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Spain5 March 2008

Many restrictions on media coverage of campaign for 9 March general elections

Reporters Without Borders calls on Spain’s political parties to respect press freedom and to stop imposing conditions that restrict journalists’ ability to gather, process and disseminate news in an independent manner. “Journalists should not be regarded as mere auxiliaries and news should not be regarded as political communication,” the organisation said.

The Spanish media have a long list of complaints about the restrictions imposed on their coverage of the 9 March general elections, ranging from limited access to candidates and bans on recording candidates’ addresses at rallies, to news conferences without questions.

Many Spanish journalists organisations are saying their freedom to report the news is being violated. In particular, they are criticising the control exercised by the two leading political parties, the Spanish Socialists Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP), over the way the press covers their election campaigns. Both state and privately-owned TV stations are allowed to film political rallies but not candidates. “We are puppets,” a journalist who follows PSOE told El País on 1 March.

At the end of last month, the Federation of Journalist Trade Unions (FeSP) called for an end to the “shameful spectacle” in which rallies are transformed into marketing products and journalists become nothing more than transmission channels. The public has a right to reporting and analysis, and it is the job of journalists to provide it, the FeSP said, appealing to candidates to respect the rules of the democratic game, especially in their relations with the media and journalists.

The political parties defend themselves against the criticism. They claim that they offer the TV stations recordings of the candidates’ complete speeches “so that the media can select the passage they want.” They say they do this for reasons of economy (“for the TV stations, this system means a substantial reduction in costs”) and logistics (“installing a dozen cameras would be very complicated”).

The FeSP condemns this system. “In their concern to control the images that reach the TV viewers, the politicians’ advisers obstruct the work of the media and provide institutional films to the TV stations.”

Some news media are refusing to comply with this system. Journalists with the Catalan public TV channel TV-3 decided not to mention rallies which they were unable to attend and record their own footage. This decision was taken with the agreement of the station’s board of governments, and viewers are reminded of it before each programme about the general election.

The Madrid Press Association (APM) issued a statement on 6 February saying TV crews should have unrestricted access to all the election rallies held by Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy and should be free to record not only the candidates’ speeches but also anything else taking place at the rally.

Another concern of journalists working for the public media is the obligation to ensure that the air-time granted to each party is in proportion to the votes it obtained in the last parliamentary elections. The Association of Journalists of Catalonia, the Madrid Press Association and Association of Journalists of Galicia referred the air-time issue to the supreme court on 21 February. The lawyer representing the Association of Journalists of Catalonia, Gemma Segura, said this proportionality was inappropriate. “Neither neutrality nor pluralism is achieved by predetermining air-time,” she said.

Journalists working for the public broadcaster RTVE have been demanding more reporting freedom for a long time. Last December, RTVE proposed an election campaign coverage plan that tried to respect the principles of pluralism and proportionality, but it was rejected by the electoral commission on 14 February. Three of the smaller parties - United Left (IU), the Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) - complained to the supreme court on 3 March, arguing that a televised debate limited to the candidates of the two leading parties would violate respect for pluralism in the public media.

The FeSP said in statement at the start of the election campaign that the negotiations between PSOE and PP about the holding of television debates between the leaders of the two parties were further evidence of the way they regarded themselves as controllers of media news and information.

According to the FeSP, the root of the problem lies in the absence of any law in Spain that regulates the public media’s role in an election campaign. The spaces for party political promotion on the public TV stations are determined by the central electoral commission, which “lacks the competence to do this,” the FeSP said.

“The political bosses and their communication advisers demand predetermined debates and interviews in which they go so far as to impose the camera angles,” the FeSP continued. “By so doing, they turn journalists into nothing more than the spectators of an interview.”

The FeSP added : “Right now, these electoral programmes are spaces at the service of the political parties, not at the service of the public. Journalists complain that the electoral commission applies propaganda criteria to news and information. And this will always be a source of conflict.”

Olga Viza, the journalist who moderated the second TV debate between Zapatero and Rajoy, defined her role as follows : “I just turn the pages of a screenplay which they wrote themselves.” Viza made this comment in an interview published by El País 48 hours before the debate. A telling admission.

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