Spain’s Not-So-Free Press

Long-promised freedom-of-information legislation stalls
January 8, 2011

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.

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“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.”

Without a right-to-know law, investigative journalism in Spain is virtually nonexistent. The only exceptions come when politicians provide the press with tips about one another. Even in countries where public access is broad, investigative journalism takes time, and is labor intensive, making it a hard sell to media anywhere struggling through the great recession. Add to that the difficulties in accessing even basic data, and it is not surprising that the Spanish media rarely break significant stories.

“We’re very handicapped by the lack of access to information,” said Lola Galán, a reporter for the Sunday edition of El País. “It can be highly laborious here just to get crumbs, fragments of data. It all depends on the goodwill of the interlocutor in the ministry, but journalists are systematically denied the most irrelevant data, things that in no way involve something like national security. There’s a huge shortage of investigative journalism here.”

There is one bright spot, in terms of transparency. Economic journalists have been able to get solid information on Spain’s government debt woes because standard EU accounting rules require disclosure of a wide range of data, including government revenue, expense, budget deficit, and total debt outstanding.

If a domestic transparency bill does become law in Spain, the only way it becomes effective is if journalists use it. Spain’s other big journalistic challenge—its highly politicized press—may be a limiting factor. Television, radio, and newspapers at national, regional, and local levels are generally aligned with a political party, and this is frequently reflected in their news content, as well as on their editorial pages. In addition, media are often beholden to public administrations for funds. For instance, Catalonia, the autonomous region of which Barcelona is the capital, actively encourages and promotes the use of the Catalan language—outlawed under Franco. Depending on their circulation, newspapers that publish in Catalan can receive the equivalent of more than $1.35 million a year from the Catalan government, the Generalitat de Catalunya. The Generalitat also funds Catalonia’s public radio and television network’s annual budget with the equivalent of some $470 million. Such subsidized media are highly reluctant to root out and reveal wrongdoing in the Generalitat.

The Federation of Journalists Associations of Spain, representing journalists from all over Spain, has long called for a right-to-know law, but many journalists are skeptical of how much such a law would be used. Xavier Mas de Xaxàs, a reporter with Barcelona’s venerable daily, La Vanguardia, said that most journalists today would not use a public access law because their employers do not want them doing these kinds of stories. News content, or lack thereof, is too strongly politicized, according to Mas de Xaxàs, La Vanguardia’s Washington correspondent from 1995 to 2002. “In Spain, the control of the media by political parties is a natural control now, the political powers don’t even have to strain to maintain it,” he said. “It’s the media themselves that want to be controlled, because the state keeps them alive.”

It was not always so, he lamented. “After Franco died, during the transition to democracy, there was a lot of energy put into informing and investigating. The people were demanding transparency. That all lasted until the mid-1980s, but it has disappeared. How could we have gotten to where we are today? It’s a failure of the profession and the society.”

Mas de Xaxàs does, however, see a glimmer of hope in the handful of young bloggers across Spain who are beginning to publish investigative work at sites like or, both of which he helped to establish. A new transparency law, coupled with a no-cost place to publish and a potentially huge audience, could create a new generation of investigative journalists. “Anybody who comes along with the kind of journalism that really informs the public is going to devour the Spanish market,” he said. “If they begin to report and inform in the Anglo-Saxon style—simple and direct, using contrasting sources in well-structured and well-written pieces—they would be a huge hit. There’s a market waiting.”

Richard Schweid is a journalist from Nashville who has lived in Barcelona since 1995. He co-founded the city magazine Barcelona Metropolitan in 1996. He has published eight books of nonfiction and was production manager for the feature-length documentary Balseros, nominated for an Oscar in 2004.