Cuba: Journalism in the Cross-Current / Ivan Garcia

periodocubaAn autocracy’s efficiency can be measured by, among other things, its immutable capacity for controlling information. Everything passes through an ideological filter. Some guys sitting in an air-conditioned office minutely evaluating it to determine what people can see, hear or read.

Books, records, news, novels, films and television programs must be approved by the Cuban Communist Party’s censor. Anything the regime has not approved can be considered illegal.

Granma, Juventud Rebelde, Trabajadores and all the other party organs must play the same tune. Everything is planned. Very little is left to chance.

Once the order from on high goes out, docile reporters must write about the economic crisis in Europe, the lack of social discipline on the island or the private middle men who are blamed for the high price of agricultural products.

Fidel Castro has always said that the Cuban press serves as one of the weapons of the revolution, one it does not hesitate to use. And while you can find examples of good reporting and sharp social commentary, it is never of a heatedly controversial or political nature.

The most talented official journalists play in the minor leagues. They are not highly visible. Obedience takes precedence. The local press — a synonym for mediocrity — is designed to misinform. The color of its style manual is olive green.

Fidel Castro used to stride through a secret passageway that connected his office in the Palace of the Revolution to that of the director of the newspaper Granma a few yards away. It allowed him to review news stories or change a layout.

It is said that he personally wrote its most inflammatory editorials. Unless an official journalist has been accredited by the communist party, a government minister might not respond to his phone call or might even hang up on him. Officials and institutions — if you can call them that — bury information and statistics. Raúl Castro would like to turn the this situation around.

Awhile back, some provincial media outlets, local broadcasters and TV talk shows initiated a discreet and very cautious form of tropical glasnost. One can now read crime reports, sports writers criticizing the policies of INDER,* and one daring reporter accusing a state agency of bureaucratic foot-dragging.

While it is good thing that the national press is beginning to reflect the opinions of the average Cuban, it’s a bit too little, too late. By our count a handful of men and women began to write in the mid-1990s about the side of Cuba that the regime was trying to hide.

Almost all of us were empirical journalists, educated by daily life. Twenty or so — I was one of them — had the good fortune to attend workshops led by the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero. We were reasonably well-educated and had an enormous desire to learn and get ahead.

Journalism for us meant going out and looking for news in the neighborhood and in the ranks of the dissidents. It meant reporting daily using old typewriters and, because there were no computers, filing our stories by phone.

As in every aspect of life, there are independent journalists who are good, average and poor. And people who think clearly but write badly. Whether good or bad, they go on reporting on areas of national life that the official media ignores.

The credibility of independent journalists has grown since 1995. Their points of view and social critiques have influenced opinions outside the island. The regime knows this, which is why it is begun trying to compete without mentioning its competitor.

It is independent journalism that has caused official journalism to rethink its role and forced its reporters to go out into the street.

It is not a battle for information. Completely independent journalists are swimming against the current; their reports will never be published in state-run newspapers. Their colleagues — independent journalist licensed by the state — are monitored, harassed or accused of alleged crimes.

This is because there is a gag law which allows a reporter working outside the control of the state to be sentenced to more than twenty years in prison. The official press operates on an uneven playing field. Nevertheless, it is losing to the competition.

Photo: Cover of the first issue of a magazine that has remained a symbol of alternative journalism and that in the mid-1990s gave independent journalists their start. The regime allowed only two issues to be circulated. It blamed their publication on Raúl Rivero y Ricardo González Alfonso, who were later convicted and sentenced to jail. From “Remembering the Revista de Cuba.”

*Translator’s note: Acronym for The National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation.

17 October 2013