Cuban Journalism Is Changing Amid Bilateral Relations

By Julio Avila

Havana, Cuba – At a White House press conference on May 21, 2015, a female Cuban reporter and her Cuban colleagues raised their hands a few times, then a few times more. Each was eager to ask a question, but their American counterparts were the ones getting called on.

Then one of the American reporters, Oliver Knox of Yahoo News, posed a question to White House Press Secretary John Earnest. “To your knowledge, when’s the last time a White House press secretary took a question from a Cuban reporter?” Knox asked.

“I’m not sure when the last time that was; maybe I’ll give them the last question,” Earnest replied. “It’s my understanding there are a number of Cuban journalists who are in Washington today to cover the ongoing meetings over at the state department between U.S. diplomats and Cuban diplomats who are seeking to normalize the relations between our two countries.”

Instantly, Earnest pointed to Cristina Escobar, a prominent, and very young, Cuban journalist who was an anchor for a morning news show on Cuban national television. Escobar finally got her chance, and instead of one question, she asked a few.

The list went like this:

“First, do you think that it’s possible to see the scenario in which we will open embassies in Havana and Washington?” Escobar asked. “And in that future scenario, is the administration committed to being more respectful of the Vienna Convention towards the behavior of the American diplomats in Havana…?

“And . . . do think that President Obama will also continue using his executive prerogative to expand the links, the bonds, with Cuba?”

Cristina Escobar speaks with students about the unique state of journalism in Cuba. Photo Credit: Rick Ricioppo.

Cristina Escobar speaks with students about the unique state of journalism in Cuba. Photo by Rick Ricioppo.

She was in Washington covering the still ongoing efforts to re-establish relations between her homeland and the United States. U.S. politics was (and still is) one of her specialties.

Escobar was born in 1987, four years prior to the collapse of Cuba’s economy, which was the after-effect of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In a meeting with Stony Brook University students in Cuba, Escobar noted that she studied journalism at the University of Havana. She made a point of informing that the requirements for entering journalism were rigorous – and that her education was free – for her, as for all Cubans.

Escobar says she chose television journalism and the “beat” of politics because she felt there was a need for a young woman like her. Television is the most-watched medium in Cuba, she said.

Journalism in Cuba is undergoing a critical transformation in the way it reports and publishes the news, and Escobar herself is partaking in this transformation.

Technically, all Cuban news outlets are state-controlled entities. “The constitution passed in 1976 in Cuba, by popular referendum, says that every media in Cuba is social property,” Escobar said. “That means that it is state run.”

A man in Old Havana sells international editions of Granma, one of the official newspapers of Cuba. [Photo Credit: Janelle Clausen.]

A man in Old Havana sells international editions of Granma, one of the official newspapers of Cuba. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

The two official newspapers in Cuba are Granma and Juventud Rebelde. There are local newspapers in each province of the country, and there are various state-operated radio stations. Escobar said there is private media in Cuba that, by law, is illegal.

The Cuban government funds its media, but not sufficiently, she said. “Television costs a lot and when you pretend to do television without advertising,” you’re in trouble, Escobar said.

Cuban media has been criticized around the world, as well as within Cuba; and the nation’s journalists are in a crisis. Part of the problem is Cuba’s long tradition of restricting reporters – a policy that has been a far cry from the relative openness of the American media.

According to Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom Of The Press report, Cuba continues to be “repressive.” While many, including Freedom House, acknowledge that the government has “eased some restrictions on expression,” serious problems remain. It has reached the point that Cuban officials themselves are talking about it openly. “Even the president of the country, Raul Castro, said the media should be more critical,” Escobar said. He said that the “media should participate more intensely.”

Escobar added that the desire for a more open press is sharewd by Cuba’s vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel. The local media need to become more aggressive in their work of informing the Cuban people, he and others believe.

The Internet is also playing a role, and it is doing so in a surreptitious way, Escobar said. Underground Cuban networks smuggle media content and programming from abroad onto hard drives and flash drives, for example. They sell American produced entertainment shows, movies, documentaries, and news, in addition to other content. Anyone hungry for news and entertainment can buy a new, updated package every week. It is, in fact, called the “weekly package.”

And here’s the irony: Escobar says that, given the prohibitions of the embargo, the content is effectively free. The once-a-week terabyte of media costs the equivalent of about two U.S. dollars.

With some optimism, Escobar says that as the country modernizes, there will be more and more hope for independent journalism. This is the best time to be a journalist in Cuba, she asserted. This is so, she said, not only because of the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba – but also because of other positive changes taking place, including Cuba-assisted peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC Rebel Group, and the character of their people.

“We are living history everyday,” Escobar said

Ron Howell contributed reporting.

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