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.

4 comments:

  1. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
    The forth is pretty straightforward as well but in the US today, the police and courts consider it an inconvenience of no consequence. The Supreme Court long ago declared that for the public good, the forth's language needs to be bent. The first is no safer.

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  2. I get your point, but I hope you're wrong about the First Amendment.

    Thank you for your comment.

    al

    ReplyDelete