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19.09.2019

Spain has experienced an unprecedented decline in press freedom, says PDLI

by Jane Whyatt and Frederic Krull

Hooded demonstrators have attacked TV journalists covering the Catalonia national day demonstrations which attracted more than 500,000 people in support of independence for the autonomous region.

Spain has experienced an unprecedented decline in press freedom, says PDLI Yolanda Qintada. Photo: License CC_BY_SA - Author: Dani Gago

The Spanish journalists’ unions Agrupación de Periodistas de CCOO (FSC-CCOO) and Federación de Sindicatos de Periodistas (FeSP) condemned these acts. Their statement rejects “ All types of behaviours that seek to coerce, harass, intimidate and condition the work of journalists, violating the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the right of citizens to receive free and truthful information.“ Catalonia is not the only flashpoint. Spain’s current political stalemate is matched by paralysis in the state of press freedom. There is a Gag Law, criminal defamation, lack of access to information, as well as online harassment of reporters and little protection for whistleblowers.  These aspects are all causing problems.

As noted in the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom’s (ECPMF) submission to the United Nations Human Rights Periodic Review on Spain, this situation creates a chilling effect.

ECPMF’s partner organisation in Madrid, Plateforma en Defensa de Libertad de Información (PDLI), is concerned. In a frank interview with ECPMF, the PDLI Co-ordinator Yolanda Quintada (pictured) admits that conditions for press freedom have not improved in recent years – in fact she believes they have never been worse.

ECPMF: Spain has some restrictive laws that affect journalists’ ability to operate freely. What are they and how do they work?

YQ: From the legislative point of view, the main problems in Spain are:-

The extensive and excessive use of provisions contained Organic Law 4/2015  has a negative impact on journalists’ reporting activities.The Organic Law pensalises the unauthorised use of images and other data related to members of security forces, as well as disrespect  towards them. This law is known as the ’Gag Law’.

Then there is the problem that defamation is a crime, rather than a civil matter, as recommended by international organisations.

In addition to that, there is no legal  protection for all those who carry out journalistic activities, whether as a paid professional activity or in any other way, nor for sources and whistleblowers. Neither is there a legal recognition of the right to access information and community media are not legal in Spain. 

Plus, there is a lack of regulation on transparency of advertising campaigns paid for with public funds.

ECPMF: So there are repressive laws. What about how the media system operates in practice?

YQ: Most of the media are controlled by just a few transmedia owners. The economic crisis has increased the dependence of the big media on their advertisers and their vulnerability to political pressure. According to surveys in the sector, the majority of journalists admit to experiencing political pressures that affect their work. It has also made the employment situation of journalists much more precarious. There have been layoffs and salary cuts and there is reduced staffing in newsrooms.

The public media are not guaranteed independence

In addition, advertising campaigns paid for with public funds are another indirect form of control. The public media are not guaranteed independence from political power. Except in certain regions, there is no independent state agency that regulates the audiovisual sector. Online, the growth of independent digital media and the dissemination of information and opinion through alternative online channels (social networks) brings new restrictions to regulate the Internet (copyright, and threats to regulate anonymity on the Internet, the ‘Right to Honour’, or the 'fake news' ...) and these also pose potential risks for freedom of information.

ECPMF: It’s said that the law on insults against, the royal family, certain people or even religious feelings can result in self censorship or just plain censorship of journalists.

YQ: Yes, from the PDLI we have been registering and denouncing all these cases for their undoubted chilling effect. On our website you can study all these cases and our positions, against magazines and satirical media, etc. In Spain there is a double problem in this regard: on the one hand, as we have been denouncing since the PDLI was founded, the Spanish Criminal Code goes against international standards, considering crimes such as the 'offence to religious feelings' or 'insults to The Royal Family'. On the other hand, many of these complaints (which are presented in the courts with a clear threatening purpose), are admitted by the judges and the accusation is supported, sustained and maintained by the Prosecutor's Office.

More info on this can be found here (in Spanish).

ECPMF: What role do defamation cases against journalists play in this? For example the one of Raquel Ejerique or others?

YQ: Defamation lawsuits against media and journalists (especially those who have revealed cases of corruption) are a veiled threat to prevent this information from coming to light, in our opinion.

Relevant, truthful, public interest information

We have rejected these pressures, remembering that the function of media and journalists is to release relevant, truthful and public interest information. In all these cases, the criteria of opportunity and journalistic interest have determined the publication of the information and we have remembered that these considerations prevail over any other in the exercise of journalism. In addition, in some of these cases, in which the origin of the information was a journalistic leak, the PDLI has denounced the lawsuit as a means to access the source of the published information, and we recalled that the protection of their sources is one of the professional duties of journalists. For that reason, we consider the lawsuit against Raquel Ejerique and eldiario.es, (media founding partner of the PDLI)  a serious interference in the constitutional right to inform and be informed, and an unacceptable threat against the journalism of investigation.

More info on this can be found here (in Spanish).

ECPMF: How does the law deal with topics like terrorism and hate speech?  

YQ: Partly thanks to the constant public denunciations by the PDLI, there is clear social alarm, and public concern, about the deterioration of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The society is clear: issues such as terrorism and hate speech are excuses, on many occasions, that are used to limit these freedoms.

ECPMF: And how does it affect journalism and the freedom of expression? Or is it just a judicial problem?

YQ: Unfortunately, it is not just a judicial problem. Spain has experienced an unprecedented decline in freedom of expression in recent years, whose consequences have gone far beyond the courts.

This interview was conducted by Frederic Krull. You are welcome to share it under ECPMF's Creative Commons Licence.