Reports from Cuba: ‘It’s hard for the government to tolerate professionalism of independent journalists’

Joanna Columbie in Translating Cuba:

“It’s Hard for the Government to Tolerate the Professionalism of Independent Journalists”

Ignacio Gonzalez, journalist and editor of Free Hot Press agency
Ignacio Gonzalez, journalist and editor of Free Hot Press agency.

14ymedio, Joanna Columbie, Havana, 21 October 2016 – Ignacio Gonzalez is frequently seen in the streets of Havana with microphone in hand recording citizens’ reactions to a flood, a historic baseball game or the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States. Independent journalist and editor of the Hot Free Press (ECPL) agency, the young man aspires to continue excelling professionally and thinks that non-government media are experiencing a time of growth.

Recently Gonzalez spent 48 hours under arrest at a police station as a consequence of his work as a reporter, an arrest that is among the repressive acts carried out against independent journalism in recent months.

Columbie: How was Hot Free Press born?

Gonzalez: It comes from the idea that people are again gaining confidence in the independent press, which had lost a little due to government propaganda that says that it involves unqualified and mercenary journalists. We interview not only the regime’s opponents but also doctors, engineers, can collectors, mechanics, carpenters… people like that.

Columbie: You suffered an arrest recently. What happened?

Gonzalez: I was doing a report together with another colleague on a study of central Havana, and an operation began with a patrol car, five police officers and two agents from State Security. They took us to the fourth police unit and interrogated me in one of the offices. They made me undress and squat forwards and backwards in order to see if I had hidden any USB drives. I felt denigrated.

Then I was transferred to a police station on Zanja Street and later to the 10th of October, located on Acosta Avenue. I was detained for 48 hours, which had never happened to me, because they had always detained me between three and four hours.

Columbie. Were you accused of some crime or are you now subject to some investigative process?

Gonzalez. They told me that they had a file on me and that I am a counter-revolutionary. Although they assured me that my detention was not because of political problems, but because I was committing an illicit economic activity, since I had an agency where it was known that I paid workers and that I had no license to practice this activity nor was I accredited in the country. They also threatened me that my equipment could be seized. I did not sign nor will I sign any paper. There is no accusation as such, what I have is threats.

Columbie: Do you feel you are a “counter-revolutionary?”

Gonzalez: I told them that they were the counter-revolutionaries because they refuse progress and all kinds of democracy to our country. If they are going to put me in prison, they are going to have to do so also with thousands of Cubans who bravely and spontaneously make statements for our reports. Nor am I a mercenary. I work and get a salary for my work with my press outlet.

What they want with their threats is that I stop being an independent journalist and dedicate myself to taking photos for birthdays and quinceañeras [girls’ 15th birthday celebrations – a major coming-of-age milestone].

Columbie: How do you define yourself?

Gonzalez: I am neither an opponent nor a dissident; I am a person who practices journalism in favor of the truth. If the government does something positive, I do an interview or a report about that topic, but if it does something negative, I also bring it to light. If an opponent commits an act of corruption, I bring it to light, and if he is making a move in favor of the people, I do as well. That’s how journalism should be: impartial.

Columbie: Why do you believe that the repression against you has become more intense now?

Gonzalez: The increasing growth of independent journalism is upsetting them. We unofficial reporters have had the opportunity to attend courses, improve ourselves, and the government doesn’t tolerate it. This improvement, this professionalism that journalists are acquiring, even the audio-visual media which shows the whole world the news as it is, it is hard for them to tolerate. They are trying to accuse us of illegalities. It is a zero-tolerance policy towards the independent press.

In the case of Hot Free Press we are making reports almost of the same quality as Cuban television, but with the difference that we are not censored. We are reaching people; we have managed to make people feel a little more confident with the independent press, to give their statements. We have even found among members of the public that they say that if it’s not for national television, they say whatever they want. They are more disposed to make statements to independent outlets because they know that the national press belongs to the government and simply does not work.

Columbie: Are other non-governmental press agencies going through the same situation?

Gonzalez: I have not seen the same attitude with the rest of the new supposedly independent programs, like Bola 8 or Mi Havana TV. These just have a lot of nonsense. Supposedly they are being financed by the self-employed, but I work in this industry, and I know that the self-employed cannot pay for a production like these programs are showing. There are diverse locations and entry to places to which the independent press does not have access.

Columbie: How would you define the practice of the press in Cuba outside of the official sphere?

Gonzalez: Being an independent journalist here is like being a war correspondent.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel