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18.10.2016

The politicisation of the media over Catalonia

by Ana Ribeiro

As the Parliament of Catalonia adamantly presses on to pull out of Spain – among other political shakeups in the Iberian country – journalism organisations fear politicians have obtained the power to interfere in the media in a systemic manner.

 

Catalonia_900X600 The autonomous community of Catalonia, located in the northeast of Spain, has a particular language and culture and has resisted giving up its sovereignty throughout much of its history; tensions may be presently coming to a head as its parliament pursues a referendum despite prosecution threats from Spain. (Image: anonymous, Catalonia2, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The boards of Spanish public media have appointed known political party associates as directors of their outlets during 2016, the EFJ reports via the Council of Europe's "media freedom alerts". It states that "journalists' unions are calling for legislative reforms aimed at guaranteeing the independence of public media from the interference from political parties, notably by making possible the appointment of public media board members by a qualified vote of the Parliament".

The issue of whether Catalonia should become its own state has prompted a tug-of-war between the pro and con sides for public opinion over the past few years. While 80 percent of Catalan voters in an unofficial poll in November 2014 chose "yes", a July 2016 survey pegged citizens in the northeastern autonomous community as divided nearly 50/50 over the issue.

Catalonia has its own language and culture, and the drive for statehood has been present, off and on, since the formation of modern-day Spain in the 18th century. Today’s separatists have been partly inspired by Scotland’s push for independence from the United Kingdom; but while London allowed the Scots a referendum (which narrowly did not pass), the government at Madrid has so far refused to give the Catalans its consent to conduct their own.

Public media and the battle for and against independence

For years, tensions were kept at bay, unlike those with radical Basque separatists. Then the grim economic crisis dragged Spain down and put an additional burden on Catalonia and its capital Barcelona (a major economic hub for the region and Spain), which many Catalans have deemed unfair.

Regional presidents were elected by the Parliament of Catalonia who have actively supported the separatist cause. The Spanish state has been fighting against them to hang on to the region. Meanwhile, efforts for control of the media have been ramped up on both sides.

The RTVE corporation (Radio Televisión Española) is fully owned by the Spanish state. Its website affirms that it "answers solely to the Spanish Parliament to which it is fully accountable. [RTVE] is therefore independent of any government or political party". However, as the EFJ points out, the previous head of communications for the People's Party of Catalonia (PP) was chosen for a top spot at RTVE: Eladio Jareño became the director of its TV branch (TVE) in March 2016.

An editorial in El País calls his appointment "a new case of revolving doors and the umpteenth politicisation of public television. (…) His career has been intimately linked to the PP initials, both in the public institutions subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior and in the political organism itself". The conservative People’s Party has actively taken a stand against Catalan statehood.

The EFJ/Council of Europe alert included a statement from the Spanish Federation of Journalists’ Unions (FeSP) condemning Jareño’s promotion within the public broadcaster and calling for urgent reforms at RTVE. The association accused him of engaging in manipulation and censorship in his previous job at the regional helm of TVE in Catalonia. This included getting journalist Cristina Puig fired over her criticism of "lack of pluralism in the choice of those invited to debate programs" - meaning anti-independence politicians were almost exclusively invited to take part

Simultaneously, the Union of the Journalists of Catalonia (PSC) tackled in another statement the issue of politically-motivated appointments in two Catalan public outlets, TV3 and Catalunya Rádio. According to the same alert, people "with known allegiance to parties forming the Catalan government coalition, namely the ERC and CDC", have assumed leadership positions in these public broadcasters.

Both the ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) and the newly rebranded CDC (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) support Catalan statehood. The ERC describes itself as proposing "the building of an independent state for the Catalan nation as part of Europe and the achievement of a fairer and more supportive society without inequalities between people and territories". The CDC, now PDC (Catalan Democratic Party), is headed by Artur Mas, the former president of Catalonia credited with fueling the ongoing push for independence.

Catalans take to the streets to demonstrate for independence in 2014. (Photo: Day Donaldson/The Speaker, CC BY 2.0)

Clashes intensify

Last November, the BBC reported that Mas wanted the autonomous community to have –  besides the control it already has over "education, health and policing" – features of an independent state "such as a diplomatic service, central bank and armed forces". In 6 October 2016, the Parliament of Catalonia voted to go ahead with an official referendum on the matter in September 2017.

The central Spanish government is staunchly against the referendum and secession, continually insisting both are illegal. It wants Mas to undergo trial over the unofficial poll he allowed to take place in November 2014, during his government.

On 3 October, prosecutors called for Mas to be banned from public office for 10 years. His successor, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, had angered the government at Madrid after affirming the regional parliament would pursue the referendum whether or not Spain agreed.  

Puigdemont has been an activist in the separatist cause since before his election in January 2016. Also, he has a strong interest in the field of digital communications, having "designed" the Catalan News Agency in 1998, according to his blog.

The Spanish prosecution incident has spilled over into the juncture between media and politics in Catalonia. The platform Mapping Media Freedom reported on 4 October that Andrea Levy, a People's Party politician in the Parliament of Catalonia, called Catalunya Rádio "a radio of revolutionary guerilla and not a public service operating in the general interest". She accused the public media outlet "of inciting violence after they asked their audience [via Twitter] if they would be ready to physically prevent the judgement of separatist Catalan politicians accused of state disobedience," including Mas.

Tensions in the public sphere show no signs of abating. The tweet in question, from 3 October, was actually made in the form of a poll on the profile of the Catalunya Vespre radio programme. In two weeks, more than 4,700 respondents had voted: 72 percent "no" and the rest "yes" to "physically impeding" the politicians' judgement. The discussion in the thread was contentious, and the tweet was shared over 150 times.




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