14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 3 May 2018 — It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the Granma newspapers have not yet arrived at the news kiosk. By that time, however, the most important news is already running by word of mouth in a Cuba where the censorship of information and the monopoly of the Communist Party over the press have remained a constant for more than half a century.
For decades, the press has been one of the most controlled and monitored sectors in the country. On an island where the walls have ears and people talk in a whisper about the most conflicting issues, the media is the space where the regime exercises absolute control.
Despite surveillance, in recent years more independent media have appeared, aided by technology, but above all driven by an audience that demands greater diversity in topics and approaches. Fashion magazines, digital sites dedicated to baseball and websites with a feminist focus are part of the new and varied information ecosystem.
This explosion of journalistic spaces contrasts, however, with the censorship of the official media maintained by officialdom. By law, any attempt to disseminate news or promote opinions different from those of the Government can be considered a crime of “enemy propaganda.”
Cuba has many of the most restrictive laws over journalism in Latin America. The Constitution prohibits private ownership of the media while the exercise of journalism is only allowed if it “maintains the objectives of the socialist society,” according to a report released in 2016 by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Defamation of institutions, political organizations and “heroes or martyrs of the Republic” is sanctioned by up to one year in prison. Those who commit slander, defamation, insult, injury “or any other form of contemptuous or offensive expression” against public officials may also go to jail.
This has been the case for decades, although at first it seemed that the relationship between information and the Revolution was going to be a honeymoon.
In 1959, when Fidel Castro arrived in Havana with his olive green caravan, the press enthusiastically welcomed the bearded men descended from the Sierra Maestra. Optimistic headlines, photos of the crowds cheering the passage of the guerrillas and the harsh images of the outrages of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship filled the front pages.
That idyll was short-lived. Castro undertook the extermination of all media, both national and provincial. Throughout the year 1960, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television channels passed into the hands of the Government and five years later the press was under the absolute control of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).
Since then the PCC has taken on the role of appointing the directors, providing equipment and supplies, and, above all, designating the editorial line of each medium. The training of journalists in university faculties begins with a rigorous process of ideological selection and in the classrooms there are frequent purges and expulsions for political reasons.
In March 2003, Fidel Castro’s government unleashed a fierce offensive against dissent and the independent press, known as the Black Spring. There were 75 opponents sentenced, among whom at least 25 were reporters who collaborated with international media or had founded their own press agencies.
That repressive blow was carried out under the legal protection of Law 88, popularly known as the Gag Law, the application of which generated a wave of international repudiation. After the scandal erupted, Castroism sought new ways to intimidate independent reporters, ways that last to this day.
In 2017 the map of press freedom in the world was tinted black and Cuba remained among its darkest areas. The Island ranked 172 out of 180 countries, in a classification prepared by Reporters Without Borders that analyzes the level of freedom of the press in the world. No other nation in Latin America was that low on the index.
Along with several colleagues, José Antonio Fornaris founded a union some years ago to represent the professionals of the press and their principal demands. The Association for Press Freedom (APLP) is one of the many organizations the Government does not permit, but it operates on the island with a low profile and under many pressures.
The confiscations of work equipment and supplies stands out among the complaints that arrive every day at the headquarters of the APLP. In 2016, alone, at least 18 cases were recorded in which the State Security seized a reporter’s camera, mobile phone, laptop, hard drive, or a simple USB memory with information.
Since 2017, the repression against the sector has included a new tactic: accusing independent journalists of “usurpation of legal capacity” and prosecuting them for practicing a profession without holding a diploma issued by one of the country’s centers of higher education. Educational institutions where the maxim “the university is for the revolutionaries.”
A ban on leaving the country is also part of the reprisals against these reporters. Recently, José Antonio Fornaris had his passport cancelled and can not leave the country. “This type of regime is very afraid of press freedom, that is why it is up to independent journalists, every day, to make known the reality of the country,” he says.
In the center of the Island the landscape is very similar. In the city of Camagüey, journalist Henry Constantín has been unable to travel, even to another province, for months. The political police closely control Constantin, editor of La Hora de Cuba magazine, and the rest of his team. “There is a lot of surveillance especially when it comes to engaging in journalism on the public right-of-way,” he says.
Sol García Basulto, a designer and collaborator on the publication, has also experienced official outrages. In the middle of last year the reporter suffered restrictions of movement after the police imposed “a precautionary measure of house arrest” on her for interviewing people in Camagüey. Unable to move from her province, Basulto uses the social networks as a platform to channel her complaints.
Against this background, Henry Constantin believes that the first step to approach freedom of the press is ensuring that the independent media can count on the “right to have a legal existence with guarantees.” The possibility of “protecting sources, expressing all kinds of opinions and interviewing public officials” is also essential.
The media belong to the State according to the 1976 Constitution but the absence of a Media Law has allowed the independent press to flourish. A loophole that dozens of reporters throughout the country have taken advantage of.
“The chance to do internships in other countries has helped to raise the quality of journalism that is done within the island,” says Constantín, regional vice president of the Inter-American Press Association. An improvement that is perceived “both in audiovisual work and in the written press.”
Quality, despite the fragile conditions in which they work, is an obsession for many of the emerging media reporters, editors and directors.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez, writer and journalist, leads the team of El Estornudo magazine and insists that the journalistic profession goes beyond ideological color or political positions, but that “rigor” is the only thing that differentiates it from propaganda.
The digital site that Álvarez runs has recently been blocked on national servers, like so many other websites. It is a decision “with a strong political weight, which can work as a stigma, cause more caution or suspicion towards the magazine by sources or possible new collaborators,” laments the reporter.
Mistrust between journalists in the official and independent media is a difficult obstacle to overcome in order to work together. The accusations fly between one side and the other.
Alvarez believes that this distrust “for the time being, will not disappear, since it is the direct result, within the media ecosystem in Cuba, of a political system that fosters ideological division and the fracture of public opinion in allies and enemies alike.”
In 2016, in an unprecedented gesture, a group of young journalists signed a letter, published by the local newspaper Vanguardia, in Villa Clara, claiming their right to collaborate with other media, especially the independent magazines and newspapers that had been born at the time, outside officialdom, but without setting themselves up as open opponents. The demand fell apart among the pressures and an official authorization never came to fruition.
The experience of Reinaldo Escobar, editor-in-chief of 14ymedio, is an interesting precedent. The reporter worked for two decades in the official press until he was expelled. “I decided to publish a series of opinion columns that criticized some issues that were still taboo at the end of the 1980s, such as opportunism, inefficiency and excessive prohibitions,” he recalls.
In Juventud Rebelde , the country’s second newspaper, Escobar’s most critical texts coincided with the years of glasnost in the Soviet Union. “Some colleagues in the news room looked at me as if I had gone crazy and others as if my journalistic funeral was just around the corner.”
In 1988 a decision of the then Department of Revolutionary Guidance (DOR), attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, expelled Escobar from his job and prevented him from returning to practice his profession in the official media. “At first I thought that my life had been destroyed but a short time later I realized that I had been made a free man and, since then, I have not suffered self-censorship again.”
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