Cuban Media Contemplates Changes
Cuba’s journalists are gearing up for a major congress on July 3-5 that could reshape what Cubans see on TV screens, in newspapers and on the radio, as well as the way the island reaches out to the world.
For the last several years, an intense debate sponsored by the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC) has raged among reporters, editors and the Communist Party as to what steps would improve the quality of Cuban print and broadcast journalism.
Then, at the insistence of acting President Raul Castro in July 2006, the general population jumped into the fray with its own opinions on the media as part of a national debate on the problems facing the country.
The trend in the US and Latin America is toward ever greater corporate domination of the media. Consolidation has put power in the hands of an elite group that today includes AOL/Time Warner, General Electric, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, Walt Disney Co., Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Univision Communications, the O’Globo Communications Group and Televisa. With globalization, the profit-oriented interests of these conglomerates take precedence over the needs and interests of peoples, communities and nations.
Cuba has no intention of going that route. Its entire media is publicly-owned and non-profit, and the directives come from the Communist Party, the center of the island’s political life. However, there are some significant winds of change in the air.
Defending the Revolution, but with Better Reporting
Most Cuban journalists are united by a passionate commitment to the Cuban revolution. Such a commitment was overwhelmingly apparent at meetings held in the different provinces throughout May as a lead up to the UPEC Congress.
Nonetheless, the best way for the media to defend the revolution has been a matter of hot contention.
The Cuban press has always prided itself on avoiding sensationalism, focusing on serious issues and telling the truth. The Cuban population, however, have made it clear that they would like some changes.
The media was one of the many concerns discussed nationwide at meetings held in workplaces, urban neighborhoods and rural communities. Opinions aired, though often scathing, were accepted as valuable feedback by the Communist Party and UPEC.
The public urged the press to reflect more accurately the grassroots realities of Cuban society, with less reticence about discussing and reporting the real problems that exist. News programs on radio and TV and the print media were sharply criticized as presenting a much too rosy picture.
Another popular request was for a greater diversity of topics and opinions and a move away from the similarity between one media and another. The population also said it wants investigative reporting that gets to the bottom of a given issue.
A large segment criticized the media for omissions, a lack of details, and poor timeliness. At present, stories often circulate in the foreign press and hit the streets of Cuba on the “Radio Bemba” rumor mill long before they appear in the local media.
An effort in that direction has already begun, notes Tom Gjelten of US National Public Radio in his recent report titled “Cuban Newspaper Pushes Beyond the Party Line.”
Gjelten opens his article by stating “In an unprecedented move, reporters at Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) [newspaper] are being encouraged to investigate what’s not working in their country.”
What the report doesn’t mention is that this shift in media policy represents an initiative of the Communist Party in response to the popular demand for change.
The NPR article then goes on to make it seem that the editors are in contradiction with the Communist Party leadership, while setting the measuring stick of good journalism as that of a “democratic society” like the United States.
In an article published on the Cuban Journalists Association website in the lead up to their Congress, Ernesto Vera sums up Cuban journalists’ general opinion of the privately owned media championed by the US: “Journalism is too important to reduce it to a business… exempt from any social responsibility.”
The upcoming journalists’ congress promises to be a time of serious evaluation. The last Congress in 1999, attended by Fidel Castro, brought a major push towards greater availability of computers, the internet and other resources to the media. Like that gathering, it’s expected that this Congress will yield important direction for the years to come.
Two Different Media Approaches
A siege mentality has permeated much of Cuban life during 50 years of hostility from the United States under ten different administrations. Understanding this is vital in comprehending the cautious approach of the Communist Party in policies involving the island’s media.
On the other hand I also recall what it’s like living under corporate, profit-first, media in the US, Spain and other Latin American countries.
I remember a dear friend William Eastlake (1917-1997), novelist and short story writer, journalist and war correspondent, and the stories he told me over a couple glasses of wine at his southeastern Arizona home about his stint in Vietnam working for The Nation magazine in the late 1960s.
He recounted how reporters often saw no reason to leave their Saigon hotels, instead waiting for some Pentagon general to give the day’s success story at the afternoon press conference.
According to Eastlake, the reporters there faced the choice of writing what the Army wanted them to or going out on their own and not being trusted by anyone. In addition, after taking the risks involved, it was very difficult to get articles published if their point of view ran counter to what the media owners wanted.
The author recalled that many chose the safer and easier route of the martinis and press conference, providing just what their publications or broadcast media wanted to play Washington’s game.
Many moons after Eastlake’s reflections on reporting from Vietnam, we face a far worse situation with the coverage in today’s Iraq. Five years into the war, the US media remains tightly controlled. Many publications don’t even bother to station reporters, finding it more cost-effective and less conflictive to merely replicate the wire service reports.
Back to Cuba, I am one of those who believe the island’s media has a lot of room for improvement. However, that doesn’t mean it should mimic the western media model where the pens dance to the dollars.
Maintaining its public service focus and being totally advertising free sets the Cuban media apart from today’s trends. The challenge posed is how to meet the population’s needs on domestic news and debate and more effectively communicate Cuban views abroad on national and international issues.