MAGAZINE
Silencing the Spanish media
24 Mar 2020
BY SILVIA NORTES

Spanish journalist Silvia Nortes reports on the trend amongst Spanish journalists of self-censoring in the face of job losses and a divided society, a special piece as part of the 2020 spring edition of Index on Censorship magazine

A political protest in Spain, November 2017. Credit: NH53/Flickr
A political protest in Spain, November 2017. Credit: NH53/Flickr

Paulino Ros, a journalist with 35 years’ experience in radio, admits he self-censors. It’s understandable – after all, he lost a job because of his reporting of a corruption case.

“The case was confirmed two months later and charges were laid by the Court of Instruction and the police made arrests. Even so, my crime of publishing ended up costing me my job and, even worse, my health,” he said. Ros censors himself “almost every day, so as not to displease my superiors. I stick to the editorial line”.

He is not alone. The co-founder of major Spanish newspaper El País, Juan Luis Cebrián, said recently that plenty of journalists were tailoring what they wrote or said because there was “no free debate, because people think it is better not to mess with that because of social rejection”.

Unlike Ros, most are reluctant to admit to this on record, but the idea that self-censorship is rife is backed up by statistics. The 2016 Annual Report of Journalism by the Madrid Press Association recorded alarming data, for example: 75% of journalists yield to pressure, and more than half acknowledge they usually censor themselves.

And it’s getting worse as certain issues within society are becoming more divisive. In Spain, social movements are strong engines of heated debates. The controversy they generate can pose a danger to journalistic independence, due to the temptation to follow a majority view.

The tension is obvious when reporting on Catalonia, where the resurgence of the independence movement has given rise to a silencing form of nationalism. Journalists working in Catalonia for national media, such as television channels Antena 3 and La Sexta, are branded as “manipulators” by pro-independence social movements. Reporters Without Borders has recorded a series of attacks on journalists in Catalonia since 2017. As the organisation notes, covering quarrels and demonstrations in Barcelona “has become a high-risk task for reporters”. It adds that insults, the throwing of objects, shoving and all kinds of physical and verbal aggression have become routine, especially during live television broadcasts.

The women’s movement can cause the bravest of reporters to duck into a corner. In May 2019, feminist magazine Pikara made a podcast with a midwife, Ascensión Gómez López, about childbirth. June Fernández, founder of Pikara, tweeted a quote from the midwife to promote the podcast: “The epidural turns childbirth into a silent act, disconnected from the body. In childbirth we groan, as with orgasms. But silence is more comfortable in an aseptic environment.”

Two days later, the tweet received more than 1,200 replies, mostly from outraged women, as well as comments from magazine contributors. “Idiots”, “Irresponsible” and “You contribute to worsening the women’s situation” were some of the responses. It was a week in which Pikara was preparing a crowdfunding campaign. “What if lots of people decide not to support us?” Fernández wrote in an article. She told how staff had discussed whether they should have self-censored, as journalists who do not self-censor face the prospect of losing support. But she argued that self-censorship was not a route they wanted to go down.

That was not Pikara’s first controversy. A previous one came when it interviewed a porn star, Amarna Miller. Following much criticism, the magazine issued a letter to readers to justify the decision, and lost a subscriber. The publication also became embroiled in a debate after publishing an opinion piece arguing against breastfeeding.

Pikara’s experience illustrates the power that an audience’s opinion has over editorial decisions. Even feeling the need to state openly that it will not self-censor says a lot.

Andrea Momoitio, a journalist with Pikara, told Index about the intense “agitation around certain movements” and worried that the “media are heading towards niche journalism”. She added: “The more specialised the public is, the more we know their interests, the harder it is to do independent journalism.”

Journalists working in Catalonia for national media, such as television channels Antena 3 and La Sexta, are branded as “manipulators” by pro-independence social movements

As editor-in-chief of local newspaper La Opinión in Murcia, Lola García selects content every day.

“Sometimes journalists cannot detach themselves from what surrounds them, so it is easy to get carried away. We need to be more alert than ever,” said García.

“Everything is polarised and, on many occasions, it is necessary to take sides. The key is to do it with truthful and fact-checked information.”

Indeed, the polarisation of Spanish politics, which became evident with extreme right-wing party Vox getting 52 seats in parliament last November, has been reflected in the media. Outlets show marked ideologies and provoke opposing and radical opinions.

In certain cases, this exaltation of ideology turns journalists into advocates for one side or the other. “The role of journalists as analysts is being left aside,” Momoitio said.

This also happens when pitching ideas for pieces or investigations.

Investigative journalist Paula Guisado, who works for national newspaper El Mundo, thinks the difference between self-censorship and a simple choice of content is “very subtle”.

“In my case, it’s a matter of knowing what the media outlet I work for prefers to publish. I invest my time in pitching topics I know will be better received. In corruption scandals, for instance, we all know El Mundo prefers to talk about PSOE [the left-wing party now in power] and El País would rather investigate [the right-wing] PP.”

Rather than seeing this as self-censorship, Guisado says it is “taking advantage of the environment you are working in”.

But García said: “When decisions are made based on non-journalistic criteria, it is self-censorship. When media business, ideology or other interests come into play, the pressure on journalists is intense.”

Job insecurity lies at the heart of this issue. The aforementioned 2016 Annual Report of the Journalistic Profession noted this pressure comes mostly from “people related to ownership or management of the media outlet”, especially when it comes to freelancers. In addition, failing to give in to the pressure can lead to consequences including, in many cases, being dismissed.

Luis Palacio Llanos, who oversees these reports, sees a possible relationship between the precariousness of the industry and self-censorship. “Between 2012 and 2018, and probably before that, unemployment and job insecurity was the main professional concern for Spanish journalists, according to our annual surveys. In 2019, this fell to second place, surpassed by bad pay, another sign of a precarious industry. In addition, journalists always rated their independence when carrying out their job below 5 on a scale of 0 to 10. Over the past few years, less than a quarter of journalists stated they had never been pressured to change significant parts of their pieces.”

The financial crisis that began in 2008 had a lot to do with the rise of self-censorship among journalists. The fall in advertising caused thousands of layoffs and the closure of hundreds of media operations. By 2012, more than 6,200 journalists had lost their jobs, according to the Spanish Federation of Journalist Associations. By 2014, 11,145 journalists had been fired and 100 media outlets had closed.

Momoitio believes the crisis and self-censoring go hand in hand. “The audience demands a very compassionate journalism, which does not take you out of your comfort zone. Journalism is going through such a long crisis that it has to adapt to these requests.”

Palacio added: “Surely the crisis and the deterioration in working conditions have been the main factors in the increase in self-censorship. This has been superimposed on a structural crisis that began at the end of the 20th century alongside the expansion of digitalisation.”

Digital is, of course, another aspect. Social media was central to the Pikara episode. In a time when information reaches millions of people in a matter of seconds, the reaction of a large digital audience can make journalists more vulnerable – and cautious.

“Social media greatly promotes self-censorship,” said Momoitio. The audience “follows you because you tell the stories they want to hear, from their perspective. That is very dangerous and irresponsible”.

García added: “Social media is a double-edged sword. There is greater projection, but it can trigger uncontrolled reactions.”

Silvia Nortes is a freelance journalist based in Murcia, Spain

Index on Censorship’s spring 2020 issue is entitled Complicity: Why and when we chose to censor ourselves and give away our privacy  

Why and when we chose to censor ourselves and give away our privacy

The spring 2020 Index on Censorship magazine looks at how we are sometimes complicit in our own censorship

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