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Opinion World

CARACCIO: Homage to Orwell—The Misinformation Campaign Against Catalonia

On October 1, 2017—the day of the Catalan Independence Referendum—voters across Catalonia took to the polls and cast ballots, proudly practicing their democratic right to self determination. Mobilizing despite the draconian threats of the Spanish government, more than two million Catalans participated in the historic referendum which aimed at deciding the future of Catalonia: to either continue as a region of Spain or re-emerge as a free, independent country.

Celebration abounded in Catalonia as the vote count demonstrating 90.2% support of independence circulated. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, quickly took to national television with his response—or more accurately, his absolute denial. “No referendum has been held in Catalonia,” he obstinately declared

On the morning before the votes were cast, more than 10,000 military police, all clad in black, disembarked from giant ships, like a dark wave descending upon the coast of Catalonia, with the aim of drowning democracy. Armed with rubber bullet guns and batons, they swarmed the streets they had been sent to occupy, mirthfully chanting the command of their police chief:  “A por ellos.” Go get them. Raiding the polling stations, the military police brutalized the Catalans who had arranged themselves in human chains with the mission of protecting both the ballot boxes and the democratic integrity of the nation. At the end of the day, hospital records revealed that over 1,000 Catalans had sustained wounds at the hands of the Spanish military police.

The following days, while the Spanish press remained hush about the brutalization of the Catalan people, the Interior Ministry of Spain flipped the script and claimed instead that 423 Spanish police had sustained wounds inflicted by rebellious Catalan voters. For more than a year, however, the Ministry failed to produce any medical records that could verify the number of policemen said to be “hurt” during a movement that holds non-violence at its core. In the recent trials investigating the referendum, upon being forced to testify about such police injuries, the Ministry unceremoniously lowered the number of injured policemen to 93. 

Orwell would have been proud. 

***

The dissemination of misinformation surrounding the plight of the Catalan people, propagated by the Spanish press and government, has been relentless and jarring. Spain, in accordance with its status as a European Union democracy, extols freedom of the press as a principal pillar which upholds the nation. The recent spurious coverage of the Catalan independence movement, however, has exposed a fundamentally shattered foundation, leaving the credibility of the nation’s media to crumble alongside that of its democracy. 

In a dystopian fashion, Spanish national media coverage has increasingly become the willing handmaiden of both corporate greed and political power-mongering. While the flagrantly fictive quality of the Spanish press’s reporting has most recently come to light with the coverage of the Catalan movement, the corruption that mars journalism in Spain runs deep. 

In his recent book, El Director, David Jimenez—the previous editor-in-chief of El Mundo, one of Spain’s biggest dailies—uncovers the unscrupulous ties between the Spanish media and corporate interests. According to Jimenez, throughout his time working as a journalist in Spain, during every holiday—and consistently throughout the year—Spanish corporations regaled the press with exorbitantly expensive presents, trips, and favors. Jimenez sets the scene: “Free meals in the best restaurants, cars lent out for indefinite periods, and bank loans at interest rates unimaginable to other mortals were the order of the day.” A past reporter for El País, Spain’s second largest daily, recalled how once, during a press conference releasing its annual report, a large Spanish bank gifted television sets to every journalist in attendance. As there were extras, a few journalists even departed smugly with one under each arm. Jimenez describes the conversation in which a former board member of Banco Popular confirmed that the company’s policy was to “keep the financial reporters happy” by offering journalists below-market mortgage rates in exchange for friendly coverage. As it was, the bank had been covertly struggling and went under soon after, Jimenez relays, though without ever having lost its image as the longstanding best-managed bank in the country, as depicted by the press. 

The Great Recession in Spain from 2008 to 2014 only intensified the press’s dependence on corporate handouts and accelerated its descent into corruption. While the rest of the country was buried in financial debt, Spanish journalists were instead inundated with cases of wine, entire legs of ham, Montecristo cigars, and expensive vacations—pouring from the pockets of profiteering Spanish corporations and onto the editors’ desks in gargantuan piles. During the Great Recession, large corporations and the press negotiated agreements known as “the Accords.” These pacts immunized the newspapers from the ubiquitous financial difficulty of the time by granting them more advertising money than they deserved, in exchange for whitewashing the corporations’ image and omitting negative news about them from coverage. “Buying a journalist was impossible in Spain, but as the Afghan saying about corruption has it, ‘Renting, on the other hand…’” Jimenez sardonically writes.

While the public opinion regarding the Catalan independence movement may differ by demographic in Spain, the Spanish corporate world resolutely maintains a vested interest in preserving a unified Spain. With respect to their economic success, a fractured country would likely prove to be challenging, if not outright detrimental, to Spanish corporations. Unsurprisingly then, recent partial news coverage reveals how Spanish corporations have breathed their bias into the media’s ear, surreptitiously demanding that they present a distorted depiction of the Catalan independence movement. 

Unfortunately, the corrupt alliances of the Spanish media don’t end with corporations. Spain’s politicians also underhandedly, yet firmly, grip the pens of the nation’s reporters—the separation between politics and press is an illusion, and a flimsy one at that. In fact, Spain ranks first among countries where the “political independence” of the press is in danger, according to a recent report presented by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom. But it is precisely during trying times for Spain that Spanish politicians have most doggedly attempted to commandeer the coverage. 

During the Great Recession, for example, Jimenez explains that as journalists scrambled to gain relevance to avoid being laid off, granting an appearance on a political talk show “was enough to bag a journalist.” Former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy capitalized on the journalists’ perilous job security by controlling who would appear on the national radio and television and employing government-funded advertising to punish those whom he considered to be disobedient. Jimenez recounted: “This was a war in which journalists were humiliated through messages telling them what slogans to repeat, in which blind loyalty was demanded, and careers were ruined or nurtured on a whim.”

***

Following the 2017 Catalan Independence Referendum, biased news coverage has not only incensed the Catalan public but also stoked dissent within the newsrooms themselves. In Catalonia, hundreds of journalists working at the state-owned Spanish Radio and Television Corporation (RTVE), which controls ten percent of the media space in Spain, have protested the manipulation of information disseminating from their newsroom. Rising from their editorial desks and standing in a line en masse, the journalists held up signs that read “#vergonya” (#shame) in response to the station’s unconscionable mishandling of the coverage of the Catalan independence referendum. 

During the referendum, the corrupt marriage of the Spanish government and the national public broadcasting system became so incontrovertible that the staff of the Spanish news service RTVE demanded the immediate resignation of the network’s entire Board of Directors. Unable to remain complicit, the journalists at RTVE wrote a letter exposing how the news station continuously breached the law that governs the public broadcasting system, which mandates news outlets to “guarantee information that is objective, truthful, and complete.” The journalists flooded Twitter with repudiations of their employer’s chicanery, and even reported wearing black clothing—in symbolic mourning for the network’s loss of journalistic integrity. 

The journalists claim that RTVE not only refused to present accurate coverage and issue an informational special on the Catalan independence referendum—arguably the greatest conflict modern Spain has seen—but also did everything it could to spread a partial and biased vision of the situation. In accordance with the Spanish government’s arrant denial that a referendum should occur, RTVE refrained from covering the events that transpired, even as millions of people took to the polls and hundreds of them were attacked. Videos of the Spanish military police breaking through the windows of local polling stations and dragging students by their hair were circulated by the public on social media. The Spanish news outlets, on the other hand, refused to air them and instead circulated assurances that those videos had been doctored—the claims of violence, a ruse devised by the Catalans. In a deceitful game of minimization, RTVE relegated the news coverage of the referendum to the 24 Hours Channel and in its ten minute bulletin covering the referendum, recast the extreme violence perpetrated by the Spanish police as mere “moments of tension.” Withholding all footage of the assaulted Catalans (in particular, the horrifying video of a Spanish police officer trying to systematically break a Catalan woman’s fingers), Pedro Carreño, director of the public television’s weekend news, emphasized that the actions taken were not directed against citizens but instead against the illegal polling stations.  

This mediatic treatment of the Catalan movement extends beyond just the day of the referendum. While some news outlets omitted information regarding the Catalan movement from their coverage altogether, others filtered the figures they presented in order to insidiously mislead.  For example, following a massive pro-independence demonstration which took place in Belgium (where Catalonia’s president Puigdemont resides in exile), El País reported that “Over 10,000 people took part in pro-independence protests for Catalonia in Brussels.” The statement, technically, was true. But according to the official data, upwards of 45,000 people attended the Catalan protest in question. These are the mathematics of manipulation.

***

For some Americans, the call to discount the accuracy of the Spanish press likely raises a red flag. Under the current administration, America has seen a war on journalism frighteningly emerge, as President Donald Trump constantly assails the press and employs fear-mongering tactics to discredit America’s primary news sources. Trump’s propagandic claims of “fake news” aimed at disempowering the American free press—one of the fundamental checks in our democratic system—have conditioned liberal Americans to recoil every time a political body denounces the national press. This visceral— albeit healthy—aversion to all repudiations of the press, however, renders one dangerously susceptible to misinformation in the case of the Catalan movement. 

The rampant misinformation campaign transmitted by the Spanish press not only denigrates the image of the Catalan movement internally within the voting body of Spain; it also, more devastatingly, damages the ethos of the Catalan plight internationally at a critical moment for the movement’s survival. Victimized by a national government that harbors an indefatigable intention to quash the identity of the Catalan people (with violence, if necessary), the Catalan independence movement now hinges on garnering international support. As Catalans lack both a military and a will to employ violence to resist the formidable and ruthless Spanish machine, the fate of the Catalan people rests in the hands of the international public. Unfortunately though, these hands also hold the news articles published by El País and El Mundo, among others that paint a glaringly dishonest depiction of the Catalan intention.

To make matters worse, even though the Catalan aspiration to reclaim national independence dates back centuries, the hapless timing of the movement’s recent culmination has undermined its credibility and likelihood of success. In recent years, Europe’s political landscape has witnessed a wave of nationalistic movements—sowing fear and discord across the borders of the implicated nations and reverberating through the global consciousness. Movements like Brexit—widely perceived as ill-planned and capricious—as well as the rise of the alt-right in France, Austria, and Germany, among other countries, have tainted the perception of nationalism with suspicions of racist and supremacist sentiments. 

Exposed to far less media coverage, news of the Catalan independence movement has gradually disseminated, though enshrouded by ambiguity and fragmented understanding. The inadequate amount of media coverage—coupled with its largely fallacious nature—has created fertile ground for international opinion to sprout from unsubstantiated assumption and extrapolation. Painting over the Catalan independence movement with the same brush of nationalism, the Spanish press has strategically eroded the character of the Catalan plight in the eyes of international observers. 

“Nationalism” has become a buzzword—its disconcerting connotations are so viscerally entrenched, that even the most educated reader can’t escape snap sentiments of distrust and trepidation when reading about international affairs that fall within its sphere. The corrupt Spanish press has eagerly capitalized upon the seductive misconception of the Catalan movement which accompanies such generalizations. But despite the Spanish media’s most compelling attempts at conflation, not all nationalistic movements are created equal. The Catalan movement, though subsumed by the umbrella term of nationalism, diverges in a fundamental way: the Catalan independence movement stems not from a thirst to subjugate or gain supremacy, but from a basic need to survive.