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Spain’s News Media Are Squeezed by Government and Debt

Newspapers almost everywhere have struggled to adjust to digital technology and declining advertising revenues.

But in Spain, the rapid restructuring of a shrinking industry — more than 11,000 journalists have lost their jobs here in seven years — has also prompted mounting concerns over whether Spain’s most established papers have lost their editorial independence amid the financial squeeze.

1978. Spain’s News Media Are Squeezed by Government and Debt

Pedro J. Ramírez, second from left, this week in Madrid at El Español, a news website he created after he left the top job at El Mundo. CreditCarlos Lujan for The New York Times.

The industry here has faced a perfect storm that has included huge debts and the assertiveness of a conservative government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party that has aggressively countered public criticism.

Mr. Rajoy’s government has been assailed by opponents for its passage this year of what has become known as “the gag law,” which imposes steep penalties for unauthorized political protests or the publishing of amateur video footage of police officers. On Thursday, a group of international media watchdogs published a joint report expressing concerns over media freedom in Spain and calling for repeal of the law and a loosening of the government’s control over the national broadcaster.

But it is the less obvious pressures on the news media business that have also sown increasing worry about free expression in Spain and in particular whether Spain’s establishment newspapers — once the most influential in the country — have been brought to heel.

Many in the industry say the formidable combination of government and financial pressures has blunted their ability to cover any range of conflicts of interest among big business and politicians at a time of multiplying financial and political scandals that emerged after the onset of Spain’s debt crisis.

“The newspapers are in the hands of creditors, and also in those of a government that has helped convince the creditors that the papers should be kept alive rather than just asphyxiated because of their debts,” said Miguel Ángel Aguilar, a veteran Spanish journalist who founded his own publication, Ahora, in September.

“This is a situation of dependency that has done terrible damage to the credibility of the media in this country,” he said.

While many journalists like him are competing with the Spanish news media’s old guard by setting up independent and mostly online publications whose coverage has often been more aggressive, even they acknowledge that their effect has so far been limited.

“If we break news, it’s still not the same as if it’s all over the newsstands,” said Ignacio Escolar, the editor of eldiario.es, an online publication that was created in 2012 and has 13,000 subscribers.

Much of the debt held by leading publishers is tied to investments made by media groups during Spain’s boom years.

It has meant that Spanish newspapers “have really lost editorial independence when it comes to talking about the big companies, especially the banks,” said Juan Pedro Velázquez-Gaztelu, who left one of Spain’s leading newspapers, El País, two years ago and is now the Madrid bureau chief of Alternativas Económicas.

“I don’t think there has been a worse time for freedom of expression in Spain since the death of Franco,” he said.

Over the past two years, the editors of three major Spanish newspapers have been ousted. Their removal came amid steep financial losses, but also followed the publication of articles that had ruffled feathers in Spain’s political establishment.

The best-known of these editors, Pedro J. Ramírez, has said that his dismissal from the newspaper El Mundo was triggered by his decision to publish embarrassing text messages sent by Prime Minister Rajoy to his former party treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, shortly after Mr. Bárcenas went to prison.

Mr. Ramírez’s decision was part of the newspaper’s coverage of an investigation into whether millions amassed in offshore accounts by Mr. Bárcenas were tied to a slush fund operated by Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party that was used to enrich politicians.

El Mundo, for its part, says Mr. Ramírez’s departure was mutually agreed and was linked to its financial losses under his leadership rather than any political pressure or his coverage of the Bárcenas scandal.

In October, Mr. Ramírez created a news website, El Español, financed by his multimillion-dollar severance package from El Mundo, as well as a crowdfunding campaign.

Mr. Ramírez argued in an interview that mainstream newspapers “are no longer doing their job as watchdogs.” Newspapers, he said, were under corporate and political pressure, but also suffered from greater editorial restrictions imposed by their own management.

“Newspapers are no longer led by their editors, but by chief executives who are worried about accounts and trying to maintain good relationships with those in power,” said Mr. Ramírez, who has been joined by a dozen former colleagues from El Mundo.

One, María Peral, said she wanted a new challenge after witnessing a clear decline in editorial freedom during “a crisis that forced us to keep out content that could be harmful for our advertisers or for the banks that own the debt.”

Casimiro García-Abadillo, who briefly succeeded Mr. Ramírez at the helm of El Mundo, said he, too, had “limited room to maneuver” as editor of El Mundo, one of Spain’s leading conservative papers, where he remains a columnist.

“There are a lot of cases where critical news about big institutions is either not published or only in a friendly manner,” Mr. García-Abadillo said.

Pablo Casado, a conservative lawmaker who is a spokesman for Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party, said he was unaware of any complaint from journalists about political interference.

“I don’t see a problem with the press in Spain,” he said.

Still, the government has taken steps to increase its control over RTVE, Spain’s public television and radio broadcaster. In 2012, Mr. Rajoy’s government introduced a law that allows the government to appoint RTVE’s boss without the consent of other political parties.

While the management denies editorial interference, Alejandro Caballero Mateos, a journalist who is president of RTVE’s newsroom committee, listed a dozen examples this year of news items that, he said, RTVE purposefully played down or ignored.

Those included RTVE’s coverage of a report by Amnesty International, without citing its criticism of Spain, including its gag law. RTVE, the committee found, ignored news about a possible conflict of interest between Cristóbal Montoro, Mr. Rajoy’s budget minister, and contracts signed by a company he founded.

In July, the committee also found, RTVE played down a judge’s report about one of Spain’s largest corruption investigations, involving a group of conservative politicians accused of negotiating kickbacks on 250 million euros, about $272 million, in public contracts.

In an emailed response, RTVE denied any censorship. While Amnesty International’s criticism of Spain was not reported on its main afternoon news report, RTVE said it was mentioned in other programs and on its website.

The past business dealings of Mr. Montoro, the budget minister, were not under court investigation, which justified not reporting on them, the station said.

Newsroom conflicts have also heated up at El País, which established itself as Spain’s leading newspaper in the late 1970s when it chronicled Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The newspaper’s editor, Antonio Caño, recently quashed an attempt by members of its newsroom committee to organize a vote of confidence over his leadership.

In recent months, the newsroom committee raised concerns over articles that were altered or removed from the El País website after their publication, including two articles relating to Qatar, according to the minutes of the committee’s internal meetings, which were seen by The New York Times.

Prisa, the parent company of El País, has been negotiating an investment from a Qatari company.

Another two articles concerned Telefónica, a company that is a shareholder of Prisa and that bought its television assets last year, helping Prisa cut its debt to 1.9 billion euros, or about $2.1 billion.

Last week, Mr. Caño, El País’s editor, said during a presentation that Prisa’s debt “in no way” affected his paper’s editorial content. Juan Luis Cebrián, the executive chairman of Prisa and co-founder of El País, also stressed newsroom independence. “What gets published is what the editor of El País wants to publish,” he said.

Still, Mr. Caño acknowledged that Spanish journalists worked in a country where “the political powers are frankly very far removed from Britain in terms of accepting the fundamental role fulfilled by the media.”

At El País, two journalists recently left the paper after a dispute about the alteration of an article about Telefónica’s ties to the government.

“Working at El País used to be the dream of any Spanish journalist,” said Mr. Aguilar, who is also a regular columnist for El País. “But now there are people so exasperated that they’re leaving, sometimes even with the feeling that the situation has reached levels of censorship.”

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Author: Raphael Minder

Source: nytimes.com

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