Basque extremists stepped up their threats to the media in 2003 while the battle against such violence affected press freedom in the Basque region.
Though it did not stage any physical attacks in 2003, the Basque nationalist organisation ETA resumed its terror campaign by making more threats of violence against journalists and media that did not report world events and the situation in the Basque Country in line with its views. The Basque regional TV station Euskal Irratia Telebista (EITB) was directly targeted by the ETA several times.
The fight against terrorism affected press freedom, with the temporary closure, as a "precautionary measure," of the Basque newspaper Euskaldunon Egunkaria, whose editors were suspected of collaborating with the ETA. Similar steps were taken in 1998, when the Basque separatist daily Egin and the radio station Egin-Irratia were suspended as part of a crackdown on ETA funding networks.
Some laws hampered press freedom, including a requirement for media to pay heavy fines for defamation immediately, before any appeal could be heard, which risked bankrupting them and introducing an atmosphere of self-censorship. Justice minister José Maria Michavila promised to urgently reform the code of civil procedure and the immediate payment clause was struck out on 10 December.
The state-funded TV station TVE, already criticised for its coverage of the Prestige oil-tanker spill and a general strike in 2002, was accused of pro-government bias during the Iraq war. In March, several hundred TVE journalists approved the setting up of a committee against distorting news, which would make reports to management and to parliament’s watchdog commission monitoring the public radio and TV corporation, RTVE.
The country’s main criminal court declared on 24 July that RTVE was guilty of distorted reporting of a general strike on 20 June 2002 and forced it to broadcast a correction to its version of the event on 16 October.
The Basque extremist organisation ETA announced in its internal newsletter Zutaba on 16 May 2003 that it would continue to attack what it called Spanish "war media." The newsletter was displayed by three supposed ETA members in film clips shown on the Basque public TV station, in which they said the organisation had no plans for a "tactical truce."
The ETA repeated its threats to the media in its newsletter on 12 July and said it was investigating "the work being done by the Spanish armed forces collaborators who work in the guise of journalists running the warmongering media."
The privately-owned radio station Cadena Ser reported on 6 October that the ETA had sent threatening letters to many officials and journalists of the Basque regional TV station Euskal Irratia Telebista (EITB) accusing them of calling its members "terrorists." The EITB confirmed the threats had been made.
Harassment and obstruction
The magazine El Siglo was fined 120,202 euros on 21 January 2003 for libel and ordered to pay it immediately. The online newspaper Canoa-Diariodirecto and the TV station Telemadrid were fined respectively 120,000 and 500,000 euros in February, also for libel and with orders to pay immediately.
A judge of the country’s main criminal court ordered the closure on 20 February of the Basque-language daily Euskaldunon Egunkaria. Police arrested 10 of its journalists and senior staff, including publisher Martxelo Otamendi Egiguren, on suspicion of "belonging to or collaborating with the ETA terrorist organisation." Some of its branch offices were raided and material seized.
The next day, the staff brought out a new Basque-language paper, called Egunero, with a front-page headline saying "Closed but not silent." Four people, including Otamendi, were released on bail on 25 February and six other senior staff were placed in preventive detention.
Former publisher Peio Zubiria was hospitalised on 23 February after trying to kill himself in detention. Two members of the paper’s board, Iñaki Uria and Xavier Oleaga, were still in jail at the end of the year. Otamendi Egiguren said he had been physically and psychologically ill-treated in jail. Deputy prime minister Mariano Rajoy denied the torture allegations on 28 February.
Judge Juan del Olmo extended for six months on 21 July the "precautionary measures" taken against the Euskaldunon Egunkaria group - freezing of funds, suspension of activities and closing the offices of Egunkaria SA, Egunkaria Sortzen SL and the paper itself. He said the group had the same aims as the ETA and was helping to strengthen the terrorist organisation by setting up bogus companies.
The country’s chief criminal court ordered the head of the Basque public radio and TV station, Andoni Ortuzar, on 20 May to report to the prosecutor’s office to explain why the TV - Euskal Irratia Telebista (EITB) - had broadcast a video clip on 15 May in which three masked ETA members said the organisation had no plans for a "tactical truce" and demanded "respect for the will of the Basque people." The men urged people to cast spoiled ballots at the 25 May local elections in protest against the outlawing of the pro-ETA Basque independence party Batasuna.
Andoni Ortuzar, Julian Beloki, coordinator of EITB radio, and EITB senior manager Bingen Zupiria Gorostidi told the judge on 14 October they had not been supporting the ETA by broadcasting the statements, which were of general public interest. They pointed out that they themselves had been threatened by the ETA.
More than 35,000 euros were seized on 10 September from the bank accounts of Canoa-Diariodirecto and its publisher, Fernando Jauregui, to pay libel damages. The website appealed against the sentence and filed a complaint with the Council of the Judiciary.