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For the Spanish Media, Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

In the 1970s, the Spanish press played a fundamental role in catalyzing a new era of democracy following the oppressive regime of General Franco. Today, these same media outlets find themselves in crisis, sideswiped by the economic recession and, at times, the very democratic institutions they helped usher in four decades ago.

Though Spain’s official recession ended last year, its recovery has been painful and uncertain. Colossal public debt, soaring unemployment, welfare cuts, and high-profile cases of political corruption have eroded civic values and faith in democratic structures. The Fourth Estate is one such institution that has taken a particular bruising.

Recent public opinion surveys [PDF] have shown that journalism is one of the most distrusted professions in Spain, due to its perceived politicization and lack of high-quality, accurate reporting. But if Spanish journalism is in trouble—as a new report by the Open Society Program on Independent Journalism details—a major source of the problem can be traced to the economic upheavals rocking the country at large.

Part of the issue is the same one affecting media the world over due to technological innovations that have broken the traditional business model. Financially strapped newsrooms are laying off staff in an attempt to stay solvent. A recent report by the Madrid Press Association (APM) found that between 2011 and 2013, 20 percent of Spanish news media jobs vanished.

But other circumstances are particular to Spain. Most Spaniards themselves are unaware that the independence of their press is challenged by financial and economic interest groups that control their media’s debts. The two biggest national dailies, for example, El País and El Mundo, are heavily indebted, and the owners of more than half of their capitalized debt include three banking groups (HSBC, Caixabank, and Santander) in the case of the former, and two banking groups and one industrial group (Italian Mediobanca, Intesa Sanpaolo, and FIAT Group) in the case of the latter. The economic crisis has made the media even more dependent on such groups.

Public service broadcasters are under the gun, too. The independence of Spain’s public broadcaster RTVE is compromised by the ability of the governing coalition in parliament to appoint board members. On top of this, spending cuts are threatening the survival of regional and local public service channels. One notable example is the shutdown of regional public service broadcaster RTVV in Valencia in November 2013.

The lack of transparency around who owns and controls the media has contributed to weak public awareness about why the press is suffering. Media operators aren’t obliged to disclose their so-called “beneficial” owners, whose shares are held by others on their behalf. Nor are the media legally compelled to disclose their sources of revenue.

Spending on institutional advertising also remains opaque, fostering suspicion that advertising is withheld from media outlets that are critical of government policy. The chilling effect of this appears to be trickling down to the newsroom. According to the APM report, 77 percent of Spanish journalists rated their independence poor or very poor, and 56 percent reported being pressured to modify their stories.

Spain’s recently approved Transparency Law aims to combat these problems by obliging the government to disclose its contracts for institutional advertising. These contracts are brokered by advertising agencies, however, which are private entities and as such not obliged to disclose the recipients of institutional campaigning and related funds. This renders the Transparency Law toothless in its intent to shed light on which media receive public money.

The rise of digital media represents a chance for the Spanish press to secure independence from politicians and financial groups. Such media, like eldiario.es, infolibre.es, and Alternativas Económicas, are less beholden to the traditional media business model, subsisting on a combination of subscriptions, private ads, and special publications. But the continued existence of major traditional press outlets is critical to a healthy media ecosystem, and they urgently need to find a path to financial stability.

Two strategies can help get them there. First, civil society organizations should find a way of overcoming their differences and regional loyalties, and act together on an agenda of media and journalism reforms that are in line with European standards and best practices.

A very promising sign in this sense was the launch, on December 2, of the Plataforma en Defensa de la Libertad de Información (Platform for the Defence of Freedom of Expression), a new civil society coalition of journalists, digital media, lawyers, social activists, and consumer groups, whose initial objective is to collect data and raise public awareness about threats to freedom of expression in Spain.

Second, these organizations should work with international partners to address the relevant inter-governmental organizations such as the UN, the EU, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. A timely opportunity to do this was provided by the International Partnership Mission in Spain in early December, organized by the International Press Institute and supported by the Open Society Foundations.

Another opportunity is the UN Human Rights Committee’s consideration of Spain’s periodic report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), expected in July 2015. Civil society stakeholders can submit their concerns about Spain’s implementation of Article 19 of the ICCPR to the review, so that the final report includes them and calls on the government to address them.

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