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In Spain, press freedom is hanging by a thread

The Spanish prime minister will stop at nothing to silence his media critics.

Itxu Diaz

Topics Free Speech World

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Since the birth of modern journalism, every authoritarian ruler has tried to control and harass the press. Last week, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez decided to become one of them.

Sánchez has plenty of reasons to despise freedom of the press. He is currently caught between multiple corruption scandals, with his wife recently accused of influence peddling and his brother accused of embezzlement. The Socialist PM has mostly blamed his troubles on the judiciary, for pursuing his wife in the courts, and on journalists, for reporting on the story.

Until recently, Sánchez’s threats to journalists were only verbal. But not anymore. Last Wednesday, in a speech to the Spanish parliament, Sánchez announced that he will introduce media reforms in July to make journalists more ‘accountable’ – that is, to the government. He promised to counter what he calls ‘pseudomedia’ publications, and to restore ‘information plurality’ and ‘veracity’ across the Spanish press. He also railed against ‘digital tabloids’ and complained that ‘the right and the ultra-right’ are over-represented in TV political talk shows.

In his mission to bring the media under his thumb, Sánchez is being helped by the EU. Last week, he announced that he will use the EU’s recently passed Media Freedom Act to enforce his reforms. Supposedly, these EU regulations protect media independence, but Sánchez can easily twist them to do the exact opposite. It will allow him to decide which media outlets deserve public funding, and which should be deprived of it.

Over the weekend, he elaborated on the reasoning behind his media reforms in an interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. As well as planning to remodel Spain’s privacy laws, he intends to ‘end the impunity’ of the ‘psuedomedia’ for good. ‘Our obligation’, Sánchez insisted, ‘is to consolidate plural, diverse media with truthful information’. In doing so, he will turn his government into the final arbiter of truth. This will effectively annihilate freedom of the press in Spain.

Ironically, Sánchez’s anti-media plan could not have reached this point without the complicity, if not enthusiastic support, of much of the media, particularly the left-leaning outlets. Even when Spanish government ministers have called critical journalists ‘sacks of shit’, they have preferred to remain silent. As well as being cowardly and unprincipled, this silence is also incredibly short-sighted. After all, who will be able to prevent the witch-hunting of left-wing journalists when there is a change of government?

Sánchez’s strategy is essentially to withdraw the status of ‘journalist’ from anyone who opposes him. In a spot of dark irony, he describes his anti-democratic attack on journalists as a ‘democratic action plan’.

Whether or not Sánchez’s reforms actually succeed, my conversations with other Spanish journalists suggest that he might have already won. These journalists are already thinking twice about what they are going to say or write, afraid that sharing critical views could have consequences for their reputations and careers. Self-censorship is the greatest enemy of free speech, and it looks like Sánchez has started to normalise it.

We will have to wait until July to see the full details of Sánchez’s new censorship regime. But there is no doubt that Spain will soon become a far more difficult place to practise free and independent journalism.

Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author.

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Topics Free Speech World

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