Freedom of expression does not mean free in Spain. Rather, it’s a concept tethered to media’s economic interests and editorial lines. Most of Spanish media groups stick strongly to party ideologies and shares of the Stock Exchange’s blue chips.
The time is long past for debates about and intentions to create independent media outlets, but now even the semblance of independence is difficult to find. Unfortunately for Spaniards’ commitment to democracy, when the government is in flux or a company feels its interests are opposed or damaged, independence suffers.
Spanish democracy is still young – not even 40 years old – but there was a time in this short period of liberty in which political and social leaders paid attention to national debates, “thinking and taking decisions according to goals, dreams,” Spanish long-experienced journalist Fernando G. Urbaneja says.
Things have deteriorated. Today, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy holds press conferences via a plasma screen, avoiding any contact with journalists.
Removals and resignations
In last quarter, the heads of Spain’s three main newspapers have been removed from their jobs. Speculations over the “coincidence” are just whispers, because only El Mundo’s controversial director Pedro J. Ramírez has spoke out, and his comments pointed to political pressures.
Leadership changes are only the tip of the iceberg. Freedom of expression’s lapses are evident in these big and well-known media groups and modest-sized blogs, such as Nada es gratis (Nothing is free in English) in which Spanish economists have been trying to explain Spaniards, including political leaders, what is happening in national economy and posing possible solutions. Three of this platform’s leaders, all founders and editors, recently left their posts after disagreements with the managing team and the government. The blog was an initiative of Bank of Spain’s Fedea (Foundation for Applied Economics Studies), one of the most active and influential think tanks in the country.
Upon his resignation, editor Luis Garicano complained about the government’s fear of criticism and their reluctancy to listen and to learn. He also said political leaders are fearful of how the media handles delicate issues, especially those affecting big companies.
Garicano, who has a master’s degree and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago and is currently professor at the London School of Economics, said goodbye to the blog’s readers with a post in which he reminded his audience of the blog’s advice to former Spanish government officials to be cautious about saving banks mergers as a solution to reorganize the country’s banking system. The site’s writers also pointed out that these entities’ profits could not be real.
“They did read and hear us, but they were truly convinced we exaggerated facts”.
Garicano said big companies’ power is “sacred” for the press.
“Media do not talk about them if firms don’t want, because they need all possible advertising oxygen.”
Of course “this is not journalists’ fault. They would be more than happy if they could tell the truth they know instead of remaining it silent or just writing some lines.”
Fedea’s major milestone is “having contributed to help people understand what is happening rather than impacting on Spanish government policies “.
As Garicano recognized “economy correspondents for foreign media, from FAZ to Handelsblatt, The Economist or FT o WSJ read or posts, and also Spanish economy journalists.” Sometimes their figures have appeared in New York before reaching Madrid’s papers.
The affair with Nada Es Gratis came to light earlier this week with the designation of economist Ángel de la Fuente as new Fedea’s director.
“Some people has dealt with areas that are none of their business. We should not get involved in politics. Everyone is free to defend their ideas, but Fedea talks about policies, not politics”, the new director said in a clear reference on Monday to the institution’s former editors.
De la Fuente also stated that “our researchers have the freedom to give their opinion in the media, but if they do under Fedea’s name it will have to involve their field’s questions, not their preferences. We need a polite dialogue, not to poke your finger in the government’s eyes.”
For Garicano, the message is crystal clear. Via Twitter, he considered Fedea’s new manager statements as a “subtle entering, sort of a bull in a china shop.”
“Many times when listening to political leaders, I wondered: what will they have in their minds? What are they to propose, to understand, to explain? The answer is simple: nothing, they have time neither to think, nor to study or listen, and so we go. One of Spain’s problem is the poor level of debate, lack of interest of political leaders in democratic dialogue, the narrow bi-partisanship, insubstantial propaganda,” Fernando G. Urbaneja concludes.