Who Has the Right to Tell a Country’s Story?

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Screenshot of Periodismo de Barrio website.

In this editorial, the members of the independent publication Periodismo de Barrio, partners of Global Voices, recount how they were detained and interrogated by Cuban State Security officials from October 11 to October 12 when they were covering the zones affected by Hurricane Mathew. The editorial was originally published in Periodismo de Barrio, and has been reproduced in its totality in Global Voices (originally in Spanish) under our partnership agreement.

“We were detained for doing journalism in Baracoa, in Maisí, in Imías: three of the main municipalities affected by the storm.”

October 11, 2016. Six members of the team from Periodismo de Barrio and two collaborators were detained in the city of Baracoa, located in the province of Guantánamo. We were not detained for smiling. We were not detained for taking a photo of the state cafeteria located on La Gobernadora viewpoint and publishing it on our personal Facebook account. We were not detained for using the online service PayPal in our public fundraising campaign that allowed us to cover the recovery process of communities affected by Hurricane Matthew. We were detained for doing journalism in Baracoa, in Maisí, in Imías: three of the main municipalities affected by the storm.

Specifically, we were detained for interviewing – or trying to interview – the local government in Imías, the powerline workers who were trying to restore electrical service, the victims, the families who evacuated vulnerable individuals, the school teachers, cooks, and school directors who lost roofs as well as books, the medical clinics that were damaged, the men and women who saved other men and women as well as their animals and plants. Those of us who went to Maisí were interrogated by State Security officials at the headquarters of the Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba while trying to obtain authorization to work in the area. Those of us who came to Jamal were detained in the home where we were staying.
Their justification was that in Baracoa, in Maisí, and in Imías one could not perform journalistic activities because all these cities were under a state of emergency. According to Article 67 of Cuba’s Constitution, a state of emergency is declared “in case of or before the imminence of natural disasters or catastrophes or other circumstances that by their disaster, proportion, or essence might affect the internal order, the country’s security, or the State’s stability.” While this state of emergency is in force, the rights and responsibilities of the citizens recognized by the Constitution can be administered differently.

Law 75 of National Defense regulates the way in which a state of emergency is declared, as well as other exceptional situations. “A state of emergency, in accordance with Articles 67 and 93 paragraph 1, is declared by the President of the State Council by means of a resolution which expresses the reasons for starting it, the delimitation of the area where it is established, and the effective period.” Up to the date of our detainment, there was no official public communication by the President of the State Council announcing a state of emergency, apart from the announcement made October 4th by the General Staff of the Civil Defense alerting six Cuban provinces before the arrival of Hurricane Matthew. This does not have the legal status required to declare a state of emergency as provided in the Constitution.

In accordance with Law 75, “in any of the exceptional situations it is guaranteed that the fundamental rights of the Constitution shall not be excluded or suspended.” In addition, “an individual’s freedom and inviolability are guaranteed to whomever resides in the national territory.”

As part of the adopted measures , which the Cuban authorities never publicly announced, the exercise of journalism in the affected areas was restricted to those media that received accreditation to work there. Neither Law 75 nor the Constitution of the Republic nor the Code of Ethics of the Union of Cuban Journalists — to which two of our colleagues belong — regulate the exercise of journalism during situations of natural disasters. If we recognize that during emergency situations it is guaranteed that “the fundamental rights of the Constitution shall not be excluded or suspended,” which includes freedom of speech and press, Periodismo de Barrio did not violate any law.

We did not come to Baracoa with the goal of acting outside of the law. None of our members knew we would need to “be accredited” before heading to Guantánamo Province.

We did not come to Baracoa with the goal of acting outside of the law. None of our members knew we would need to “be accredited” before heading to Guantánamo Province. Nevertheless, if we had tried to do so, we would not have had a representative to approach. Unlike state and foreign media, Periodismo de Barrio does not have a public official in Cuba from whom we can ask authorization to perform journalistic work in a given region. Because of this, that night, in the municipal headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior, we asked for the required authorization to do the stories we had already planned. The answer, which came the next day after we had remained in the house for about fifteen hours as ordered, was a refusal. All of us journalists were then driven to the Ministry of the Interior’s Operations Unit in Guantánamo, escorted by the 205th patrol of the State Security Department.

There we were interrogated a second time and our technical equipment was confiscated. We had to hand over passwords and cameras, digital recorders, laptops, flash drives, electronic book readers, and cell phones, all of which were looked over for at least four hours. They informed us that the images and recordings from our work in the province would be erased and our electronic equipment returned. The three women that formed part of Periodismo de Barrio’s team were physically examined by an official looking for other technical tools that could have been hidden in our bodies, a treatment given to suspects in pre-criminal cases. They didn’t do the same to our male counterparts. Our technical equipment was then returned and none of the files related to our work were erased.

The whole time we maintained a respectful and cooperative attitude. We answered all of their questions about Periodismo de Barrio, our means of funding, the work we wished to do in the province, our previous journalism experience, the academic training we have, and the origins and final destination of the individual donations of clothes, food, and personal hygiene products that we brought to the province. Throughout the day (October 11th) and until we were released on October 12th, at around 8:00 pm, not a single charge or accusation of any crime was brought against the members of Periodismo de Barrio.

We left Guantánamo the same as when we arrived: innocent.

But innocence was not reason enough to avoid this arbitrary arrest.

In a context where the law only recognizes the existence of state and foreign media accredited by the Center of International Press, Periodismo de Barrio sits right on the edge between these two groups. We are the result of the evolution of technological platforms for communicating information of public interest, university education, and professional needs that cannot find a place in the existing media  media. And we are not the only ones.

Numerous media have been created within the last year without any guarantee of legal recognition or protection for practicing the profession. The majority of the published stories by these same media demonstrate reliability, balance in their use of sources, a high ethical commitment, and a profound respect for the realities, in all their plurality, of our country. We also recognize that there are stories that require greater research and informational rigor. Their existence, for both readers and for the hundreds of professionals gathered around them, should start an inclusive public debate about the ownership structure of the press. This debate could open up space for a media law in which  at least cooperative ownership would be considered alongside state ownership, among other forms of social and public models regarding these types of media.

It is not possible to tell the truth about Cuba from only one viewpoint, or from unanimous viewpoints that are the equivalent of one.

We understand that the public character of the Cuban press is guaranteed not solely by governmental ownership of the media. But it is not possible to tell the truth about Cuba from only one viewpoint, or from unanimous viewpoints that are the equivalent of one. Not when there are so many differing views. For the truth about Cuba to be the true Cuba – that is, the convergence of everyone’s truths – there must be a collective construction in which diverse voices participate with equal rights and responsibilities.

The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, in Article 53, recognizes the “freedom of speech and press in agreement with those ends of a socialist society” for its citizens. And in the following sentence it specifies that “mass media are state or social property and in no case can they be objects of private property, which ensures their use for the exclusive service of the working class and in the interest of society.” Nevertheless, because of the way in which this logic has been implemented we have not achieved the plain exercise of freedom of press and speech, nor have we ensured the exclusive use of media in service of the people, nor have we exorcised the demon that inspired the ban on private media: monopoly. What we have achieved, paradoxically, is a new monopolization of information, of journalistic discourses, and of the truth.

Television channels, radio broadcasts, printed publications, and publishing houses all change owners but they do not become decentralized or “socialized”. To socialize is not the same as to nationalize. There is no such thing as a good or bad monopoly. All monopolization, by the State, an individual, or a corporation, ends up restricting freedoms. To socialize means to regulate power so that, precisely, it is not centralized or concentrated in a social area, because it dispossess others of power. Making “socialism the Cuban way,” appropriate for our circumstances, does not constitute a license to violate inseparable principles of socialism. One does not found a socialist society by reproducing structures of domination.

Colaboradores de Periodismo de Barrio, Monica, Elaine y Julio, trabajando. Photo por Elaine Diaz, usado con permiso.

Mónica, Elaine and Julio, members of Periodismo de Barrio. Photo by Elaine Diaz, used with permission.

This is not the first time that we have gone to work in areas affected by natural disasters. Less than three days after the waterspout that damaged Playa del Caimito, we visited the area without asking anyone for permission. In the interviews, both citizens and authorities cooperated with us. Six months after the storm of April 29, 2015, we investigated the main damaged areas. Three years after Sandy, we returned to the eastern city of Santiago.

Periodismo de Barrio publishes articles and investigative reports that try to delve deeper into the reality that we live in. Cuban state media and institutions like the Civil Defense organization and the Meteorological Institute, have always carried out extensive coverage before, during and after any extreme weather event. However, the news cycle moves fast, and often times the victims no longer make headlines a couple of weeks or months after the natural disaster occurs. Other realities occupy our newspapers’ agendas. But even if these other realities didn’t occupy our newspapers, this doesn’t mean that the people’s need for information runs out when the disaster recovery processes is prolonged. Not even Periodismo de Barrio could exhaust that need.

It is the media’s duty to follow the recovery process, which usually takes years. It’s the media’s duty to accompany the most vulnerable.  It is the media’s duty to scrutinize the Revolution and make sure that it doesn’t, in effect, leave anyone abandoned. This phrase is often used just after a hurricane hits, and is later forgotten by some public servants charged with turning it into food and shelter, which was what happened with the mattresses for the victims in the municipality ‘Diez de Octubre’ in April 2015. This supervision should not be seen as a threat, but rather as our right to hold our public representatives to account.

Every minute we spent in Baracoa, Imías and Maisí, every affected household we visited, became a meeting point for neighbors. They told each other, “the journalists have come.”

We know that today, Baracoa, Imías and Maisí are disaster zones, and we know the immediate dangers associated with this: outbreaks of illness, water and food shortages, and electricity outages, among others. Our intention was not, under any circumstance, to slow down the work of the Civil Defense organization or the local government, but instead to help face this situation from within our capacity as professionals. Every minute we spent in Baracoa, Imías and Maisí, every affected household we visited, became a meeting point for neighbors. They told each other, “the journalists have come,” and what started as an interview of an evacuated pregnant woman turned into a meeting of 15 or 20 people telling their stories. We didn’t trick anyone. We told everyone that we were members of Periodismo de Barrio and we explained the social objective of the outlet. Even so, when we left, they gave us their blessings. And when they told us “God bless you,” they were blessing our pens and our ears as the platform from which they could share their realities.

Anybody who knows the Cuban people, knows about their honor and dignity. Every person we interviewed suffered material losses but was grateful to be alive. Members of the People’s Councils and delegates spent days without sleeping to register the damage done by the hurricane. Families with homes in tact leant their houses to those without. There are still places that are left without any way to contact the outside world.

We came to Baracoa with questions: How are they distributing aid? How are they assisting the victims with construction material, food, clothing etc? What measures were taken to protect Haitian refugees? What conditions are the coastal communities in and what are the measures being taken to relocate them? What are the main damages to farms and housing? How are they organizing the evacuation centers? What role did amatuer radio enthusiasts play in maintaining communication in disconnected areas? etc.

The numbers of those affected are not low. What is low, however, is the number of media outlets covering the situation in the area. We are talking about hundreds of towns, some of them remote, others without means of communication or made inaccessible. Thousands of people who need to be heard. During our detention by the Communist Party Municipal Committee of Maisí, a civil servant showed us an article published in the newspaper Venceremos to prove their point of view: There was media coverage in the area.

Nearly 600 news agencies and foreign media outlets were approved to cover United States president Barack Obama’s visit to Havana. In an article published this past October 14, the newspaper Granma could mention less than 10 foreign agencies working in Guantánamo in addition to the local provincial outlets. In the more than 45 interviews done during the 12 hours we were able to work, none of the disaster victims were visited by any other news outlet. We were the first ones to get to them. We were the only ones. State newspapers (especially those in Guantánamo) and other foreign outlets had spoken with other areas, but Baracoa, Maisí and Imías are the homes of people who need to share their stories. It is important to note that journalists from Guantánamo have been working and visiting neighborhoods that have been cut off, neighborhoods that take days to get to, without even stopping to think about their own material losses.

Those who are questioning the methods used to finance Periodismo de Barrio are conveniently forgetting that journalism costs money.

Those who are questioning the methods used to finance Periodismo de Barrio, are conveniently forgetting that journalism costs money. In the state media’s case, the State subsidizes their fundamental production costs. This doesn’t mean that it’s free. The helicopter used to fly over areas cut off by the hurricane wasn’t free, neither are the hours of internet provided to the houses and offices of state journalists, the computers, the cars, the gas used in the cars, the cameras, the electricity and the generators that ensure radio stations stay on air after power outs. The offices, chairs, tables, landline and mobile phones are all not free. 

For over 50 years, the State has allowed journalists to avoid thinking about the true costs of journalism because their activities are being financed. Without this subsidy, it would be impossible to exist. This financial support is provided by the people and, as a public entity, it thus comes with its corresponding obligations. State media has a duty to respond to the multiple needs of the people. Transparency and accountability about the use of these resources is a duty that, now and always, should be exercised regularly.

New outlets, like us, that lack economic support from the State need to look elsewhere to finance their activities. Some turn to advertising, payment for content and for services, agreements and collaborations between other outlets or NGO’s and crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is a method that has been used for many years by internet users to finance individual and collective projects. By these means, readers have the freedom to decide if they want to collaborate or not. It is also a method which shows how much has been donated and by whom. The dream of any media outlet is to be financed exclusively by their readers. In our case, we use the online service PayPal which is inaccessible in Cuba due to the US embargo. We think that this is an unjust and arbitrary policy aimed at financially asphyxiating the Cuban people and for this reason, we will continue to look for ways to prevent the embargo from affecting our media outlet. We trusted our readers and it worked. In less than 48 hours we had raised enough money to go to Guantánamo.

There are financial and economic blockages from the United States that affect both Cuban state-run businesses and Periodismo de Barrio. There are no exceptions or soft policies, so state-run businesses, just like Periodismo de Barrio, have learned to get around it. Periodismo de Barrio’s PayPal strategy is simple: we use an account from a collaborator and friend who lives in a different country, and then they send the money to Cuba through legal agencies that deal with remittances.

We have received numerous criticisms and suggestions about the money we raised for the coverage. We will not turn a deaf ear to them.

We have received numerous criticisms and suggestions about the money we raised for the coverage. The majority of them came from readers, they were well-argued and came with the clear intention to help Periodismo de Barrio to perform better as journalists. We will not turn a deaf ear to them. We think the role of press in the recovery effort is to seek out alliances with other media outlets, to identify organized projects, like the Red Cross and local NGOs that need help and can provide it in affected areas. Our readers have pointed out that covering natural disasters transcends the practice of journalism itself. For this reason, in the future, we are weighing the possibility of making executive summaries detailing the needs and ways to access and distribute aid that are relevant to both local governments and NGOs, and in this way, contribute to those working in the disaster zones. Reporting, in these cases, is not our only duty.

We denounce the arbitrary detention of journalists anywhere in the world and in Cuba, as well. By doing this, the State Security organizations are not only limiting the freedom of expression and the freedom of press guaranteed by the Constitution, but they are also limiting each and every individual who chooses to speak to media outlets.

On October 11, not only did they silence Periodismo de Barrio, but they also silenced all of the communities and people who wanted to talk to our journalists. On October 11, the Cuban authorities tried to define who has the right to tell their story in our country. Because we believe that this right belongs to all of the Cuban people, because these stories must be told, we will return to Baracoa, Imías and Maisí once the state of emergency is called off.

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