a right is to exercise it at any price, or at least at a reasonable price. As a person very close to me often says, in Cuba, reality is deeply oppositional. If independent journalists strive to show it in the most efficient way, that does not make them opponents in the strict sense of the term. The doctor who diagnoses a disease, the engineer who detects a structural defect, the accountant who discovers embezzlement, like the journalist who reports on what happens with objectivity, are all professionals doing their jobs. The repressive organs, enemies of freedom of information and freedom of expression, are the ones who catalog professional journalists as opponents, mercenaries, enemies of the country and other epithets.
Personally, I try to escape definitions that end up functioning like a straitjacket. Bloggers, twitterers and other communicators who practice citizen journalism, do their own thing regardless of the word used to catalog them and they all deserve the respect they have earned, not just for doing something dangerous, but also for trying to satisfy a social need.
Cubanet, 21 January 2014