VIENNA, Nov 5, 2015 – The next Spanish government should repeal a controversial public security law and restore independence to the country’s public broadcaster, a group of international press freedom organisations said in a report released today.
The group further called on the political parties contesting December’s general elections to, if elected, implement an independent, sector-specific broadcast regulator, improve transparency in the area of official advertising and ensure that any legal reforms are undertaken with due regard to the danger of a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Joining the International Press Institute (IPI) in issuing the recommendations were the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Madrid-based Platform in Defence of Free Expression (PDLI).
A mission comprising high-level representatives of the four organisations met in June with officials from Spain’s major political parties ahead of this year’s vote. The visit was prompted by a series of measures by the current Spanish government that critics believe have endangered freedom of expression in the European Union’s fifth-most-populous member state.
While stressing that Spain’s challenges should be seen in relative terms compared to its European neighbours, the mission report published today concluded that the measures, including the widely condemned Public Security Law, “harbour evident dangers for the free flow of information in the public interest”.
A mission summary, written by IPI, noted the international delegation’s surprise at the gap between the ruling Popular Party’s view of the freedom of expression situation in Spain and that of opposition political parties, journalist associations, civil society organisations and foreign observers.
Popular Party Parliamentary Spokesman Rafael Hernando Fraile insisted to the group that the current government had “not adopted any restrictive measures with regard to freedom of expression”.
The Public Security Law, however, has been strongly criticised for its potential effects on press freedom by all of Spain’s major journalist associations, the Madrid Bar Association, the General Association of Spanish Bars, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, five U.N. human rights rapporteurs and major international media outlets.
IPI Executive Board Member Martha Steffens, who led the mission, said IPI welcomed pledges on key issues by members of opposition parties with whom delegates met, including pledges to repeal the Public Security Law and to restore independence to the public broadcaster.
However, she added: “Freedom of the press and expression are not political questions, but cornerstones of any democratic society. Political parties of all stripes should be concerned with protecting these rights. We strongly urge whichever party or parties that will form the next Spanish government to take into account the relevant criticism both from within Spain and abroad, and to adopt the recommendations in this report.”
The report observed that justifications offered to the mission for the current government’s controversial policy decisions often belied those decisions’ more-serious potential consequences for the free flow of information.
For example, one Popular Party member of the Joint Congressional Committee on Public Broadcasting defended a 2012 executive decree allowing parliament to appoint members of the broadcaster’s board with a simple majority, rather than the previous two-thirds majority, as necessary to improve efficiency. Since that change, however, the broadcaster has been besieged with accusations of bias and manipulation of news coverage, leading its own journalists to submit a complaint to the European Parliament in April 2015.
Similarly, Popular Party officials highlighted the use of administrative rather than criminal sanctions in the Public Security Law as a positive development demonstrating the government’s attention to free expression concerns. But Spanish and international legal experts have specifically noted that this aspect of the law is problematic insofar as it reduces judicial oversight over the issuance of sanctions. The U.N. Human Rights Committee in August 2015 explicitly criticised the “excessive use of administrative sanctions contained in the [Public Security Law], which exclude the application of certain judicial guarantees”.
The report also highlights the ambiguity contained in new legislation, including recent reforms to the Spanish Criminal Code related to terrorism. Virginia Pérez Alonso, president of PDLI, has pointed to the risk this ambiguity poses for the free exercise of journalism. “This uncertainy is unacceptable and puts journalists in a dangerous judicial limbo”, she said, citing as an example journalism that relied on leaked information, which could in the future be considered a terrorist offence.
Both the governing party and the various opposition parties agreed that RTVE, the public broadcaster, was in crisis. Yet they disagreed as to what constituted the crisis and how it had come about.
Popular Party MPs indicated RTVE’s troubles were primarily financial in nature and suggested that a ban on advertising introduced under the previous Socialist government was partially to blame. However, Germán Rodríguez Sánchez, the Socialist Party’s spokesman on the Committee, countered: “Financial problems are not the issue. The loss of impartiality and credibility is the problem.”
The report’s recommendations also call on the Spanish government to implement a regulatory framework for community media, as required by a law passed in 2010. The government’s failure to create the framework is currently the subject of litigation before the Spanish Supreme Court.
Nearly all of Spain’s major political parties, including Podemos, which is not currently represented in Spain’s national parliament, agreed to meet the delegation during the three-day visit in June, which followed a fact-finding mission in December 2014 and an initial report in March 2015. The Ministries of Justice, Interior and Industry, as well as the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, however, did not make officials available.
In addition to the mission summary and joint recommendations, the report also includes commentary from independent legal and regulatory experts who joined the mission, including a former BBC director of editorial policy. Both pieces of commentary were also published separately in July 2015.
The State of Press Freedom in Spain: 2015 (IPI and partners, March 2015)
Balancing Act: Press freedom at risk as EU struggles to match action with values (CPJ Special Report, Sept. 2015)
Spanish Writer Says El País Column Canceled After Comments on Media -by Raphael Minder. The New York Times, Nov 12, 2015