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Struggle over the Cuban press intensifies (Part II)

 

 

Jose Ramirez Pantoja. This is the second in a three-part series of articles looking at the 
struggle over media censorship in Cuba unfolding today. The first part is available here.

 

By Marce Cameron

 

October 5, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Cuba’s Socialist Renewal — 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.

 

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.

 

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.”

 

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”.

 

Comments

José Ramírez Pantoja deserves our full support

The struggle that is unfolding over the media is part of a wider struggle to renew the Cuban revolution. What is at stake in this wider struggle is Cuba’s ability to meet the many pressing challenges that it faces, most notably the attempt by Washington to impose “regime change” by maintaining its crippling economic blockade of the country while seeking points of leverage to divide Cuban society from within and undermine its resistance to U.S. domination.

Marce Cameron, Cuba’s Socialist Renewal, and Links are performing a valuable service in bringing the debate over the media in Cuba to the attention of English-speaking readers. The translations of the contributions of the protagonists are particularly valuable and Marce’s translation skills are first-rate. Another valuable resource is Fernando Ravsberg’s blog, Cartas Desde Cuba http://cartasdesdecuba.com/, which has reported extensively on this controversy. A selection of informative articles in English are available there.

In my view, the dismissal of Pantoja is a compelling story that tells itself, through the words of those involved. Very little presentation / background material is necessary. Marce has chosen a different approach, weaving his interpretations and opinions into the narrative at every opportunity. To be sure, he has every right to do so. But making this choice carries with it the additional responsibility of presenting the issues in their proper context, with objectivity and balance, and avoiding egregious characterizations that hinder readers forming their own opinion of the issues being debated. Part I (see http://links.org.au/struggle-cuban-press-intensifies-marce-cameron) failed to meet this standard and contained a number of serious political errors. I pointed these out to Marce in a private email soon after the article appeared.

Part II here avoids many of these pitfalls and fills out the next stage of the narrative in a relatively straightforward way. Readers will get an even better understanding of these matters when Marce publishes translations of the blog posts by Aixa Hevia and José Ramírez Pantoja, as I believe he intends to do.

Pantoja has paid a very heavy price for posting Karina Marrón’s comments on his personal blog – he has lost his job and been expelled from his union (UPEC – which also functions as the professional association of journalists). He has little or no prospect for finding work in his field. In today’s Cuba these are extreme economic and professional penalties. In mid-September the National Ethics Commission of UPEC rejected his appeal and ratified his exclusion from the organisation for the next five years.

It is plain enough that Marce sympathizes with Pantoja and considers him to have been unjustly victimized for his attempt to promote discussion of the issues facing the Cuban press. Marce clearly agrees, too, that Pantoja’s fate has acquired a special significance in the context of the struggle over the press and related issues.

Yet, astonishingly, in this article Marce suggests that Pantoja is a liar. In the first paragraph Marce “casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja’s innocence in this regard”. He states that Pantoja “must have known he was risking his livelihood and his professional reputation.” He declares that “almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly.” Marce presents his suppositions – for that is what they are –without any supporting facts. Each of them directly contradicts Pantoja’s explanation of his actions and his motivations. They undermine critical elements of his defense. Moreover, at the time he wrote those lines Marce knew that unofficial sources were reporting that Pantoja’s appeal had been rejected. I sent those reports to Marce. Surely under those circumstances even greater caution and objectivity was required. (There is no longer any doubt about the UPEC decision, as Pantoja posted the text of the ruling on his blog a few days ago, see http://verdadecuba.blogspot.ca/2016/10/cronologia-del-caso-pantoja-jrp.h....)

Pantoja’s explanation for his actions is straightforward and consistent. Having read everything that I have been able to find on the issue, for and against him, I find it completely convincing. Pantoja’s accusers have attacked him fiercely but have failed to undermine his account. Yet Marce for some reason does not even grant him the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, given the sharp polarization that has developed over the related issues of Pantoja’s fate and radical reform of the media in Cuba, it is highly irresponsible to state that Pantoja “has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict” over the press. Clearly, powerful conservative forces in Cuba are using Pantoja as a scapegoat in order to intimidate other reform-minded journalists. There is no evidence that Pantoja set out to sharpen this conflict and much evidence to the contrary. A statement like this further damages José Ramírez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice.

Reply to Jordan Wilson

Thanks Jordan. Your appreciative comments and sharp criticisms are most welcome.
You frame your specific criticisms by saying that the Pantoja story tells itself through the words of those involved, so “very little presentation/background material” is needed. That’s true in your case, because you’re well informed: you’re familiar with the Cuban context, you read Spanish and you’ve been following this story very closely. That sets you apart from most readers of my blog. For the benefit of less well-informed readers, I preface my translations with introductory comments that contextualise the translated material. That context is both factual (e.g. biographical details) and political (e.g. identifying which current of socialist thought somebody belongs to). The political context is inevitably viewed from a particular standpoint: my own, because it’s my blog.

You worry that in expressing opinions of my own that you happen to disagree with (“egregious characterisations”, as you put it) I might “hinder readers from forming their own opinions”. I don’t share your concern at all. I assume, first of all, that at least some readers of my blog are interested in my opinion, because it’s my blog; and that if not, they can choose to ignore my ‘editorialising’ (as long as the distinction between translations and reportage, on the one hand, and editorialising on the other is clear enough). Secondly, I make the unpatronising assumption that all readers have the ability to form their own opinions; that I can’t possibly ‘hinder readers from forming their own opinions’ by expressing mine, because opinion-formation is spontaneous and irrepressible among thoughtful people. I assume that other readers, not just you, can read my posts with a critical eye.

Cuba’s Socialist Renewal is not limited to original translations preceded by introductory comments. From time to time I also post my own analyses, a format which gives more scope for contextualisation and synthesis. It’s also a format that happens to allow my opinions to come to the fore. In the case of ‘the Pantoja affair’, I decided to preface the translations with a series of my own commentaries. Why? Because I don’t think the translated material ‘speaks for itself’ for the typical reader of my blog. That material needs to be contextualised, synthesised and summarised, not only to introduce that material, but for the benefit of readers who don’t have the time to wade through extensive translations.

You concede that I have every right to express my own opinions, but you add that this imposes “an additional responsibility of presenting the issues in their proper context, with objectivity and balance”. As explained above, the purpose of my introductory comments, and of my editorialising, is precisely to ‘present the issues in their proper context’ as I see it. You may view that context differently. So be it. Of course, I do strive for objectivity and balance. You feel that Part 1 of my serialised commentary on the Pantoja affair “failed to meet this standard and contained a number of serious political errors”, which you pointed out to me “in a private email”. At the time, I invited you to express these specific concerns on my blog (and suggested that you do the same on Links). That invitation still stands. If you don’t wish to share these concerns publicly, that’s OK with me. But it’s not constructive, nor fair, to make a cryptic reference to a private email exchange. That’s not a responsible way to conduct a debate among comrades. I think you should either withdraw the claim (a bit late now) or justify it to readers of Links and Cuba’s Socialist Renewal. What are these errors and how can they be rectified?

Publicly, you make two specific criticisms here of my coverage of the Pantoja affair.
You dismiss my suggestion that Pantoja was almost certainly aware that publishing Karina Marron’s intervention unabridged, in the way that he did it, would risk his job and professional reputation. You claim that I offered no facts to support this supposition of mine. Actually, I did. Here’s what I wrote: “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” [emphasis added]. You cite only the second half of that sentence: “Marce ‘casts doubt on the sincerity of Pantoja’s innocence in this regard’”. The distinction deserves to be hammered home: it’s not ‘Marce’ that casts doubt on Pantoja’s innocence in this regard; it’s the fact that he broke ranks with his journalistic colleagues.

How does Pantoja explain that singular fact? In his interview with Ravsberg, he said he assumed that all of Marron’s comments at the plenum were ‘publishable’ because some of them (some relatively innocuous remarks, I pointed out) had been published on the UPEC website, and the event had been covered (again, selectively) in a Cuban TV news broadcast. So he just went ahead and uploaded his transcript to his blog, never suspecting that he might be fired from his job and suspended from UPEC. I don’t buy that explanation. It just doesn’t make sense. To see why, let’s draw on some other facts I included in either Part 1 or Part 2. The facts are there: it’s a question of interpretation.

1. The content of Marron’s intervention. That intervention, unabridged, was dynamite for the reasons explained in Part 1. It was, as I said, the kind of intervention that would arouse Cuban journalists’ well-honed instincts of self-censorship and thus self-preservation. “Wow. This had better not leave this room”, would probably have crossed the minds of all those journalists present, in a gathering of journalists, who wanted to keep their jobs and reputations. Pantoja among them.

2. The fact that not one Cuban media publication, nor any other publication of any kind, published Marron’s more incendiary comments, in part or in full, until Pantoja uploaded his transcript. They did not appear in Granma, the most authoritative litmus test of ‘publishability’ in Cuba. Nor did they appear on the pro-government Cubadebate website, which houses a broader spectrum of critical, pro-Revolution opinion. Nor on the personal blog of any of Pantoja’s journalistic colleagues.
Given this, it would be safe to assume that Marron’s more incendiary comments were ‘unfit for publication’. Yet bizarrely, inexplicably, Pantoja, a decorated and experienced journalist steeped in both the codified and unwritten journalistic rules of engagement in Cuba, drew—he said—the very opposite conclusion: namely, that because some of her (note: relatively innocuous) comments had been published on the UPEC website, her entire intervention was therefore ‘publishable’.

3. The fact that Pantoja didn’t seek his boss’s permission to publish the transcript on his personal blog. Pantoja told Ravsberg that as far as he knows, there are no official guidelines for journalists publishing journalistic content on their personal blogs. Given that there aren’t, which gives the censors a free hand to act arbitrarily, wouldn’t it have been prudent for Pantoja to have asked his boss for permission to publish the transcript? Had he done so and had permission been granted, Pantoja would no longer be solely responsible for any adverse consequences of publication. His boss would have shouldered some, perhaps all, of that responsibility. All Pantoja had to do was pick up the phone or walk down the corridor. But he didn’t. He must have had some compelling reason for not doing so.
That compelling reason may have been that Pantoja knew that permission would almost certainly be denied. Why would his superior, who had more to lose than Pantoja, run such a risk? If Pantoja asked for permission, and it was denied, yet he went ahead with publication despite an explicit directive not to do so from his boss, that act of insubordination would only serve to strengthen a likely case against him. Better to not ask for permission on the reasonable assumption that it would be refused.

4. The lesser, yet still significant, fact that Pantoja had doubts about publishing the transcript. Arnaldo Mirabal Hernandez noted in his interview of Pantoja that while Pantoja “had moments of doubt about the appropriateness of publishing the words of the deputy editor of Granma, he decided to click the mouse” (as I related with poetic license in Part 1). That admission of doubt, albeit passing doubt, sits uneasily with Pantoja’s telling Ravsberg he assumed Marron’s entire intervention was ‘publishable’. If he had doubts about the appropriateness, and thus the consequences, of publication; and if keeping his job and his reputation among certain colleagues was his overriding concern, then surely he would have sought permission from his boss (or from Marron herself) in order to clear up those doubts.

Evidently, then, his job and his reputation were not his overriding concerns. He succumbed to his desire to make public the whole of Marron’s intervention. As I put it in Part 2: “Almost certainly, Pantoja ran those risks knowingly, subordinating his personal interests to what he considered to be a higher purpose.” If true—and the evidence suggests it is—then we need to view the Pantoja case in that light. What was the basis of that strong desire to publish Marron’s intervention, a desire strong enough to overcome his momentary doubts and any concerns about his fate as a journalist in Cuba?

That’s no secret: he explained his motivation to Ravsberg: “[F]or 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.”

This bring me to your other specific criticism, namely that: “[G]iven the sharp polarization that has developed over the related issues of Pantoja’s fate and radical reform of the media in Cuba, it is highly irresponsible to state that Pantoja “has succeeded not in creating, but in sharpening a conflict” over the press. Clearly, powerful conservative forces in Cuba are using Pantoja as a scapegoat in order to intimidate other reform-minded journalists. There is no evidence that Pantoja set out to sharpen this conflict and much evidence to the contrary. A statement like this further damages José Ramírez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice.”

It is never irresponsible to state a fact, and the fact is that Pantoja himself, in the citation above, says that one of his aims in publishing the transcript was to spark “a debate on the content of [Marron’s] intervention itself”—i.e. a debate on, among other things, the crisis of Cuba’s state-supported media. To “stir up the controversy and the exchange of viewpoints that is always so necessary”. In other words, to sharpen the conflict over the role and character of the press in Cuba by mobilising public opinion on the side of the pro-socialist reformers. That was Pantoja’s stated aim. You worry that “a statement like this further damages Jose Ramirez Pantoja’s chances of winning justice”. What’s important is establishing the truth of the matter. Because only the truth is revolutionary.

Your wrote: “Marce presents his suppositions—for that is what they are—without any supporting facts.” I think I’ve answered that criticism by restating and expanding on the factual basis of that judgement. I’ll now deal briefly with your other objections. 1) “Each of them directly contradicts Pantoja’s explanation of his actions and his motivations.” I’m guided by the evidence. 2) “They undermine critical elements of his defense”. That has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of the matter. 3) “Marce knew that unofficial sources were reporting that Pantoja’s appeal had been rejected”. I made a conscious effort to not allow those unconfirmed reports to influence my analysis.

In conclusion, it seems to me that you have allowed your sympathy for Pantoja, a sympathy I happen to share, to cloud your judgement. You take everything he says at face value rather than letting the evidence guide you. You admonish me for daring to point out that Pantoja, by his own admission, aimed to sharpen the public debate, and thus the conflict, over the role and character of the press in Cuba. That’s called shooting the messenger. That’s ironic, because Pantoja’s critics are also shooting the messenger—him—rather than directing their criticism and condemnation at the source of those ‘dangerous ideas’: the deputy editor of Granma.

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