Sunday, August 14, 2016

Granma's international editor on the press

Sergio Alejandro Gomez is the international editor of Granma. He's just 29 years old. Like Karina Marron, the paper's deputy editor, he's part of a new generation of Cuban journalists moving into senior positions and shouldering heavy responsibilities. He's a familiar face on Cuba's premiere TV current affairs programme, the Mesa Redonda (Round Table), which calls him in for expert commentary on international affairs from time to time.

His personal blog is his outlet for his own unsolicited commentaries, which are always incisive and on occasion sharply polemical. His more polemical ones would be regarded as unfit to print under the prevailing Cuban press model that is now in crisis. 

A case in point is Sergio's commentary on the Chanel fashion parade and the filming of the latest Fast and Furious Hollywood blockbuster earlier this year. For Fast and Furious, Havana's iconic promenade, the Malecon, was turned into a giant film set; for the Chanel catwalk, a few blocks of Old Havana were sealed off for an invites-only, 'VIP' event. Two worlds collided with potent symbolism: elitist high fashion and the humble lives of the city's poorer residents, to the annoyance of the latter. To add insult to injury, the Cuban media barely mentioned either event. As Sergio pointed out, nobody explained why Chanel and Hollywood had been welcomed, how many millions of dollars they'd paid for the Cuban backdrop and how the Cuban in the street would benefit.

In the commentary below, Sergio takes up the relationship between politics and journalism in Cuba from the vantage point of his youth. It serves to contextualise some of Karina Marron's comments at the UPEC plenum (see my previous post).

A first draft of this translation was undertaken by a collaborator who, for reasons of modesty, does not wish to be credited. So I thank them without naming them. I'd always hoped this blog could be a collaborative project. Now it is.

*  *  *

The troubled relationship between journalism and politics in Cuba

By Sergio Alejandro Gomez

June 7, 2016

Translation: Cuba's Socialist Renewal


Sergio Alejandro Gomez
I’m used to writing from the safety of the third person, but it would be hypocritical for me to take up the debate over journalism and politics in Cuba without making clear from the outset that the writer has a vested interest.

For some years now I’ve been getting up every day wanting to practice journalism. Yet not infrequently I go to bed wondering if it wouldn’t have been better for me to have studied engineering. Kapuscinski banished the cynics from this profession, but said nothing about the masochists.[1]

During a 1961 function in honour of the newspaper Revolucion, Fidel [Castro] issued an appeal to prepare for the imminent confrontation with imperialism.

“We must always keep in mind that the interests of the Revolution come before those of the newspaper. First the Revolution, then the paper.” He then clarified that he was not asking for “the variety, style, or characteristics of the newspapers” to be sacrificed.

I first read these words in the Granma [newspaper] library, on the back cover of a book from the 1980s about the profession. Later I looked for the place and the context in which they’d been said, only a few days before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It seems to me that defending the collective project of sovereignty and justice begun [in the Revolution of] 1959, and at the same time addressing society’s problems honestly and as comprehensively as possible, are still the key objectives of a revolutionary press.

The conflict arises when [these twin objectives] appear to contradict each other. The way in which the debate has been resolved during recent decades is perhaps the main cause of the many problems that weigh heavily on the Cuban press—which is criticised just as much in the street as it is in the Council of State.

What we might call the ‘dogmatic’ conception [of the press] views the relationship between the political and journalistic domains as one of direct subordination [of the latter to the former], with no scope for dialectics or intelligent negotiation. Hence, political interests (or worse still, the interests of the politicians) would always stand above the honourable practice of the profession, and even above logic. From this flows the silences, the half-truths and the questions that everyone asks but which are never reflected in the media.

With few exceptions this is, I think, the dominant viewpoint at the present conjuncture—not only that of the press, but that of communication in Cuba.[2]

Some excuse these silences and omissions on the basis that they are precisely the reason why the Revolution has got this far, beset by a history of adversities too numerous to mention. Nevertheless, with every passing day I’m more and more persuaded of the opposite: that the Revolution has got this far ‘in spite of’ those mistakes; because it has other strengths, above all the genius of Fidel Castro.

But the accumulated distortions generate monsters here and there that can end up repeating the myth of Saturn, who devoured his own children.[3]

There are more and more journalists who don’t know how to ask questions and politicians who don’t know how to answer them, yet those are the basic skills required of each of them respectively. Such is the state of affairs that comic relief is called for, as in the already legendary tale of a president who got off the plane and approached a group of Cuban journalists, ready to be interviewed, but none of them had a question to ask him.[4]

On the other hand, the attempt to abolish the vices of cheap politicking [in the Cuban press] has aided the rise of the shadowy technocrat who is inept when it comes to accountability and has no real interest in being held accountable. All they care about are their superiors. They don’t know how to communicate with ordinary people, and when they try to do so they use the same jargon that is spoken in a meeting of specialists. 

The recent lowering of the prices of some [basic food] products ended up creating confusion because the government ministries involved were unable to explain how people were going to benefit from the measure.

If the atrophy is such that it’s hard to come up with good news, one can perhaps better understand why no Cuban leader has stepped forward to publicly justify the astronomical cost of cars in the open market.[5] And the worst thing is when roles are mixed up. The media are asked to do the work that the politicians don’t do while the politicians devote themselves to doing the work of journalists.

The disconnect between the political agenda, what the media says and how the average citizen lives and what they say, is taking a heavy toll on the Cuban press and therefore on the Revolution. Though this is a recurrent theme of private conversations, time and again it gets minimized in the public debate. There’s a contradiction: while the press is the platform for the discussion of many social problems—not always successfully and insightfully—it’s almost impossible to find a critical analysis [in the press] of the role of the press itself.

The minutes of the congresses of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC) testify to our profound dissatisfaction with the way that [journalistic] work is being done, but when the congress is over, we return to the editorial offices to read the news or put together tomorrow’s edition of the paper in the same way we did it yesterday [i.e. nothing changes].

I really don’t think this can be explained by fear of the repercussions of the debate. Rather, it’s the loyalty of a profession that has always been convinced that the solution will come ‘from above’, when someone finally heeds our solid and irrefutable arguments.

How does it go against the Revolution to expose a corrupt official? How is it counterproductive to know what sentence was imposed on someone who has been found guilty? Why do we not have the right to know what our foreign debt is and how much we’re spending each year on debt repayment? How can a citizen evaluate a minister’s financial management if their annual budget is not made public in a transparent way? Who established the regulation that prohibits taking pictures inside a store, a decision that in the final analysis could help those engaged in criminal activities? The list is painfully long.

Far from improving, the situation deteriorates every day. Just as in ‘Words to the Intellectuals’, after what Fidel said something is left hanging in the air: who decides the limits of what is revolutionary—what is within [the Revolution] and what lies outside—or how is it decided?[6]

The answer cannot be anything but a participatory, democratic approach, because the Revolution is all of us, including the journalists.

The ‘antidogmatic’ vision needs to be empowered. That vision rests on the assumption that there is an indissoluble relationship between politics and journalism that is, however, always subject to negotiation and a striving for consensus. It views information as a civil right and not a mere tool to achieve certain objectives, however altruistic they may be. It’s the vision that arises from internalising the revolution that has occurred in recent years in the ways in which audiences consume information.

The TV can be turned off and the newspaper can end up in the rubbish. The idea that controlling the media ensures an audience hasn’t been true for a long time. Furthermore, people can always choose not to believe. And there’s nothing more dangerous to a system than to lose its credibility. Nor can we be naïve. Journalism is an inherently political activity. Nobody speaks just for the sake of speaking. But trying to do politics—for political ends—through the media ends up undermining the essence of our profession.

Journalism must first of all be journalism. Only then can it orient itself towards its goals, with much wisdom and intelligence, always adhering closely to principles.

And this reflection is all the more urgent in light of the evident emergence of private media that use journalism—in the majority of cases quality journalism—to further their political interests.

I don’t wish to be ambiguous about this. I support the right of every Cuban to put forward a vision for the country that is different to the present one, as long as they act ethically and not in the service of foreign powers.

What I’m concerned about is the right to defend my own.

* * *

Translator’s notes:

[1] Ryszard Kapuściński (1932–2007) was a Polish writer and journalist.

[2] ‘Communication’ here appears to refer to the media in general and to the communicative style of political leaders and public institutions.

[3] Jacques Mallet du Pan was a French journalist who took up the Royalist cause during the French Revolution and coined the phrase “the Revolution devours its children”. It was later applied to Soviet Stalinism.

[4] Cuban journalists notably refrained from questioning Barack Obama during his state visit to Cuba. They were presumably directed not to do so by the Communist Party’s Ideological Department. Meanwhile, US journalists put Raul Castro on the spot during the presidents’ press conference.

[5] Refers to the prices of vehicles sold to the general public by state-owned dealerships.

[6] ‘Words to the Intellectuals’ refers to Fidel Castro’s landmark speech of June 30, 1961 in which he explained the state’s policy on freedom of expression to a gathering of writers, artists and other representatives of the cultural sphere. One line from that speech has been immortalised and variously interpreted ever since: ‘Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing”.

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