Travel journalism from VOA reporters in Cuba

BBG Watch Commentary

With often shaky, poor quality video and mostly pedestrian observations, much of original reporting by some of the Voice of America (VOA) reporters sent to Cuba was in essence nothing more than travel journalism documenting a nice vacation at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

VOA correspondents did do some reporting work while in Cuba. They reported on the official part of President Obama’s visit, including his concerns and statements about human rights, which was good, but those reports were not in any way spectacular, unique or comprehensive. Much better and more extensive reporting was done by U.S. commercial media. Many private U.S. media outlets focused much more on the human rights issues in Cuba than the Voice of America.

VOA did dutifully report what President Obama said about democracy, but that kind of reporting could have been done just as easily and perhaps much better by anyone in the United States with access to the internet and television feeds from Havana. So, what did VOA reporters do to justify sending them to Cuba? What did they give U.S. taxpayers and international audiences for the thousands of dollars spent on their trip?

After checking VOA websites and Facebook pages in English and Russian, we must say they did not, we repeat did not do what most Americans would expect from the publicly-funded Voice of America and its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

When it comes to original reporting outside of the official part of the President’s visit to Cuba, some VOA reporters engaged mostly in travel journalism. Whether this should have been paid for by American taxpayers is questionable. On top of it, their reports gave the world a highly distorted and limited view of today’s Cuba.

It appears that VOA reporters did not go anywhere the Cuban secret police would not want them to go. We thought that after recent personnel changes, VOA was no longer into doing videos such as the one in which Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, was described by a VOA reporter in 2011 as “vibrant and busy with activity.” The VOA videos from Havana were not nearly as bad. They did not repeat Cuban regime’s propaganda the same may the VOA video report from North Korea in 2011 repeated North Korean regime’s propaganda with hardly any balance. But some of the VOA reporters in Cuba, while better in that respect under the new VOA and BBG management, still behaved like tourists who are in a foreign country for the first time. In their original reporting outside of the official visit and events, they focused on quaint Old Havana streets, old cars, soccer, baseball, but not on much else.

From what we could see online, VOA reporters who went with President Obama to Cuba did not go to the homes of families of political prisoners. They did not visit dissidents who by chance are not in prison at the moment. They did not report how ordinary Cubans live and what they can buy in stores. They did not talk about the prostitution industry catering to Western tourists. They did not report on Cubans dying at sea while trying to flee the island.

VOA reporters only talked to Cubans who were willing to talk to them in public view. As for VOA journalists whose salaries are paid by the American people, one would except that they would have tried to visit and interview independent Cuban journalists and bloggers who may have been out of prison at the moment. They are often jailed. We did not see any evidence that they did or tried to show solidarity with non-communist Cuban journalists.

Videos posted by VOA showed mostly the nicer parts of Havana, because that’s where VOA reporters were. Even as travel journalism goes, most of the reports were also rather pedestrian. Another Voice of America broadcaster described one video as a middle school video project report. A few reports were of better quality, but nothing to write home about to your Mom in Miami. They are not going to win any journalistic awards, other than perhaps the ones given out by the BBG. This was definitely not something suitable for national television, not even for a U.S. TV station in a medium market.

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When reporting on political protests and human rights violations, these VOA reporters relied mostly on video feeds from news agencies. VOA did not have its own camera crew in Cuba, and the question is why the federal agency that has such an enormous bureaucracy in Washington could not find the money to pay for a camera crew to cover a historic visit by the U.S. President. If the BBG had done this, it might have allowed VOA reporters to do some real original journalism instead of posting videos of themselves describing the streets of Havana as if no one had done such a thing before.

One VOA reporter did say that the city outside of the center did not look nearly as good, but international audiences did not see much of it. He also said that the Cuban secret police presence may have had an intimidating effect on random strangers VOA reporters talked to. Why didn’t they make an extra effort to find and interview political opponents of the Castro regime? Instead, a VOA Russian reporter found a Cuban with a Russian first name who expressed his admiration for both President Obama and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Compared to other Cubans, some of whom look as if they might be undernourished, President Putin’s admirer looked well-fed. His parents gave him a Russian name. Um, we wonder what his parents were doing in Castro’s Cuba.

The VOA Spanish Service reporter did a better job in Havana than her colleagues, but even in her videos, dissidents got only a few seconds of airtime. These clips appeared to have been recorded at an impromptu press conference for international media. We could not find any in-depth interviews with Cuban dissidents on VOA websites and social media pages. Even these few seconds of video in which Cuban dissidents actually spoke were not used in VOA English and VOA Russian videos, or at least we could not find any such use. In its coverage of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the Voice of America showed the world many more old cars on the streets of Havana than Cuban political dissidents and independent journalists speaking their mind.

We wish the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s (OCB) Radio and TV Marti journalists would have gotten visas to go to Cuba to report on more than just the official part of President Obama’s visit. They know Cuba much better and they would have done a much better job than today’s VOA. But they did not get visas. We also did not see any protests about it from the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The Voice of America used to operate quite differently before it became part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. During the Cold War, when VOA was part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), VOA reporters sometimes received journalist visas for short-term visits to communist countries, often in connection with U.S. presidential visits. They were top-notch VOA correspondents who did not focus on travel journalism. Instead, they tried to shake off their secret police followers, visited opposition leaders and human rights activists in their homes or at secret locations, interviewed them and reported about it. They also covered anti-regime demonstrations and risked arrest to get sound and interviews for their reports. That’s what VOA was created for and that’s how it used to be done.

VOA reporters knew then it was their job to do what others could not. They knew that American taxpayers expected them to do much more than what U.S. private media correspondents could report from Eastern Europe. Despite years of mismanagement by the BBG Radio and TV Marti is still able to do such reporting from Cuba to some degree, even without being able to send their own reporters from Miami. The Martis have their own excellent news contacts in Cuba. The Voice of America was given a chance to do something special from Cuba and blew it.

By the way, March 23 marks the one-year anniversary of the return to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting of Radio and TV Marti journalists illegally fired by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. We are proud of our support for them during the five years of their legal battle with the BBG to get their jobs back. They were able to contribute to OCB’s much more comprehensive and superior coverage of President Obama’s visit to Cuba.

But what can one expect from VOA and from its parent agency, when they think that this VOA News report about a Canadian study, Urban Birds Smarter Than Rural Counterparts,” is a worthwhile use of U.S. taxpayers’ money, and better use of U.S. taxpayers’ money than, let’s say, doing a SKYPE interview with an independent Cuban journalist who is opposed to the Castro dictatorship. VOA embedded in its bird report a YouTube video made by McGill University in Canada. The video was better produced and we found it more interesting to watch than some of the VOA videos from Cuba. It would have been a perfectly good story for Radio Canada International. Enough said.
 

 
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BBG PRESS RELEASE

 

Martís Provide Cubans Non-Stop Coverage Of Obama’s Historic Trip, Go “LIVE” From Island For First Time

 
MARCH 23, 2016

New-Marti-Logo-Color-sml-300x193The Martís, which include TV and Radio Martí and martinoticias.com, successfully broadcast three days of live coverage of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba. TV Martí reached the island via DIRECTV, airing through local Miami station Mira-TV and digital streaming. Radio Martí listeners received the radio signal through shortwave and 1180AM. The live special coverage started Sunday, March 20 at 4pm with the president’s arrival on the island and continued through Tuesday, March 22.

Coverage by the Martís featured everything from scheduled events to the arbitrary detention of civilians and independent journalists including Martí collaborators. Martí also carried out live interviews with in-studio and on-island guests ranging from former U.S. diplomats, dissidents, religious leaders and citizens from all walks of Cuban life.

TV Marti made history when it broadcast live from the Estadio Latinoamericano before the baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. Independent international journalist Marian de la Fuente reported for the Martís live from outside the stadium.

Another highlight of the coverage was the participation of Alan Gross, the American aid worker released on December 17, 2014, after being imprisoned in Cuba for five years. Gross was a guest on all three of the Martís platforms and gave several hours of analysis and commentary on President Obama’s momentous speech to the Cuban people at El Gran Teatro.

The reaction from Cuban viewers was immediate. A Radio Martí listener from the town of Cabañas in Cuba said: “Through Radio Marti, we have been able to stay up to date on the minute-by-minute details of the president’s visit. Radio Martís coverage is very detailed and professional; it provided context regarding the president’s visit otherwise unavailable to us.” He added, “State-run media cut away from the joint press conference between the two heads of state (President Obama and President Raul Castro) after they made their official statements. Radio Marti, on the other hand, provided the full press conference with the question-and-answer session that followed.”

Cubans on the island also expressed their appreciation through the Martí Noticias Facebook page and followed all of the Facebook live shots that the Martí journalists provided from the island. During the coverage, the Martís launched a media aggregator website called www.obamaencuba.com, which served as a one-stop-shop for all things related to Obama’s visit. This site will live on as a historical reference, offering all stories published by various Spanish media outlets, including the Martís, of the president’s visit to Cuba.

“Our staff exemplified Marti’s mission in this unprecedented coverage,” said Malule Gonzalez, director of the Martís. “Hearing back from Cubans on the island watching and listening to our coverage was the catalyst that kept us going. It was great for the Martís and the people of Cuba.”

Contact: Emilio Vazquez, OCB – (305) 437-7176, evazquez@bbg.gov

 
 
 

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