'We have as much freedom as you'd expect in a country at war'

Dr. Steve Wilkinson, editor of Cuba Si for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, interviews Simon Wollers about working as a journalist in Cuba. Question Simon about this or anything else at the LFB meeting on 12 November.

Cambridge-born Simon Wollers is 46 years old, and works as a radio journalist and broadcaster for the English-language service of Radio Havana, Cuba. He is coming to the UK
Simon Wollers at a rally in Cuba

Simon Wollers at a rally in Cuba

in the autumn to take part in the Trades Union for Cuba conference at Congress House in London on October 27th.

The London Freelance branch of the National Union of Journalists has generously paid for his flight and Simon will bespeaking at a meeting of the Union on November 12. He will also be making a short tour of the country speaking to Cuba Solidarity local groups. As a foretaste of the frank and open way in which Simon speaks on the issues relating to Cuba and press freedom, this interview was conducted for Cuba Sivia email with Simon.

What sort of hours/conditions do you work?

8 hours with half an hour for lunch in the canteen, every other Saturday half day's work and some shift work (our hours in the English Dept.are 09:00-21:00). Work conditions in respect to rights are excellent - the best one could possibly hope for. In respect to material needs (such as computers etc.) not good at all.

Naturally, we would expect that you are unionised. What are industrial relations like at Radio Havana Cuba?

Yes, we are unionised. RHC has its own workers union attached to Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (ICRT). Relations with management are generally good but the union will stand up for an employee it feels has been unfairly treated or dismissed. We're not talking about strikes, which given the state of the economy would be ridiculous - especially as our rights are so well protected - but our union WILL go to bat for us by directly negotiating with management. The union will usually prevail. Management is, of course, in the union too which is something strange to those of us from Europe and the US because of our labour history. The General Secretary of the union takes part in general management meetings and has a voice although not a vote. It is very rare that a worker will be dismissed here because so much is done to try to resolve issues.

Who exactly 'owns' the station. is it the Party or the Government? Is there a committee that oversees it? Who appoints the editor? Who appoints the staff?

The Government NOT the Party. It is overseen by ICRT which appoints the directors. ICRT operates like a ministry. The General Manager of the station can, however, make suggestions for appointing other directors such as the Assistant Manager, General Editor, Foreign Languages Editor etc.

How are editorial decisions made. Are there guidelines set by the government? How much control do you have over content?

General editorial policy decisions are made by the general staff upon the recommendation of an editorial council which comprises the General Director, General Editor, Foreign Languages Editor and senior journalists. Political editorials are written by the Editorial Dept but sometimes there will be a directive from ICRT on this when a special issue or event warrants a government response. In the English Dept we have full control over the content of our broadcasts. There is no screening or censorship, the assumption being that in that we work for RHC we must support the social program of the government. We are, after all, like any station, accountable to our owner - which in our case happens to be the Cuban government. This does not make us a simple mirror, however. We broadcast religious, sports, cultural, and social programming as we see fit.

What is you opinion of the way that Cuba is treated by our media in Britain? What is your opinion of the BBC World Service. Is your opinion different from that of the general attitude towards the BBC among Cubans in general?

British media generally tows the US line when it comes to Cuba. Words like "regime" (Communist, Castro), "human rights" (violations), "terrorist" (state) etc. frequently sprinkle the average report on the island. The BBC correspondants on the island are generally quite good and, because they live here and see the reality, relatively balanced. The BBC World Service is well respected here although I have personal experience of sending in one of our programs and having it prefaced by BBC editorializing as "a good old fashioned bit of whipping up communist fervour" (or similar wording).

We all know that there is no 'Freedom of the Press' in Cuba as we generally understand the term in the UK. Why is this?

We have a different perspective of "freedom of the press" in Cuba due to circumstances beyond our control. In the West this means the freedom to attack the government and get away with it. Cuban journalists - including myself - all work for the state. Therefore, we all support the Revolution in different ways and different levels. We are human and are conscious of the contradictions and the mistakes that are made. But to attack the Cuban government from the inside makes no sense when you consider what it provides to the people - housing, health care, education, food subsidies etc. One also must realise that Cuba is under constant attack from the most powerful nation on earth from which they have media outlets constantly bombarding the island with ridiculous propaganda. Cuba is therefore not living a normal existence as any other nation and cannot be expected to act as if it is functioning under normal circumstances. There is no room for an unrestricted public forum for debate within Cuba under such circumstances. The same would apply to any country under the same type of war footing we are forced to live.

Is the government ever criticised in the media in Cuba?

Government ministries and agencies are criticised for their mistakes. But the government per se is not attacked and no individuals are attacked. We respect an individual's right of privacy and do not seek sensational news. And why attack a government when it is constantly struggling to provide what it can to the people in spite of the constant attacks from abroad? When it has provided so much for so long to the people of Cuba? To call for its downfall would be immoral.

How has the embargo of Cuba affected journalism and journalists in Cuba?

Quite dramatically. As to reporting, I've addressed some of the restrictions above. As to practicalities, we can't just jump in a car and go to an event as foreign journalists can. We have to be able to find a car in our pool that is actually working, ascertain if there is petrol in the tank and take things from there. We have few computers on which to work, only a couple with access to the Internet (to which we are NOT restricted, by the way), limited amounts of paper, ink cartridges for printers etc. Sometimes we are forced to go back to using manual typewriters. Research is especially hard given the computer and Internet limitations.

What are the opinions about the prospects of relations under George Bush Jr?

You can probably guess my response. Upon taking office, the US president wasted no time in applying the screws to Cuba. He's tightened the blockade, has as the person in charge of the Treasury Dept which grants or rejects travel licences to Cuba, someone who believes in taxing individuals and not corporations and wants to see social security abolished as "responsible adults should be able to save enough money to pay for medical care", and in his pay-back to the Miami right has appointed Cuban Americans from Florida who are rabidly anti-Fidel Castro. His message for future relations is very clear.

What do you think journalists in Britain could do to help the situation?

Seek to read between the lines of any report on Cuba. The recent report on Chinese arms sales to Cuba was a total fabrication recanted by the US State Dept spokesperson after questions were asked by sensible reporters. The ONE article received international attention, was repeated as truth in the mainstream media that never bothers to research any report about Cuba if it is negative, and fiction became fact with ease. Understand what Cuba is up against, how, until recently, it was surrounded by enemies. The ONLY nation in the entire hemisphere to retain diplomatic relations with Cuba during the first decades of the Revolution was Mexico - no other OAS nation. Don't put Cuba on a higher standard than any other nation just because it has a different social program. Don't seek to be balanced to such a degree that you feel that any praise given to Cuba - however small it is - should be immediately counter-balanced with some criticism so you won't be viewed as a leftie nutter. Remember the decades of negative and false reporting on Cuba that have permeated our thoughts and reactions. ("Cuba? Oh, the communist island run by that dictator who doesn't respect human rights"). Ask why, if Cuba is so repressive, is there no guerilla force operating in the mountains, why there is no anti-government or Down with Fidel graffitti...Cubans are like any other people on earth - 90% of them will blame the government for anything bad that happens to them. Human nature. But the same 90% also know (grudgingly admitting or otherwise) that they are much better off than the rest of the Third World and much of the First World.

Last modified: 11 October 2001 - © 2001 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org