Who Has The Right to Tell a Country’s Stories? All Its Citizens / Periodismo de Barrio

Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew
Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew

Periodismo de Barrio, 16 October 2016 – On 11 October 2016, six members of our Periodismo de Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism) team and two collaborators were arrested in the town of Baracoa, Guantanamo province. We were not arrested for smiling. Nor we were arrested for taking a photo in the state café at the viewpoint from El Gobernadora and publishing it on our personal Facebook account. We were not arrested for using the online PayPal service in our public fundraising campaign to allow us to cover the process of recovery of the communities affected by Hurricane Matthew.

We were arrested for doing journalism in Baracoa, in Maisí, in Imías: three major municipalities affected by the cyclone. Specifically, for doing or attempting to do interviews with the local government in Imías, with linemen working to restore power to the victims, families who evacuated, vulnerable people, teachers, cooks and school principals who lost roofs and books, medical clinics that were affected, men and women who saved other men and women and also their animals and plants. Those who arrived in Maisi were questioned by officers of State Security at the headquarters of the Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, while trying to obtain authorization to work in the area. Those who arrived in Jamal were arrested in the house where we were staying.

The argument used was that in Baracoa, in Maisí and in Imías journalistic activities could not be carried out because all the people were under a state of emergency. According to Article 67 of the Constitution of Cuba, the state of emergency is declared “in case or before the imminence of natural disasters or catastrophes or other circumstances which by their nature, proportion or importance affect public order, national security or the stability of the state.” As long as the current state of emergency continues, the rights and duties of citizens recognized by the Constitution may be regulated differently.

Law 75 of National Defense governs the way the state of emergency and other public emergencies are declared. “The state of emergency, in accordance with Articles 67 and 93, paragraph 1 is declared by the President of the State Council through a resolution which expresses the root causes, the delimitation of the territory where it is established and the time period.” To date, there is no public official communication by the President of the State Council announcing a state of emergency, outside the announcement on October 4 by the Civil Defense Staff alerting six Cuban provinces ahead of Hurricane Matthew. This last statement does not have the legal status required to declare a state of emergency under the Constitution.

According to Law 75, “in any of these exceptional situations no exclusion or suspension of fundamental rights of the Constitution is guaranteed.” Furthermore, “freedom and inviolability of the person are guaranteed to anyone residing in the national territory.”

As part of the measures taken and never publicly announced by the Cuban authorities, the practice of journalism in the affected areas was limited to those media accredited to work in the area. Neither Law 75, nor the Constitution of the Republic, nor the Code Ethics of the Union of Journalists of Cuba, to which two of our colleagues belong, govern the exercise of journalism in situations of natural disasters. If we recognize that during emergency situations there is “no exclusion or suspension of the fundamental rights of the Constitution,” among which are freedom of speech and of the press, Periodismo de Barrio did not violate any laws.

We did not go to Baracoa in order to act outside the law. None of our members knew of the need to be ‘accredited’ before leaving for Guantanamo province. However, if we had tried, we would not have found anyone to accredit us. Unlike state and foreign media, Periodismo de Barrio does not have a public official in Cuba before whom we can seek authorization for journalistic work in a particular region. Therefore, that night, in the municipal headquarters of the Interior Ministry, we asked for authorization to undertake reports that we had planned. The answer, the next day, after remaining at home for the approximately fifteen hours they indicated, was negative and all the journalists were taken to Operations Unit of the Ministry of Interior in Guantanamo, escorted by patrol 205N Department of State Security.

There we were questioned for the second time and our technological devices were seized. We were told to give them our passwords and cameras, digital recorders, laptops, flash drives, e-book readers and cell phones, and these were checked for at least four hours. We were informed that the images and recordings of our work in the province would be deleted and the electronic equipment would be returned. The three women who are part of the team of Periodismo de Barrio were physically searched by an official to seek other technological means they could have hidden in their bodies, treatment given to pre-criminal cases. The five men were not searched. Our devices were returned and no work-related files were deleted.

At all times we maintained a respectful and cooperative attitude. We answered all questions about Periodismo de Barrio, how we finance the work we wanted to do in the province, our previous journalistic experience, what academic training we have, the origin and final destination of individual donations of clothing, food and personal care that we brought to the province. On October 11 and until our release on October 12, about eight in the evening, no charges were filed against us nor were any members of the Periodismo de Barrio team accused of crimes.

We left Guantanamo as we entered it: innocent.

But innocence was not a sufficient reason to avoid this arbitrary arrest.

In a context where the law only recognizes the existence of state media and foreign media accredited by the International Press Center, Periodismo de Barrio media is outside these two groups. We are the result of developments in technology for communication of information of public interest, of university educations and of professional needs that are not accommodated in the existing media platforms. And we are not the only ones.

Numerous media have been created over the last year without any guarantee of legal recognition or protection for the exercise of the profession. Most of the stories published in these media are serious, balanced in their use of sources, display a high sense of ethics and a deep respect for the realities, in the plural, of our country.

We also recognize that there are stories that require more research and informative rigor. Their existence, their readers and the hundreds of professionals grouped around them should initiate an inclusive public debate in society about the ownership structure of the organs of the press. This debate could lead to a media law which, at least, considers cooperative ownership in addition to state ownership, among other forms of social and public property.

We understand that the public nature of the press in Cuba is not guaranteed only by government ownership of the media.  It is not possible to tell the truth about Cuba from a single version, or from unanimous versions, which amount to one. Not when there are so many versions that diverge. For the truth of Cuba to be the truth of Cuba, the confluence of the truths of everyone, there should be a collective construction where diverse voices participate with equal rights and duties.

The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, in Article 53, recognizes citizens’ “freedom of speech and press in accordance with the objectives of socialist society.” And in the next sentence it states that “the mass media are state or social property and can not be, in any case, private property, which assures their use to the exclusive service of the working people and the interests of society.”

However, with the way in which it has been implemented under that logic, the full exercise of the freedoms of press and speech has not been achieved, nor has the exclusive use of the media to serve the people been secured, nor has the demon that inspired the ban on private media – the monopoly – been exorcised. What has been achieved, paradoxically, is a new monopolization of information, journalistic speeches and truths.

TV channels, radio stations, print publications, publishers, changed ownership but were not socialized. Socializing is not nationalizing. There are not good and bad monopolies. All monopolization, realized by the State, by a person or a corporation, ends up curtailing freedoms. To socialize assumes to regulate the power precisely so that it is not centralized or concentrated in an area of the social, because it generates other divestitures of power. To make a “Cuban socialism” appropriate to our circumstances, does not constitute a license to violate the inseparable principles of socialism. Reproducing structures of domination is not founding a socialist society.

This is not the first time we went to work in areas affected by natural disasters. Less than three days after the tornado that damaged Playa del Caimito we visited this area without asking permission. Both citizens and the authorities cooperated with us in interviews. Six months after the rains of April 29, 2015, we investigated the main affected areas. Three years after Hurricane Sandy, we returned to Santiago de Cuba.

Periodismo de Barrio publishes research reports and tries to delve into the realities we address. Cuban state media and institutions like the Civil Defense and the Institute of Meteorology have always offered extensive coverage before, during and after extreme weather events. But the news cycle is fast, and often the victims no longer appear in newspaper headlines after a few weeks or a few months of the natural disaster. Other realities occupy the agendas of our day. But even if those other realities do not occupy the agendas of our day, the information needs of citizens are not exhausted by the coverage of the disaster before the full time in which its consequences play out. Nor can Periodismo de Barrio be exhausted.

It is the duty of our media to track the recovery process, which usually takes years. It is the duty of our media to accompany the most vulnerable. It is our duty to oversee that the Revolution, effectively, leaves no one abandoned. Often, this phrase is used just after a hurricane and then is forgotten by some public officials charged with converting it into loaves and tiles, as happened with the mattresses for the victims of the Diez de Octubre municipality in April 2015. This oversight should not be understood as a threat, but as part of our right to public scrutiny through our representatives.

We know Baracoa, Imías and Maisí are now disaster areas and we know the immediate dangers: epidemics, shortages of food and water, lack of electricity, among others.

Our intention was not in any to way hinder the work of the Civil Defense or local government but to help address what has happened from our professional positions. Every minute spent in Baracoa, Imías and Maisí, every house that we visited became a neighborhood meeting place. “The journalists have arrived,” people said to one another and what started out as an interview of a pregnant woman who had been evacuated ended up becoming a meeting of fifteen, twenty people who recounted their experiences. We deceived no one. We presented ourselves as members of Periodisomo de Barrio and explained the social object of the medium. Still, when we were leaving, they blessed us. And when they said “God bless you,” they were blessing our pens and our ears, with the capacity to give voice to their realities.

Who knows the Cuban people knows of their dignity. Each respondent suffered material losses but celebrated having kept his or her life. The presidents of the People ‘s Councils and delegates had not slept in days, inspecting the damage caused by the hurricane. Families with a roof lent their homes to homeless families. And there were still places that remained incommunicado.

We arrived in Baracoa with questions: How is humanitarian aid being distributed? How are victims being given assistance with building materials, food, clothing, etc.? What measures were taken to protect the Haitian refugees in the area? What is the condition of the coastal communities and what measures will be taken to relocate them? What were the main damages to agriculture and housing? How were the evacuation centers organized? What was the role of amateur radio in maintaining communications with the areas that were cut off? And so on.

The number of victims is not low. But the number of media covering the area is. We are talking about hundreds of villages, some remote, others completely cut off, inaccessible, thousands of people who need to be heard. During our detention in the Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of Maisi, an official pointed to an article published in the newspaper Venceremos to prove his point of view: there was media coverage in place.

Nearly 600 news agencies and foreign media were accredited to cover the visit of US President Barack Obama to Havana. The newspaper Granma, in an article published last October 14, can barely cite ten foreign agencies working in Guantanamo in addition to the province’s own media. In more than 45 interviews conducted during the twelve hours that we were able to work, no victim had been visited by any other communications media. We were the first to reach them. We were the only ones. The state newspapers and foreign media have come to others (especially the Guantanamo media), but Baracoa, Maisi and Imías are now abuzz with people who need to tell their stories.

The Guantanamo journalists, it is worth noting, have continued to work and visit neighborhoods completely out of touch that take days to get to without stopping to think about their own material losses.

Those who today question the funding mechanisms of Periodismo de Barrio are forgetting that journalism costs money. In the case of the state media, the state subsidizes the cost of the basic means of production. This does not mean they are free. It helicopter used to fly over the isolated zones was not free, the hours of Internet access that is guaranteed in the homes and workplaces of state journalists are not free, computers, trucks, fuel used by cars, cameras photographic, electricity and generators used to maintain air radio stations after power outages are not free. The offices, chairs, tables, fixed and mobile phones are not free.

The State, for more than 50 years has avoided requiring reporters to think about the economic dimension of the activity they carry out thanks to financing their means of production. Without this grant, they would be unable to exist. This funding imposes correlative obligations, as it is provided by the public and, as such, is public, giving the state media the duty to respond to the multiple needs of that audience. Now and always, the duty of transparency and accountability in the use of these resources should be standard practice.

The media that lacks the financial support of the State must seek other forms of economic management. Some turn to advertising, payment for content or payment for services, cooperation agreements with other media or non-governmental organizations and collective funding.

Crowdfunding is a method internet users have turned to for several years to finance individual and collective projects. Under this form of funding, readers are free to decide whether to contribute or not. Furthermore, it is a method that allows us to know the donated amount and identity of each contributor. The dream of any media is to be financed solely by its readers. In our case, we use the online service PayPal, inaccessible in Cuba because of the US blockade* on the island. We believe the blockade* is an arbitrary, unfair policy, which seeks to economically asphyxiate the Cuban people and, for that reason, we will continue looking for ways that do not affect the work of our media. We trusted readers and it worked. In less than 48 hours we raised the money needed to go to Guantanamo. 

There is an economic and financial blockade* by the United States for Cuban state enterprises and Periodismo de Barrio. There are no exceptions. No soft hand. And both Cuban state companies and Periodismo de Barrio have learned to outsmart it. The strategy of Periodismo de Barrio’s use of PayPal is simple: use the account of a collaborator and friend resident in another country and then send money to Cuba using remittances through a legal agency.

We have received numerous criticisms and suggestions about the money collected for coverage. Most of them from readers, well argued and with the clear intention of improving Periodismo de Barrio. We will not turn a deaf ear to them. We believe that the role of the press in the reconstruction also involves partnerships with other media, identifying projects organized in the affected areas that need help and can redistribute it, such as local governments or the Red Cross. Covering a natural disaster, we have indicated to our readers transcends the journalistic exercise itself. That is why we value, in future work, the possibility of making executive summaries with the needs and ways to access and distribute aid that are relevant to both local governments and non-governmental organizations and as well as working with to those working in the disaster areas. To report, in these cases, is not the only duty.

We condemn the arbitrary detention of journalists anywhere in the world. And we condemn it in Cuba. In doing so, the organs of state security not only limit our right of free expression and press guaranteed by the Constitution, but also the freedom of speech of each individual who chooses to speak to the media.

On October 11 not only was Periodismo de Barrio silenced, also silenced were all the communities and people who wanted to talk to our journalists. On October 11, the Cuban authorities tried to define who is entitled to tell the stories of our country. Because we believe that right belongs to the entire Cuban citizenship, because these stories need to be told, we will return to Baracoa, Imías and Maisí once the emergency is over.

*Translator’s note: The US embargo against Cuba is generally referred to in Cuba as “the blockade,” although it is not, in a legal sense, actually a blockade.