Here’s a stinker of a question, the whole concept of press freedom tangled in its own contradictions. If you run a government-financed broadcasting system (say Catalan radio and TV) can some higher authority (say the Spanish state) take control of you when it steps in to run everything?
Maybe an easy problem if we’re talking about independent, truth-seeking newsrooms. But what if that is not exactly possible? See the shades of grey gather. Here’s the EU head of Reporters Sans Frontières, quoted in a new report on the Catalan imbroglio: “The climate for the free exercise of journalism has been tremendously corrupted by extreme polarisation in Catalan politics and society. The regional government’s eagerness to impose its own narrative on to the local, Spanish and international press has crossed red lines, and the intimidating manoeuvres of the central Spanish government have certainly not helped.”
Here’s the boss of TV3, the main Catalan channel: “The legality for the director of television in Catalonia is the legality that emanates from the parliament of Catalonia.” His staff “will oppose” the national government’s intervention. He believes that “the parliamentary majority” for Catalan independence “represents a majority social feeling” that overrides Spanish legalities.
Catalan TV and radio – perhaps especially radio – are not negligible forces. They account for 31% of all regional broadcasting money spent in Spain. And television meshes with print and online activity. TV3 stalwarts are on the board of Ara, the biggest Catalan-only paper in the region (with an online audience close to 2.5 million). President Carles Puigdemont is a journalist who worked for El Punt in Girona, one of the staunchest pro-independence areas. Last year, according to the Madrid paper El Mundo, the Catalan Generalitat gave €7m in grants to chosen media, with well over a million going to Ara and El Punt. There’s been a forest of magic money trees before that.
So much for background. What about the future – including regional elections promised on 21 December? How can they be held fairly in a toxic media climate – which, of course, won’t be helped by the countervailing bias of Madrid’s public service media? Does Madrid impose discipline, censorship by another name? Or does it let the vituperation roll – and abide by the non-intervention initiatives of Rajoy’s socialist partners? Go one way and all those Franco memories will get another airing. Go the other and the vote may be fatally compromised.
The difficulty is that the two paths are equally fraught. But when in doubt, always choose less rather than more repression, no matter how difficult it is. See the stick given to the followers of the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, only a few weeks ago, when they took down Catalan websites.
There will be neutral monitors when the election comes, and there ought to be neutral media voices in play before that. Let them report regularly and openly. Ask Catalan newspapers, websites and broadcasters to carry their verdicts on events as a voluntary running commentary. Begin transparent work towards a better appointments system for editors and directors. Keep parliament and press freedoms at arm’s length.
But leave your heavy boots in the hall. Tread softly. “Both sides should understand that the best sign of a democracy is a free press, with journalists who seek truthful information and feel no need to self-censor,” says the RSF director. It will be infernally difficult after the shambles of the last few days. But it’s a flag on the battlefield that must still be saluted.