Ask Spaniards if they have a free press and most will answer yes. After all, since Francisco Franco died in 1975 there has been no outright press censorship by the government, as there was for the thirty-six years of his dictatorship. But, ask Spanish reporters if they are free to write about how their government operates, and the conversation will soon turn to Spain’s lack of freedom-of-information legislation or sunshine laws. It is very difficult to do serious government reporting without the benefit of hard facts.
The lack of access to information is the single greatest barrier to a press aspiring to represent the interests of the Spanish citizenry. Currently, public officials are under no legal obligation to open their books, reports, or statistics to inspection, and requests for them to do so, whether from citizens or journalists, are routinely denied or ignored. Reports prepared with public funds on everything from day-care inspections to crime statistics are available only for those who can prove a “need to know,” and a direct relationship to the information. Every journalist in Spain who deals with public agencies has war stories of trying to pry loose basic facts and figures about apparently innocuous subjects.
“British journalists know, to the last penny, what it costs the treasury to pay for official cars, compensation to IRA suspects, or the placement of cameras that measure the speed of cars,” wrote journalist Rosario G. Gómez in El País, Spain’s most important newspaper. “In Spain, to learn about waiting lists at hospitals is a titanic task, and the salary of a news anchor on public television is a state secret.”
Luxembourg, Cyprus, Malta, and Spain are the only four of the twenty-seven EU countries still without a law establishing the public’s right-to-know. This past summer, that appeared set to change in Spain. In August, the Socialist government published draft legislation recognizing the public’s right to access a wide range of information, and establishing guidelines for enforcing that access. This had formed part of the Socialist Party’s platform as far back as the 2004 election, when power was wrested from the conservative Popular Party. Again, during the 2008 elections, the Socialists campaigned with a promise to pass legislation mandating transparency. Finally, after six years of inaction, the draft legislation released by the government in August called for sweeping changes. Public agencies would have thirty days to respond to requests for information, and in most cases would be obligated to provide it. The law would, for the first time in Spanish history, mandate the public’s right to know.
But, since the August release of the draft law, nothing has been done to move it through the legislature. Helen Darbishire is the vice president of Access Info, an NGO that has campaigned for a right-to-know law in Spain since 2006. From her office in Madrid, Darbishire said that she would not be surprised if the law is never passed. “At the moment, they say it is ‘paralyzed,’” she said in a November interview. “Certainly, if there’s no outside pressure it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t turn up again. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will to adopt it.”
The legislation is not paralyzed, a government official said, but rather, is being modified. “We proposed it, and then we realized we hadn’t taken some things into account,” said Félix Monteira, the Spanish Secretary of State for Communication. Although the law will apply only to Spain’s central government, he said officials are taking time to work out guidelines for local governments to follow their lead and open up.
“We see it as forming part of a transformative group of laws that will modernize the country,” Monteira added. “The government is committed to seeing this become law, certainly before the end of 2011. We see it as key to democratic behavior and the opening of the public administrations.”