The CPJ, the RSF, Cuba and press freedom


posted to on July 16, 2003


Most people have probably heard of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a US based outfit that generally does good work defending journalists against repression. If you go to their website at, you will find links to a number of cases they are involved with. Most are worthy, such as the item decrying the murderous US attack on journalists during the Iraq war. Unfortunately, there is also an item defending the US agents in Cuba under the specious heading "Crackdown on the Independent Press in Cuba".


To give credit to the CPJ, they at least present the Cuban government's case on their website, which is filled with testimony about the buckets of payments made by both the USA and the Spanish based Hispanic-Cuban Foundation to the opponents of the Cuban government. Since the CPJ makes no case made against this kind of funding, one must assume that they view it as legitimate. One can only wonder what would happen to a radical newspaper in the USA that was discovered to rely on Cuban funding. They would not throw the staff in jail. They would throw the staff under the jail.


Let's try an intellectual exercise. Turn the clock back to 1941. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, which was not even part of the USA but a colonial outpost to guard economic and military interests in the Pacific. Only eight days after the attack, Roosevelt established the Office of Censorship which asserted the power to control all international communications. So why should Cuba, which has been the victim of a full-scale invasion, economic blockade, repeated assassination plots against government leaders, skyjackings winked at by the USA and probable biological warfare including Dengue Fever be held up to a higher standard than the host country of CPJ?


The corporate press was happy to join Roosevelt and exercise the kind of self-censorship that was on display during the Iraq War. With outfits like CNN, Bloomberg Inc. and Viacom/CBS serving as major donors to the CPJ, one might expect them to have a blind spot on such questions. After all, if you have the freedom to buy a newspaper like Rupert Murdoch or Mort Zuckerman does, why would one deny that freedom to the Cuban people?


Of course, the CPJ is not solely the creature of the big corporate funders who pay the rent, salaries and other expenses. There are good "lefties" on the Board of Directors like Victor Navasky of the Nation Magazine. But our friends at the Nation have also exhibited a blind spot on such matters in the past. Freda Kirchney, the editor of The Nation at that time of Pearl Harbor, claimed, "Disloyal publications should be exterminated exactly as if they were enemy machine guns in the Bataan jungle." My, oh, my!




As has become obvious, the measures taken recently by the Cuban government to defend the revolution have become a 'cause celebre' for liberals worldwide. The other day I posted a response to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a group that had taken up this cause despite the fact that its corporate funders (CNN, Bloomberg et al) are among the world's biggest enemies of freedom of the press. The CPJ's model only takes into account the kind of repression visited on reporters in third world dictatorships typically. If CNN and the Murdoch press can swamp the TV's and newsstands of that same country drowning out the local competition, it would hardly raise an eyebrow in these quarters.


You find the same exact mind-set at the Paris-based "Reporters Without Borders" (Reporters Sans Frontières--RSF), a group that seems inspired by "Doctors Without Borders", which also got started in France. You'll recall that this group was very involved in pushing war against Yugoslavia and that its director Bernard Kouchner was rewarded with the post of colonial administrator of Kosovo.


In keeping with a general softness on the world's biggest threat to democracy, RSF includes a map of the world on their home page with colors ranging from pure as the driven snow white to shocking and sinful red, with various shadings of pink in the middle. White signifies a "good" situation, while red stands for a "serious" situation. It should come as no surprise that the USA is a satisfactory gray, while Cuba is the deepest shade of red.


Venezuela is another country singled out for repression against reporters by both the CPJ and RSF. Since they have no concept how privately owned media can represent as much of a threat to the free flow of information as government censorship, they take sides against Hugo Chavez who was the target of a general strike fomented by the ruling class and the newspapers and TV stations they own. Naomi Klein took them to task in a February 18, 2003 Guardian article:


During the recent strike organised by the oil industry, the stations broadcast an average of 700 pro-strike advertisements every day. Chavez has decided to go after the TV stations in earnest, with an investigation into violations of broadcast standards and a new set of regulations. "Don't be surprised if we start shutting down television stations," he said in January.


The threat has sparked condemnations from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. And there is reason for concern: the media war in Venezuela is bloody, with attacks on both pro- and anti-Chavez media outlets. But attempts to regulate the media aren't an "attack on press freedom", as CPJ claimed - quite the opposite.


Venezuela's media, including state TV, needs controls to ensure balance. Some of Chavez's proposals overstep these bounds. But it is absurd to treat Chavez as the principal threat to a free press. That honour goes to the media owners. This has been lost on groups entrusted to defend press freedom, still stuck in a paradigm in which all journalists want to tell the truth and all threats come from nasty politicians and angry mobs.


Every so often, the naked hostility of RSF to challenges against the "free" corporate media is bared. In their 2003 Annual Report, they fulminate against UN bids to address this problem:


A new example of the spineless attitude of Western democracies towards authoritarian regimes are preparations for the UN World Summit on the Information Society. . .In fact, the idea of the information society summit quietly harks back to what was known in the 1970s and the 1980s as the New World Information Order, when a rag-bag alliance of communist regimes, African and Asian despots and Western Third-Worldist intellectuals used the presence of an African at the head of UNESCO to try to bring the flow of international news under the control of governments, officially (of course) for the benefit of the people.  They said the world's news was dominated by the corporate media of the capitalist West and aimed to rein them in, leaving ordinary people in ignorance. It reeked of the old totalitarian notion of the "supreme guide" who knows better than you what's good for you. The whole repressive concept led the United States and Britain to withdraw from UNESCO. This was enough of a jolt to kill off the idea.


Can't you see the bitter resentment against 3rd world radicalism working itself into a proper lather here? A rag-bag of communists and 3rd Worldist intellectuals under the banner of UNESCO sought to challenge the "corporate media of the capitalist West". What a totalitarian idea, that CNN and the Murdoch press are inimical to the interests of people struggling to free themselves from the domination of US imperialism and its junior partners.


It might be useful to revisit this controversy. The US and Great Britain pulled out of UNESCO for the same reason it is in Iraq today. This should have been obvious to any student of the media, especially the late Herbert Schiller whose "Culture Inc" was reviewed in the July/August 1990 Multimedia Monitor when people like George Bush were fulminating--like RSF--at the subversives in UNESCO:


Cultural industries have both followed and fueled other corporate drives to dominate world markets. Information industries circulate data and capital around the world, allowing them to change the international division of labor and to shift production sites worldwide. The cultural industries have also expanded internationally for their own direct material gain. Television networks pressure autonomous state-run broadcasting systems across Europe and the Soviet Union to include transnationally supplied broadcasting under threat of being bypassed with satellite or other technology.


The United States actively assists this transnationalization. By promoting privatization and deregulation, the United States works to diminish or destroy the international public communications sector. Schiller supplies a telling example: in 1985 the United States unilaterally withdrew from the United Nations Educational, Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The pullout followed a furious and, Schiller shows, unjust campaign waged by the U.S. government in cooperation with the U.S. media against UNESCO, which had promoted some moderate proposals for a New International Information Order (NIIO). The vague principles underlying the NIIO urged respect for nations' right to control national culture and offered support for national public broadcasting systems.


At stake was more than a heavy import of Anglo-American media material by the rest of the world. Fundamental economic data are also transferred internationally, ranging from travel reservation information to banking and insurance transactions to engineering and architectural design. These sorts of data transfers, combined with cultural flows, have created a system dominated by multinational companies. "The essential point is that an entire broadcast, information, and cultural system, privately owned and managed, often helped by government policy but mainly dependent on transnational advertising on behalf of corporate sponsors (or corporate users in the case of electronic data flows), is being set in place. When such a system is consolidated, the utility of analyzing the effects of *one* program or medium is futile. The entire social mechanism has been transformed into a corporate exhibit or channel."