By Peter Phillips
“You cannot kill truth by murdering journalists,” said Tubal Páez, president of the Journalist Union of Cuba. One hundred and fifty Cuban and South American journalists, ambassadors, politicians, and foreign guests gathered at the Jose Marti International Journalist Institute to honor the 50th anniversary of the death of Carlos Bastidas Arguello —the last journalist killed in Cuba. Carlos Bastidas was only 23 years of age when he was assassinated by Fulgencia Batista’s secret police after having visited Fidel Castro’s forces in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Edmundo Bastidas, Carlos’ brother, told about how a river of changed flowed from the Maestra (teacher) mountains, symbolized by his brother’s efforts to help secure a new future for Cuba.
The celebration in Havana was held in honor of World Press Freedom Day, which is observed every year in May. World Press Freedom day was proclaimed by the UN in 1993 to honor journalists who have lost their lives reporting the news, and to defend media freedom worldwide.
During my five days in Havana, I met with dozens of journalists, communication studies faculty and students, union representatives and politicians. The underlying theme of my visit was to determine the state of media freedom in Cuba and to build a better understanding between media democracy activists in the US and those in Cuba.
I toured the two main radio stations in Havana, Radio Rebelde and Radio Havana. Both have Internet access to multiple global news sources including CNN, Reuters, Associated Press and BBC with several newscasters pulling stories for public broadcast. Over 90 municipalities in Cuba have their own locally run radio stations, and journalists report local news from every province.
During the course of several hours in each station I was interviewed on the air about media consolidation and censorship in the US and was able to ask journalists about censorship in Cuba as well. Of the dozens I interviewed all said that they have complete freedom to write or broadcast any stories they choose. This was a far cry from the Stalinist media system so often depicted by US interests.
Nonetheless it did became clear that Cuban journalists share a common sense of a continuing counter-revolutionary threat by US financed Cuban-Americans living in Miami. This is not an entirely unwarranted feeling in that many hundreds of terrorist actions against Cuba have occurred with US backing over the past fifty years. In addition to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, these attacks include the blowing up of a Cuban airlines plane in 1976 resulting in the deaths of seventy-three people, the starting in 1981 of an epidemic of dengue fever that killed 158 people and several hotel bombings in the 1990s one of which resulted in the death of an Italian tourist.
In the context of this external threat, Cuban journalists quietly acknowledge that some self-censorship will undoubtedly occur regarding news stories that could be used by the “enemy” against the Cuban people. Nonetheless, Cuban journalists strongly value freedom of the press and there was no evidence of overt restriction or government control.
Cuban journalists complain that the US corporate media is bias and refuses to cover the positive aspects of socialism in Cuba. Unknown to most Americans are the facts that Cuba is the number one organic country in the world, has an impressive health care system with a lower infant mortality rate than the US, trains doctor from all over the world, and has enjoyed a 43% increase in GDP over the past three years.
Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly, discussed bias in the US media, “how often do you see Gore Vidal interviewed on the US media?” he asked. Vidal has recently said that the US is in its ‘worst phase in history.’ “Perhaps Cuba uses corporate news to excess,” he said, “Cuban journalists need to link more to independent news sources in the US.” Alarcon went on to say that Cuba allows CNN, AP and Chicago Tribune to maintain offices in Cuba, but that the US refuses to allow Cuban journalists to work in the United States.
As the Cuban socialist system improves, the US does everything it can to artificially force cold-war conditions by funding terrorist attacks, maintaining an economic boycott, launching a new anti-terrorism Caribbean naval fleet, and increasingly limiting US citizen travel to Cuba. It is time to reverse this cold-war isolationist position, honor the Cuban peoples choice of a socialist system and build a positive working relationship between journalists in support of media democracy in both our countries.
Peter Phillips is a professor of Sociology and Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored a media research organization. He traveled to Cuba as an invited guest of the Journalist Union of Cuba May 10 to 15, 2008.