Catalonia: severe press freedom violations in clashes over independence referedum

By Jessica Jacques

Tensions are running high in the Spanish region of Catalonia, as plans for a referendum on independence are being challenged by the state authorities. Reports are also emerging of press freedom violations: Police confiscated the phone of a journalist who was reporting on a referendum event.

Catalonian mural Catalanian journalists suffer exceptional situation

Officers raided numerous print works and newspaper offices in their search for referendum ballot papers. Albert Bete, a mayor in the region said, “they [the Spanish government] are stretching the limits of democracy”.

Press freedom advocates meet

More than 300 members of the journalism community met on Thursday 21st September to protest against the harassment of media professionals who were reporting on the appeal for a vote on October 1st on full Catalonian independence from Spain. Catalonia is an autonomous province within Spain and has its own language and media including newspapers, magazines and TV stations.

The manifesto “For the Freedom of the Press and for All Freedoms” was read out and the journalists denounced the “exceptional situation which Catalan journalists suffered” in recent weeks. Among the nine groups present at the meeting were the Journalists’ Union of Catalonia (SPC) and the Association of Information and Communication Media (AMIC).

During the event, quotes were read out from famous press freedom campaigners such as George Orwell and Ana Politovskaya.

Media in Catalonia

There are over 80 Catalan language TV channels, 20 Catalan radio stations and 16 newspapers reporting in the language.

The union says that they have received complaints from journalists who have been coerced, forced to identify themselves, pressured and warned about their work while covering events of public interest. On September 16th a statement was released by these associations, including the SPC, condemning the events as a serious attack on freedom of expression and information. The statement reads, “we cannot be silent in facing this dynamic [...] public and private media have the duty and the right to work freely.”

The SPC emphasised they will not back down in the face of this challenge and reinforced their commitment to freedom of information and respect for civil society.

ECPMF’s partner monitors the developments

The ECPMF’s partner, PDLI is closely monitoring attacks on freedom of expression in the run up to the referendum. It has opened an “observatory” or alarm centre on its website to catalogue these violations and raise awareness. They aim to gather sufficient information about the incidents in order to publicly denounce them and if necessary refer them to international organisations.

 La Associació de Veïnes i Veïns de l’Esquerra de l’Eixample announced that a post office employee stopped distributing its magazine. The employee received the bulletin, opened it, and reviewed the content. After reading page 25, an article entitled,“Defending Democracy: Referendum,“ he reported that he was not able to distribute it. The Association has called the action “censorship of freedom of the press, expression and dignity of the association.“ They said the bulletin would be soon distributed by a private messenger service.

Reportedly the postal service has also stopped distributing some of the 60,000 copies of cultural magazine, 'Òmnium Cultural’, which includes a guide to the referendum.

Spanish government actions under scrutiny

The actions of the Spanish government have been widely condemned by international bodies and some MEPs have called on the European Commission to intervene. The Spanish Civil Guard has raided a number of Catalan government departments including the Economy, Governance and Social Well-being department and the Centre of Telecommunications and Information Technology. Thirteen high-ranking officials have been arrested in order to collect evidence relating to the 1st October referendum.

The SPC and PDLI have called on the police and judicial authorities not to overstep their duties with regard to their media-related investigations and to acknowledge the grey area where judicial decisions can encroach on freedom of expression. In some cases the police identify their workers or informers in line with the Citizen Security Law, better know as Ley Mordaza, or the “Gag Law” which has been denounced as undemocratic by international bodies such as the UN.

The Spanish bodies working for freedom of expression and information have expressed solidarity with those media workers and colleagues were intimidated by the appearance and aggression of police in their work places.

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