First, we need to understand that freedom of the press does not exist in capitalist societies. The “free press” is owned directly and indirectly by major global corporations, and as a result, news reporting is distorted to promote the interests of the owners.
Julio César Martínez (1945-2011) was a Uruguayan journalist with more than thirty years of experience in the profession, traveling for years to various countries. He described the process of “filtering” a news story as it goes from its source to the reading public. As it passes through the filters, the account undergoes a metamorphosis, such that when it is emitted, it has little or nothing in common with what really occurred. “The information is chewed, digested, and deprived of all elements that the broadcaster considers inappropriate and reinforced with all the elements that the broadcaster considers should be added for its own interests, or those of its political, advertising, economic, or religious sponsors” (2014:25-26).
The peons in the process, Martínez maintains, are the professional journalists, who have to accept the censorship of the editors, if they desire to maintain their work in the profession. Many cut and makeover their notes with a motive of survival. Some do so with pleasure, saying that they know what the bosses want, even though they also know that what they have submitted is opposed to what really has happened or is contrary to what they themselves think about the matter. On the other hand, there are journalists who refuse to cut and groom their information. But most of these “true social communicators” end up unemployed, marginalized by the mainstream companies, and even slandered. Accordingly, Martínez concludes that “‘freedom of the press’ is only a myth, a utopia, a wonderful phrase, but something non-existent in reality” (2014:26).
Martínez describes an example of a distorted news story, by the U.S. news agency REUTERS, concerning a speech on October 26, 2005, by Mahmud Ahmadineyad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As reported by the Iranian news agency IRNA, Ahmadineyad stated: “Let us erase from the regional map the exclusive Jewish state, replacing it with a single state for all citizens, Jewish or not. The right to govern pertains to the whole people of Palestine, be they Muslim, Christians, or Jews.” The REUTERS report on the speech, issued on the same date, is as follows:
The official press agency IRNA reported that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadineyad declared on Wednesday that Israel ought to be erased from the map, thus frustrating hopes that Iran would moderate its hostility with respect to the Jewish state. Support of the Palestinian cause is a central pillar of the Islamic Republic, which officially does not recognize the right of Israel to exist. “Israel ought to be erased from the map,” declared Ahmadineyad during a conference entitled, “A world without Zionism,” in which 3,000 conservative students participated, shouting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” (Martínez 2014:28).
Subsequently, editorialists entered the game, lamenting the fact that Iran was under the control of a group of crazy fanatics. International public opinion was appropriately shocked at the belligerency of Iran. Israeli political actors soon took part, with calls before the UN Security Council for an increase in sanctions against Iran and for the expulsion of Iran from the United Nations, basing their declarations in the REUTERS account and not in the original report by the Iranian news agency (Martínez 2014:29).
Efforts by the government of Iran to explain, including sending to the UN a video of the speech, had no effect. Martínez maintains that, in general, when disinformation maneuvers are underway, subsequent efforts by aggrieved parties to deny the false allegations are not published or are published in a marginalized place with little visibility (Martínez 2014:30).
The REUTERS distortion of the Ahmadineyad speech was not the result of sloppy journalism. The distortion was intended, and Mártinez notes that the writers of the story were skilled in the art of distorting news, which was reflected in their mentioning of the Iranian news agency, thus giving greater credibility to their distortion. They were journalists with experience in defense of a cause, which was, in this case, the cause of the demonization of Ahmadineyad and Iran (Martínez 2014:28-29).
Similar distortions have been underway with respect to Venezuela. In Bad News From Venezuela, Alan MacLeod analyzes news stories about Venezuela published in the USA and the UK from 1998-2014. He notes that the news media recruit local journalists tied to the Venezuelan opposition, and they present news accounts produced by anti-government activists as objective reporting. Accordingly, the articles were overwhelmingly opposed to the governments of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. In addition, he recounted three specific distortions. (1) The articles ignored or dismissed claims that the United States was involved in supporting opposition groups in Venezuela, in spite of clear evidence that it was involved. (2) The articles outlandishly claimed that the Venezuelan government controls the media in the country, when in fact there are constant attacks of the government and distortions of its programs and policies disseminated by the Venezuelan private media. (3) The news stories made estimates of the number of people emigrating from Venezuela that are five times UN estimates, without offering any explanation of their exaggerated figures (Emerberger 2018).
MacLeod’s observations dovetail with what I have observed here in Cuba, where I am not able to overlook a stunning contrast between the descriptions of Venezuela by Cuban journalists and those of The New York Times. Of course, Cuban news outlets are owned by the state and the Party, so they could not possibly be considered objective sources, right?
In addition to distortions about Iran and Venezuela, there also are media distortions about Cuba, which have been disseminated for so long that they are now part of the general (mis)understanding of the peoples of the world. Central to the ideological maneuver is the observation, “there is only one political party in Cuba.” This is a true statement, for indeed, the Cuban Constitution names the Communist Party of Cuba as the leader and guide of the Revolution. The catch is that the Party in Cuba does not have the same functions as political parties in representative democracies. Therefore, for anyone who has representative democracy as a frame of references and a source of definitions, the statement is misleading, because in Cuba there do not exist any political parties, as they function and are defined in representative democracy. In Cuba, the party leads, educates, and exhorts, but it does not participate in elections. In Cuba, the Party does not nominate candidates or support or endorse candidates; whereas in representative democracies, the nomination of candidates and support for them is the most important and essential function of political parties.
So simply saying that there is only one political party in Cuba, without an explanation of the function of the one party, constitutes a strategy for misinforming, even though it is technically true. At the same time, many important details are not mentioned at all, thus providing a portrait that is fundamentally erroneous. Such important ignored details include: elections of delegates in local voting districts, with two or more candidates nominated by the people in neighborhood nomination assemblies; the election of deputies to the national assembly by the municipal delegates, with the active participation of mass organizations; the authority of the legislative branch over the executive; among others. Taken together, these details form the elements of an accurate portrait of a democratic political process, characterized by high levels of political participation (See “Human rights and Cuba’s reasons” 10/10/2018).
So we see that there are media driven distortions with respect to Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. What are the reasons for such media distortions with respect to these countries, as well as similar distortions with respect to China, Russia, Nicaragua, and Bolivia? Central to addressing this question is that fact that all of these countries have forged projects that challenge the U.S. and European dominated neocolonial world-system, and accordingly, they are a threat to transnational corporations, among which are found owners of the media. This gives rise to a dynamic in which the news reporting agencies filter information, leading to a delegitimizing portrait of these nations, in which they are presented as threats. In reality, they are threats not to a just and sustainable world-system, but to the corporate-dominated world-system, and as a result, the corporations have a vested interest in demonizing and delegitimizing them. As Joe Emerberger (2018), drawing upon the work of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, observes, there are “‘filters’ that distort news coverage in ways that serve the rich and powerful.” He maintains that “it matters who pays the bills,” and that “corporate-owned, ad-dependent media will tend to serve the agenda of wealthy owners and corporate customers who provide the bulk of the ad dollars.”
It would be possible for corporate owners of the media to take an enlightened approach to the news reporting. It would be possible for them to believe that distorting the news to promote their own particular interests would undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the media in the long run, which could lead to political instability and to the delegitimation of political and social institutions. Apparently, however, the corporate elite considers the threat to its long-range interests by the maverick nations to be so great that it is prepared to sacrifice the credibility of major news agencies, in spite of the importance of such credibility in maintaining political and social stability.
The irresponsible and unenlightened approach of the corporate elite with respect to its ownership of the news media is becoming increasingly evident. Therefore, it is time for us who form the peoples of the world to recognize that private ownership of the media undermines the essential and necessary social functions of the media, including the need for accurate and credible news reporting, and we have to search for alternatives to private ownership of the media.
The people of the United States has partially understood this need for alternatives to private ownership of the media, as is indicated by support for public television and public radio among the more progressive sectors of the people. But such sentiments need to be more fully and clearly articulated. In the first place, by fully documenting the fact that news reporting today is distorted in order to promote corporate interests. And secondly, by formulating a vision of news reporting that is based in objective reality and in the quest by committed professional journalists not only for truth in a narrow technical sense but for a comprehensive understanding.
In imagining such possibilities, perhaps the Cuban approach to the mass media is instructive. In Cuba, the basic principle is state ownership of the principal media of communication. But let us unpack what this means, free of distorting images that we have been taught. In Cuba, television and radio stations are under the jurisdiction of the national and provincial assemblies, which are elected directly and indirectly by the people, as noted above. The assemblies do not directly manage the stations, but they are the ultimate authority. The assemblies name the ministers, who name the directors of the companies, who are all professionals in their fields. But everyone understands that the television and radio stations must ultimately answer to the popular assemblies and to the people. Accordingly, the directors and the media professionals are strongly influenced by their perceptions of the orientation of the popular assemblies.
For the most part, the newspapers and magazines funded and supervised in a similar way by the mass organizations and the Party. The major daily newspaper, Granma, is an organ of the Central Committee of the Party, and it is one of the principle ways that the Party carries out its educational mission.
Thus, Cuba has established an alternative to the structures of private ownership of the media. It has established a system in which the principal media are public, with the result that it is shaped by the prevailing sentiments of the needs of the nation and the people. I think that a general principle can be formulated on the basis of the Cuban practice, to wit: when there is state ownership of the media, to the extent that the state is democratic, the media will be less likely to be guided by private interests and more likely to be directed by prevailing sentiments of the common good.
In explaining the Cuban approach to the media, Fidel once observed that in the Western democracies there is confusion of the issue of freedom of the press with the rights of property. The transnational corporations are not merely claiming the right of the press to express itself without government interference. They also are claiming a right to ownership of the media, which is not so much a question of freedom of expression but of the rights of property and its limits. The Cuban Revolution maintains that the right of property does not extend to the media of communication, because communication, knowledge, and information are public goods, and they should not be in private hands. They should be placed in the hands of the popular assemblies, elected directly and indirectly by the people; or mass organizations, constituted by the various sectors of the people; or an organization like the Party, which is dedicated to the education of the people for the good of the nation. In Cuba, the structures of authority with respect to the media, combined with the flight of the Cuban national bourgeoisie in the early 1960s, have prevented the media from developing in a form that serves particular interests, as occurs in capitalist societies.
Not that establishing public and social ownership resolves all issues. As in any well-integrated society, there is in Cuba broad consensual agreement with respect to a number of issues, including the view that the press ought to play an educational role and it ought to contribute positively to the continuing development of a socialist society. However, there are debates over many issues. To what extent should the press report daily problems, and to what extent should it be critical of particular governmental policies and initiatives? To what extent can new strategies be developed to aid in communication? Nevertheless, there is in Cuba a broad societal consensus that the people have a right to a press that does not serve particular interests; and that the members of the press have a duty to serve the nation and the common good. Moreover, there is broad consensus that the press in Cuba does not distort news in service of corporate interests and powerful nations, as occurs in the major media of information of the world.
As can be seen, the accusation that the Cuban government does not respect freedom of the press misses an important point. Namely, that Cuba has developed public media that does not distort news, that presents national and international news in a responsible manner, that is oriented to the education rather than the manipulation of the people, and that responds to the popular assemblies elected directly and indirectly by the people and to the mass organizations formed by the people. In a world in which the major media of communication distort news to accommodate to corporate interests and function to convert citizens into consumers, the dignified example of Cuba with respect to the media ought to be studied.
The issue of “freedom of the press” frames discussion in a form that implicitly limits the debate to the issue of government censorship of a press that ought to be at liberty to criticize the government. To be sure, government censorship of the press always can emerge as a problem in a particular context. In socialist Cuba, if such a problem were to emerge, it would be the responsibility of the deputies and delegates of the popular assemblies to criticize any unwarranted and unjustified restraint on the press, and to take appropriate action. However, in today’s world, government censorship is not the most basic problem with respect to the press. Rather, the fundamental problem is corporate control and filtering of the news in service of its particular interests, denying to the people its right to a press that is guided by the quest for truth, by scientific knowledge, and by the long-range interests of the people, the nation, and humanity.
By restricting private ownership of the means of communication, Cuba has avoided the distortions of news content as well as distortion in the formation of professionals that occur when the media is in private hands. Its intentions has not been to restrict freedom of the press. Rather, it has proceeded on the basis of the principle that the right to own property is not without limit, and it is not extended to include ownership of the principle means of communication, which belong to the people as a whole.
The case of Cuba illustrates that the press can most freely operate when it has a political environment in which power is in the hands of the people, so that the press can form itself in accordance with the needs, will, and interests of the people, and not in accordance with the interests of the corporations.
Emerberger, Joe. 2018. “Why Venezuela Reporting Is So Bad.” (www.fair.org; June 27)
Martínez, Julio César. 2014. Irán, el país que Estados Unidos quiere destruir: Retrato urgente de un “condenado a muerte,” Segunda edición. Qom, República Islámica de Irán. (Fundación Cultural Oriente; www.islamoriente.com)