Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Struggle over the Cuban press intensifies (2)

This is the sequel to my previous post. There'll be at least one more in this series. After that, I'll translate some of the most important contributions to this ongoing controversy.      

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The dismissal

It was the Uruguayan-born former BBC journalist Fernando Ravsberg who broke the news of Pantoja's dismissal. Pantoja told Ravsberg he had worked for Radio Holguin since 2000 and had been a UPEC member since then. He had taken part in the June 28 UPEC plenum as a workplace delegate via video link and had recorded the proceedings in full view of provincial UPEC officials, who did not object. Seeing that the event had been covered in a Cuban TV news bulletin, and that some (relatively innocuous) fragments of Marron's comments had been published on the UPEC website, Pantoja assumed—he claimed—that the entirety of her remarks were 'publishable'. In other words, that permission did not need to be sought and granted from Pantoja's boss at the radio station. The fact that no other Cuban journalist who had heard Marron's intervention made such a naive assumption casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja's innocence in this regard. He must have known he was risking his livelihood and his professional reputation.

Almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly, subordinating his personal interests to what he considered to be a higher purpose. He told Ravsberg that his motivations for transcribing and uploading Marron's unabridged remarks to his personal blog were "for the world to know that in Cuba, we journalists are capable of having a serious and responsible debate at the highest level. I also published it with the aim of sparking a debate on the content of the intervention itself, to stir up the controversy and the exchange of viewpoints that are always so necessary". Recall that (as noted in Part 1) veteran Cuban journalist Luis Sexto lamented earlier this year the inability of the Cuban press to "create and resolve conflicts". In light of this perceived deficiency, Pantoja's actions are laudable. He has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict—i.e. a controversy and a struggle—over the role and character of the Cuban press. In doing so, he has contributed to an eventual resolution of this conflict.

Pantoja told Ravsberg that as far as he knows, there are no official guidelines for publishing on personal blogs. If permission must be sought then whose blog is it? "In my case, management alleges that when a journalist publishes on their blog or on social media, they do it in the name of the institution they work for". That notion is highly controversial, he added. According to Pantoja, the reasons given for his dismissal are that he made the recording without proper authorisation; that he selectively transcribed only Marron's intervention; that he gave no indication he would cover the event; and that he failed to abide by Cuba's press policy that content "must be in the public interest and the critics [i.e. sources who express unfavourable opinions] must be approved beforehand by the Editor of the press publication". Here, Pantoja was reading from the explanatory letter he had received.

The stipulation that criticisms may only be published if those making them are acceptable to the editor is not conducive to the press holding up a critical mirror to society. Arguably, it amounts to editorial interference in journalistic integrity and a systematic bias against criticism. As for what constitutes the public interest, that's a matter of opinion. Pantoja thought it was in the public interest to publish Marron's intervention in its entirety. Perhaps he assumed his prestige would shield him from any adverse consequences of publication. On March 10, Pantoja was one of 26 Cuban journalists awarded UPEC's highest accolade, the Felix Elmuza Distinction for "outstanding professionals with 15 or more years of uninterrupted work", according to the UPEC website.

Jose Ramirez Pantoja
On  August 30, a fortnight after the Ravsberg interview, Pantoja was interviewed at greater length by Cuban journalist Arnaldo Mirabal Hernandez. Hernandez writes for Giron, the PCC newspaper in Matanzas province—the provincial equivalent of Granma. He interviewed Pantoja in a personal capacity and published the transcript on his personal blog, Revolucion. Pantoja recounted to Hernandez that after publishing Marron's intervention on his blog, and then on his Facebook page, he left a Facebook comment praising Marron's intervention as an example of how Cuba's revolutionary youth should speak: with courage and without mincing words. Then came "the finger-pointing and the dirty looks". Pantoja deleted the offending blog post, but it was too late: it had gone viral. His home internet connection was severed and he was dismissed. Pantoja turns 40 on September 12 but he's in no mood to celebrate, Hernandez observed.

Pantoja told Hernandez that he didn't blame Radio Holguin management for his dismissal. Initially they were conciliatory, asking him to immediately delete the post, which he did. When they cut his internet connection they said it would only be for a few days. But then the tone changed. On July 11, he was informed of his dismissal and told his internet connection would not be restored. He thinks management had received "a phone call from higher up".

The union

More hurtful than the dismissal, Pantoja told Hernandez, was the decision of UPEC's provincial Ethics Commission to suspend his UPEC membership. It pained him because he holds his colleagues who comprise the Commission in high regard. “If there's something that wounds my soul, I swear by my mother who lies in the cemetery, it's the lack of support from UPEC, the organisation I've belonged to since 2006". Especially concerning and disturbing, he said, were comments posted by UPEC vice-president Aixa Hevia on her Facebook page.

Aixa Hevia
Pantoja had appealed both his dismissal and his suspension from UPEC, exercising his right to seek to have the latter decision overturned or modified by UPEC's National Ethics Commission. That Commission is headed by Luis Sexto, the veteran journalist and columnist whose own criticisms of the Cuban press I cited in Part 1. On August 19, after Pantoja had initiated the UPEC appeal process, Hevia weighed in on the Pantoja case—on Facebook.

Hevia began by claiming that Pantoja had censored a comment that Marron had made, in passing, about Fernando Ravsberg (introduced in Part 1) during her UPEC intervention. In support of this claim, she embedded a hyperlink to a scathing denunciation of Ravsberg by Cuban blogger Iroel Sanchez (introduced in Part 1). Sanchez's source was 'a friend', whom he did not name, who had attended the UPEC plenum. The source was uncertain of Marron's exact words: "something like 'that now we know who he is'"—referring to Ravsberg. That was clearly an allusion to Ravsberg's behaviour, Hevia observed. Indeed, his agency [i.e. the BBC] cancelled his contract because of what he wrote on his blog, she added. She did not add that Ravsberg left the BBC because of the BBC's anti-Cuba bias (see Part 1).

She suggested it was inappropriate for Ravsberg to have interviewed Pantoja "in the middle of a workplace and ethical process that has not yet concluded", presumably because the publicity might prejudice the outcome. Ironically, her own public intervention via Facebook might also prejudice the outcome, given that the UPEC National Ethics Commission has been deliberating on Pantoja's appeal against his suspension from UPEC—of which Hevia is vice-president. Hevia then changed tack, raising the suspicion, without citing any evidence, that Pantoja's real motivation was to use the tale of his dismissal as a springboard to a media career in Miami, Florida, the citadel of the Cuban counter-revolution. "Colleagues have been asking themselves" if this is what he's up to, she informed her Facebook followers (her comments were then republished by Iroel Sanchez).

UPEC Congresses have been very critical affairs, Hevia stressed, but these and other UPEC fora are our spaces, those of the journalists. It's noteworthy, she said, that Pantoja, who said he recorded everything, and didn't ask for permission to publish something discussed in a professional association forum, didn't publish other, "more critical and proposal-oriented" interventions, and selected only that of the deputy editor of Granma—the PCC publication. Here, Hevia seemed to suggest that Pantoja's target might have been the Party itself. Like the suspicion that Pantoja might be planning to defect to Miami, this was a mere insinuation. It's apposite to note that the UPEC Code of Ethics states that journalists "must foster and uphold fraternal relations and mutual respect among colleagues", and "refrain from public comment that denigrates or discredits them".

Hevia rounded out her intervention with another dig at Ravsberg, dismissing his apparent concern for the fate of a fellow journalist: "The problems of the press, which we recognise, we have to resolve among ourselves, we don't need anyone to give us recipes, let's not fool ourselves, that interest in defending Pantoja is false, they're trying to prejudice us, this is an objective that's abundantly clear."

Fernando Ravsberg
On August 26, Pantoja returned fire in a blistering blog post titled, "Where are Aixa Hevia's ethics?" He let fly a volley of adjectives—"offensive, defamatory, slanderous, harmful and disrespectful"—at Hevia's Facebook intervention, which had been circulating in cyberspace. Had any other journalist cast judgement on me, Pantoja fumed, "I would have accepted it without any difficulty, at the end of the day it would have been a personal opinion. But Aixa Hevia is not just any journalist, we're talking about the first vice-president of the Cuban Journalists Union". His sole aim, he insisted, was "to spark a serious and professional debate, which without any doubt would have contributed something positive."

Responding to Hevia's claim that he had excised a criticism of Ravsberg's character ('now we know who he is') from the transcript of Marron's UPEC intervention, Pantoja explained that at 6 minutes and 44 seconds, Marron can be clearly heard to ask, 'And here we all know who Ravsberg is?' Another voice is heard to reply 'yes', then Marron says: 'and if someone doesn't know him, its because they just haven't wanted to see him' (i.e. they pretend he doesn't exist). Pantoja's explanation here, on the basis of his recording, casts Marron's passing reference to Ravsberg in a very different light: one favourable to Ravsberg.

Pantoja went on to explain that in editing the transcript, he had decided to answer Marron's question to the audience with an explanatory note: 'Fernando Ravsberg, Uruguayan journalist based in Cuba, former BBC World correspondent in Havana'. "At no point did I try to save Ravsberg from any allusion [to his character] because, first of all, I'd never said a word to him until now." Pantoja expressed his deep gratitude to Ravsberg "for the interest he has shown in my case, as well as that of a great many colleagues that in my Cuba and in various places around the world have spoken out against the injustice that in my view, and theirs, has been done to me".

[To be continued]

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