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Competing Ideas Challenge The Media Sector

Advocates of democratic values view as essential a free flow of information. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are often enshrined in constitutions and similar documents presented and accepted by citizens. Media providers in democracies are, then, tasked with keeping people informed, typically through privately-owned and publicly-supported publishers and broadcasters, all legally established. Ideas are allowed to compete, officially. It was always a good plan. Too bad it is falling apart. The simultaneous rise of "illiberal" authoritarians, freely accessible digital platforms and acrimonious entitlement has turned the sound of democracy into painful noise.

mediationSince dissolving the semi-autonomous government of Catalonia the Spanish national government has taken small steps to gain control over information flow. Websites of the Catalan parliament and presidency were immediately disabled and the Catalan government information website was cleansed. Unsurprisingly, a government-in-exile website popped-up (president.exili.eu).

When Article 155 was invoked by Spanish President Mariano Rajoy two weeks ago, it was widely expected that directors of regional public broadcaster Catalan Audiovisual Media Corporation (Corporación Catalana de Medios Audiovisuales - CCMA) would be dismissed along with president Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan parliament (Generalitat) and other officials. It didn’t happen. The Socialist Party in the Spanish parliament rejected the move, which had no support from Spanish national and regional public broadcasters as well as criticism from press freedom advocates and the European Commission.

The Partido Popular (Popular Party - PP) will be “very vigilant” in reporting any “irregularity” in the TV3 news coverage in the run-up to the December 21st regional elections, said PP campaign coordinator Fernando Martínez-Maíllo, quoted by El Pais (November 7). "I am convinced that the directors (of TV3) and all the staff will strictly comply with what the (Central Election) Board establishes, but from the PP we are evaluating each of the decisions they are taking on TV3. If necessary, we will submit complaints to ensure objectivity and plurality.”

The first intervention to the Election Board of Barcelona from the Popular Party of Catalonia came this weekend asking “urgent” action to prevent TV3, Catalunya Radio and Canal 3/24 from covering a rally in Barcelona, objecting as interferance with the impending elections. TV3 “continues to be the main instrument agitating for independence,” said PP/Catalonia president Xavier Garcia Albiol, quoted by vilaweb.cat (November 11). Three-quarters of a million people turned out for the rally, said the BBC (November 11); no self-respecting news organization could ignore it. The Election Board of Barcelona denied it had received the complaint.

Public broadcaster CCMA directors, threatened with dismissal, have not been shy about their stance on Catalan independence. “For me the legality of TV3 emanates from the Parliament of Catalonia,” said TV3 director Vicent Sanchis to TV channel La Sexta (October 28). “If you ask me, I'll tell you: I'm an independentist.”

There are other television channels serving Catalonia. Spanish national channels, including public broadcaster TVE and privately-owned La Sexta, are available, some with Catalan language programming.

Indeed, Barcelona is very much a media hub. Grupo Godo owns 8TV, leading daily newspaper La Vanguardia, sports daily Mundo Deportivo, radio stations RAC1 and RAC105, production house Nova Veranda, ad sales house Publipress Media plus a significant minority holding in national broadcaster Prisa Radio. The largest Spanish-language book publisher Grupo Planeta was founded in Barcelona and is a shareholder with RTL Group in Atresmedia, owner of TV channels LaSexta and Antenna 3 and national radio channel Onda Cera.

The now-disbanded Catalan government generously subsidized Catalan-language media, from big newspapers to small websites, either directly or through government advertising. In 2016 the total was €30.6 million, about half going to newspaper publishers. With Article 155 invoked these subsidies, operationally significant to some outlets, will disappear. Newspaper El Punt Avui, fourth in regional circulation, is cutting workforce and salaries, reported economicadigital.es (November 12). Publisher of El Periodico and Sport, Grupo Zeta, has been under financial stress of late and earlier this year sold book publisher Ediciones B to Penguin Random House, subsidiary of Bertelsmann. In 2016 El Periodico benefitted from €3.2 million in subsidies.

The big privately owned media houses in Barcelona have been wary of the Catalan independence movement. Atresmedia suggested it might scale back Barcelona operations in favor of Madrid if Catalonia removed itself from Spain. In October football giant FC Barcelona offered to mediate between Spanish and Catalan parties.


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