Freedom of the Press 2016 - Spain

Press Freedom Status: 
PFS Score: 
Political Environment: 
Economic Environment: 


Press freedom continued to experience the negative impact of Spain’s ongoing economic crisis in 2015. Many media outlets have closed or cut staff as public expenditures and the advertising market have contracted. This has led to a decline in media diversity, expanding political influence, increased self-censorship, and a deterioration in the independence and quality of reporting.


Key Developments

  • A new public safety law—labeled the “gag law” by critics—took effect in July amid continuing assertions by journalists and media watchdogs that it threatened freedom of expression and association.
  • The editorial independence of major newspapers continued to come into question, with journalists alleging that economic pressures on Spain’s media conglomerates were affecting editorial decision making.


Legal Environment: 6 / 30

Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Section 20 of the constitution, and press freedom is generally respected in practice. However, media face some legal threats, including defamation suits. The authorities monitor websites and social-media accounts that publish hate speech and promote terrorism or xenophobia. In May 2015, a police operation led to at least 23 arrests for suspected glorification of terrorism on social media. The 2014 Intellectual Property Act reinforced the power of authorities to block websites containing or linking to copyrighted content that is used without permission. The law also established the so-called Google Tax, a system of mandatory economic charges applied to news aggregators to compensate news producers. Google deemed the new system “not sustainable” and announced the shutdown of its news service in Spain ahead of the law’s entry into force on January 1, 2015.

A public safety law that took effect in July has worrying implications for freedom of expression. Included in the law are fines of up to €30,000 ($35,000) for “grave” offenses like the unauthorized use of images of public officials or members of the security forces when it could endanger the individuals, their families, protected facilities, or a security operation. The law also established fines of up to €600 ($700) for insulting a member of the security forces.

In June, legislators passed an amendment to the Law on Criminal Procedure that restricts the use of photographs of defendants during arrests or transfers, drawing further criticism from press freedom advocates. The government claimed that the measure was intended to avoid prejudicial coverage, while skeptics noted that the amendment’s introduction followed the widely publicized April arrest of former economy minister and International Monetary Fund (IMF) executive Rodrigo Rato, who was accused of money laundering and tax evasion.

A new freedom of information law, the Transparency Act, took effect in December 2014. Advocacy organizations have criticized it for failing to recognize the right to access information as a fundamental right; exempting certain types of government information, such as internal communications, drafts, or opinions; and creating an oversight body that lacks independence. In line with the law, the government operates a website that allows citizens to access information about contracts, subsidies, and salaries, but some information is only available upon request. As of July 2015, around 30 percent of requests submitted through the portal had been denied or declared inadmissible.


Political Environment: 14 / 40

Although Spanish media continue to cover a wide range of perspectives, journalists and other observers have alleged growing government influence at the Corporación Radio Televisión Española (RTVE), which oversees public media. Under a 2012 reform plan, the head of RTVE is elected by a simple majority vote in the parliament, down from the previous two-thirds majority. Changes in the body’s leadership at the end of 2014 were interpreted by critics as a sign of increased government control ahead of elections in 2015.

Political interference at private newspapers has also reportedly increased. In November 2015, the New York Times published an article questioning the editorial independence of Spanish media, especially the most prominent newspapers, in relation to the financial strains facing their parent companies. Several examples of corporate pressure affecting editorial decisions concerned the newspaper El País and its owner, the Prisa conglomerate. Five days after the article was published, El País dismissed Miguel Ángel Aguilar, a prominent journalist who spoke with the New York Times for the story, and ended its publication of a weekly Spanish-language New York Times supplement.

Several editors at leading newspapers have faced dismissal in recent years. Jose Antich, editor of La Vanguardia, a pro-independence Catalonian newspaper, was ousted in December 2013; Javier Moreno of El País departed in February 2014; and also that month, in a particularly controversial case, Pedro Ramirez was dismissed from his position as editor in chief of El Mundo. The daily El Mundo had been particularly active in denouncing institutional and financial corruption among members of the ruling Popular Party and the royal family, and Ramírez considered his removal to be the consequence of “a brutal campaign from the government.”

Media workers claim that self-censorship in general has risen due to political pressure and the threat of layoffs amid the ongoing economic crisis. Because of this situation, some journalists have founded independent online outlets, which generally enjoy much less influence and a smaller reach.

Violence against journalists has occurred only sporadically in recent years; in a series of exceptional cases, several reporters faced physical assault while covering economic and political protests in 2014.


Economic Environment: 8 / 30

Spain has a diverse media sector, including both public and private outlets, but still lacks a regulatory framework for private, nonprofit media, as called for in the Audiovisual Law of 2010. Private ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies, particularly after the deregulation of ownership in 2009 allowed the creation of a de facto duopoly in private broadcasting, with Atresmedia and Mediaset controlling 70 percent of private television networks. A Supreme Court decision in 2014 ordered the closure of nine private channels, including several owned by Atresmedia and Mediaset, on the grounds that their digital terrestrial broadcasting licenses had been issued without a public call for tenders. A settlement in the case reached in June 2015 allowed the channels to preserve their licenses. In October, the government approved the licensing of six new TV channels to six different companies.

Approximately 79 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2015. With the decline of traditional media, Spain has experienced a rapid increase in the use of online media, which has encouraged political pluralism and digital activism.

The economic crisis has seriously affected Spain’s media industry. Since 2008, 375 media outlets have closed and 12,200 journalists have lost their jobs, according to the Madrid Press Association. There were 246 layoffs in 2015—a sharp decline from the 2,465 in 2014. Many newspapers receive either sizable subsidies from the government or funding from banks and large corporations. Lack of transparency regarding the government’s advertising purchases is a major problem: more than 75 percent of the €140.6 million ($180 million) invested in 2014 fell under the category of “commercial advertising,” as opposed to “institutional advertising,” and was consequently out of thorough public control. Institutional advertising grew 19 percent in 2015, reaching nearly €50 million ($55 million), and total advertising reached €170 million ($185 million). Although independent journalists and media freedom advocates have urged lawmakers to address this issue, no changes were made in 2015.