Saturday, April 8, 2017

Memories of press censorship

"The first thing dictators do is put an end to the freedom of the press, they establish censorship, there's no doubt that freedom of the press is the first enemy of a dictatorship." *

The author of this admonition was none other than Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, shortly after taking power in Cuba in 1959. And as a man true to his word, by the time his regime had plunged into dictatorship less than two years later, he had abolished freedom of the press and seized all privately owned organs of mass communication.
Or as Louis XIV said, "L'état, C'est Moi"

I was only twelve years old or so but remember the events in fairly vivid detail, perhaps because there was already a flicker in my brain signaling an interest in journalism and writing.

By 1961, newspaper articles with the slightest whiff of controversy, or which carried anything the regime viewed as false or subversive information—today's  "fake news"—began carrying what were called "coletillas", or "footnotes."

Written by government sympathizers employed at the newspapers, usually typesetters, they supposedly presented an accurate version of events. Initially it was a challenging, even amusing game to decode what exactly had happened and why the government was trying to suppress it, not unlike deciphering Soviet communiques.

A typical coletilla, at the end of an editorial in the venerable Diario de la Marina in 1960informed readers that "the contents do not conform to the truth, nor the most elemental journalistic ethics."

But by the beginning of 1961 all independent newspapers had gone out of business along with other independent media and censorship had become a deadly serious matter.

In case any journalists missed the point, the Maximum Leader told a gathering of reporters that "Newspapermen have a great task ahead... [they] must coordinate the news among all papers and orient public opinion jointly... always remember that the revolution comes before the newspaper."

I don't pretend to have been a child prodigy but I sensed the oppression growing all around me: the Catholic school I attended was shut down, all the newspapers and magazines my dad used to bring home for me to read either disappeared or turned into stilted gibberish.

"Hoy": "A Daily at the service of the People."
The deliciously air-conditioned library of the U.S. Information Agency, where I used to page through Life and National Geographic, looking at the pictures but not understanding a word, one day also shut down and its contents hauled away.

In my hometown of Santa Clara, a two-horse provincial capital deep inside Cuba, our lives felt as if someone was turning off the lights one by one, leaving us in the dark.

I left Cuba on February 9, 1962, a date I remember as if it were my second birthday.

About twenty years later, when I'd become a journalist, I visited Nicaragua, where the Sandinista Revolution was roaring full-throttle. I visited the offices of the newspaper Prensa Libre and witnessed its daily production cycle—and Cuban-style press censorship all over again.

Before going to press, someone had to carry all the galleys of the next day's newspaper to a government censor. He would scrutinize the entire issue and with a black marker cross out any "fake news" or otherwise objectionable copy.

The day I was there the censor exed out a photo of a black Mercedes—clearly belonging to a government muckety-muck—that had crashed with a lesser vehicle. It carried the caption "Deluxe accident on Avenida [something or other]". The censor didn't appreciate the humor.

One of the editors told me that sometimes so much material was censored the paper could not publish.

It's darkly ironic that countries with the most long-winded constitutional protections of freedom of the press and expression are also the most egregious violators of those rights.

Try this, as a sample of meaningless gasbaggery, from Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution: "Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of a socialist society." Who decides what are the objectives of a socialist society?

Or this, from Venezuela's 2010 Law on Social Responsibility in Radio, Television and Electronic Media, amended in 2010. It bans content that could "incite or promote hatred"; "foment citizens' anxiety or alter public order"; or "disrespect authorities."

Birds of a feather: Venezuela's Maduro visits with Cuba's Castro. 
Saturday Night Live or any of the late-night shows today on American TV would be out of business, particularly regarding the "disrespect" clause. Alec Baldwin would be in jail.

On the other hand it's hard to beat the majestic simplicity of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press..."

The economy of the wording—no subordinate clauses or qualifiers here—is precisely what makes the First Amendment one of the most powerful and memorable pieces of political writing in the world.

Indeed, Americans of any political persuasion should memorize it, cherish it and be duly alarmed whenever an elected official proclaims that the "media is the enemy of the people" or "the opposition party," or suggests that only he or she knows what's good for the people.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

It's time to dust off the Bible

And, behold, on the week before Palm Sunday, a small miracle took place: Stew and Al found themselves reading and highlighting passages from Scripture.

I hadn't opened my college Bible in so long that its pages are starting to look as yellowed and fragile as folios from the Dead Sea Scrolls. And alas, Stew's Bibles are heirlooms inherited from his father and written in Old Norwegian, full of curlicues, and as accessible as Klingon. We ended up reading the Bible on our Kindles, which was a great deal handier though not as atmospheric as having the big book in front of us.

This week's surprising turn of events was prompted by the minister of our church, who is leading discussion groups preceding Holy Week. He suggested certain readings from the New Testament touching on Jesus Christ's Passion and Crucifixion.

Reading the Bible was interesting but
we didn't get any special effects from Above. 
Our church may be the only one in town that offers two levels of religious fervor, which you can call regular and decaf. The regular service at 11:30 follows a more traditional, Episcopalian-ish format that includes communion, confession and a gospel reading, followed by a sermon. Almost the whole shebang.

Stew and I prefer the 9:30 decaf service which is more like an informal discussion, some times led by one of the participants, others by the visiting minister. The church is lucky to count with a team of excellent visiting ministers who intervene occasionally to keep the decaf service from turning into a meandering kaffeeklatsch. 

During my years in Catholic grammar and high school, and Catholic college, I received a healthy dollop—more like a shovelful—of Scripture. Indeed the margins of my Bible contain many now-incomprehensible annotations. None of those drills prevented me from falling off the Catholic wagon eons ago, largely over the Church's oppressive stance toward gay people. .

Stew's grasp of the Jesus story remains practically nil despite my occasional evangelizing efforts during our nearly forty-five years together. Sometimes I suspect his irreligiosity might be genetic.

After all the years—decades—of my Bible sitting on the shelf, I was surprised to find it, at least the New Testament, still compelling reading, filled with powerful images and stories and even high drama.

Behind the stories there are also life lessons—insights—that one can benefit from even without buying into the stories of Jesus' divinity or his distracting habit of performing miracles every other week.

One can find parables and other stories about loyalty, honesty, generosity, faith, self-doubt, love, hope and generally all those emotions and quandaries confronted by people trying to lead decent lives. Not saintly but just decent, and not two thousand years ago but today.

As for miracles, including Jesus' resurrection, I still regard them as one of the most imaginative—and effective—marketing campaigns ever devised, that convinced skeptical masses that Jesus was indeed far more than just another charlatan or rabble-rouser. It works even today.