Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era

    Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era
    By A. Ross Johnson and S. Enders Wimbush January 9 at 8:08 PM

    A. Ross Johnson, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the Hoover
    Institution, was director of Radio Free Europe from 1988 to 1991. S.
    Enders Wimbush was director of Radio Liberty from 1987 to 1993 and a
    member of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors from 2010 to 2012.

    When the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself and the
    Soviet Union collapsed, the role of U.S. international broadcasting was
    universally recognized. In the wake of these world-changing events,
    Václav Havel, Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin and other new leaders insisted
    that Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL) and the Voice of
    America were central to the peaceful democratic transitions in their
    countries. Western broadcasts provided essential information to all
    those dedicated to change and helped accelerate that change. Cuba is
    approaching such a moment, and once again the United States has a
    powerful instrument in place to help shape the outcome.

    Miami-based Radio and TV Martí was established in 1984 on the model of
    RFE and RL as a “surrogate” broadcaster to provide accurate information
    about developments in Cuba and the world otherwise denied to Cubans. The
    RFE/RL experience suggests that Martí’s role will become more important
    as diplomatic relations with Cuba are restored and cultural, educational
    and economic ties with the United States expand. With domestic media
    still tightly controlled, Cubans will turn to Martí for information on
    civil society, human rights protests, local opposition blogs, travel
    rules, economic developments, controversy within the regime — in short,
    for all domestic news and with a focus on voices from Cuba about Cuba.

    This comprehensive surrogate media role will not be performed by CNN or
    other commercial media. Nor should it be viewed — as some U.S. diplomats
    have viewed RFE and RL from time to time — as an irritant to improved
    state-to-state ties. One day, when Cuba is as free and democratic as the
    former communist countries of Eastern Europe with their own thriving
    free media, Martí will not be needed. Until then, it can play a key role
    in fostering peaceful democratic transition in Cuba.

    Martí has impact. Once derided for its unsuccessful efforts to telecast
    from an airplane flying just beyond Cuban airspace, TV Martí grounded
    that plane in May 2013. Its programs are now carried 24/7 on Hispasat
    satellite TV and on DirecTV, which penetrate not just Cuba but most of
    Latin America. Martí distributes both DVDs — 59,000 in 2014, and
    currently about 15,000 per month — and flash drives containing its radio
    and TV programs throughout Cuba, where they are copied and distributed
    by volunteer networks of activists, journalists, bloggers, members of
    opposition political parties and churches. Martí launched Reporta Cuba
    in May as a social platform that collects complaints and other
    information through dozens of citizen reporters across the island. And
    every day, Martí airs video packages produced on the island itself by
    independent video journalists denied access to Cuban media.

    Martí also reaches Cubans on the Internet, almost nonexistent in Cuba
    only a few years ago. On the day President Obama announced his intention
    to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, more than 27,000 visitors
    visited for news, analysis and context. The
    president’s speech was broadcast live with simultaneous translation, and
    when prisoner Alan Gross landed on U.S. soil, his news conference was
    carried live to Cuba on Martí’s broadcast and Internet channels.

    Martí programming is classic surrogate fare — information Cuban media
    would carry if it were free. Martí reports on the Cuban economy,
    including corruption, are among the only objective assessments anywhere.
    Martí provides extensive coverage of women’s issues, and it covers
    Cuba’s public health challenges. It devotes continual attention to the
    activities of dissidents and human rights advocates — such as the famous
    Ladies in White. News of its hemisphere — for example, protests in
    Venezuela — is a daily offering, and its special programming on media
    and a free press is extremely popular.

    An indicator of Martí’s effectiveness is the efforts by the Cuban regime
    to block its programs. The regime continues to jam Martí radio
    broadcasts with some success, especially in Havana. But Martí has
    countered by buying time on commercial stations in Miami whose signals
    reach the island successfully. The regime also attempts to prevent
    access to the Martí Web site, which the Martí leadership circumvents by
    providing proxy servers.

    No one should assume that Obama’s overture to Raúl Castro will result
    soon in a free press, any more than were Mikhail Gorbachev or Wojciech
    Jaruzelski ready to relax their control of Soviet and Polish media until
    domestic pressure forced them to do so. We should expect the Castro
    regime to fight tooth and nail to prevent media freedom, and it is
    likely that the regime will intensify measures to derail Radio and TV
    Martí as the broadcaster informs Cubans about the deepening crisis of
    the current system. Again, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are
    precedents. Attacked and vilified by flailing regimes (Jaruzelski
    constantly complained to the U.S. Embassy about RFE Polish broadcasts),
    the Radio Frees doubled down and fulfilled their historic role.

    Post-communist transitions may be protracted and suffer reversals. But
    we know from our experience on the front lines of U.S. international
    broadcasting that unforeseen events can enhance the role of surrogate
    free media and accelerate change. Obama’s decision to reestablish
    diplomatic ties with Cuba, regardless of whether it is followed by
    liberalization or more repression, is likely to be this kind of
    game-changer for Martí. This is the moment for which Radio and TV Martí
    were created. The White House and Congress should make available the
    resources necessary for Martí to provide Cubans with information that
    will help them gain their freedom.

    Source: Radio and TV Martí have roles to play as Cuba enters a new era –
    The Washington Post –