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Catalonia’s Independence: Partisan Media Coverage Has Polarised Spanish And Catalan Views


By Judit Montengero

From Spanish and Catalan media to the more than four hundred international journalists: They were all waiting outside the Catalan Parliament for the speech of its president, Carles Puigdemont, in which he could have declared the independence for Catalonia on Tuesday evening.

Puigdemont’s most expected words declared independence, but immediately suspended its effects to undertake negotiations with Spain, as well as Europe, for an agreed solution.

The ambiguity of such words soon started to be interpreted and debated. The Spanish and Catalan mainstream media continued to follow their largely partisan positions which have characterized the information about the Catalan question, depending whether the report comes from Madrid or Barcelona. It is essential to consider how they have been communicated the conflict, especially in the last three weeks, to understand their current messages.


Whose media?

There are two versions of this conflict: the Spanish government’s, lead by the PM Mariano Rajoy from the People’s Party (PP), and the Catalan’s, represented by Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia. These two images are strong narratives, in great part, due to the polarised media coverage of the Catalan question.

The national government in Madrid clings onto the Spanish Court sentence: a referendum for Catalonia’s self-determination is unconstitutional, and the plans for carrying out the referendum the past 1st of October through a legislation approved in the Catalan Parliament, were also sentenced illegal. This narrative became the core and indisputable question also for news for the Spain’s nation-wide largest broadcast, RTVE, and the most read newspapers, such as El País or El Mundo. Thus, their information on the Catalan conflict is included in tags like “independence defiance” or “defiance to the law”.

In Catalonia, it was the idea that to vote is a democratic exercise and it just has to happen that rooted the speeches of the Catalan government and the TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio’s one, the public-funded regional Catalan media which leads audience in Catalonia.

Meaningfully enough, both heads of Spanish TVE and the Catalan publicly owned TV3 are directly appointed by the respective Spanish and Catalan governments. This is since the Spanish government of PP changed the rule five years ago of the consensual approach in the running of public broadcasting in Spain.


The breach of their public-service duties obligations brought journalists at TVE, the main Spanish news broadcaster, to protest against the partisan coverage of the day of the referendum in Catalonia, waving signs with the hashtag #vergüenza #vergonya (Spanish and Catalan for “shame”), and to ask for the resignation of the entire Newscast Editorial Team. While Catalan, international and some private Spanish media covered the referendum day events and showed the images of the police Guardia Civil brutality towards Catalan people trying to vote, TVE did not televise any special newsletter for such large informative event. Moreover, it opened its 9pm Newscast with “the [Spanish] government assessment of the current situation in Catalonia”, showing images of police breaking doors down and carrying ballot boxes, which linked perfectly with the first assessment Spanish people heard, by the Deputy PM, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría: “there has not been a referendum, not even the semblance of one”. There was no space for the images of the police attacks which led to more than 900 injured, apart from the one shown in TVE: a police Guardia Civil officer helping out a dad with his kid.


On the other hand, the main Catalan media have always promoted the referendum and the right to vote, with a constant and large daily coverage on the Catalan independence movement. The public TV3, in particular, broadcasted advertisements calling to participate in the referendum although it was considered illegal by the Spanish constitutional Court: “Now, more than ever, the future of Catalonia is in your hands”, was the slogan in it.

Catalan media has underrepresented critical voices questioning whether the call for the forbidden referendum was the right way to decide the future of Catalonia. There has also been an almost inexistent coverage on the consequences or plan in the case of a “Yes” to independence victory. Personalities critiquing these questions, such as the famous TV journalist Jordi Évole, have been strongly challenged and discredited by the whole media apparatus. At the same time, the unbalance of the sources has been a practice for both Spanish and Catalan media to support their arguments, specially in the common and popular talk shows Tertulias. In Catalonia, after the police Guardia Civil brutality the day of the referendum, voices coming back to the questioning of the referendum or exposing reasons to vote “No” have been challenged for “agreeing with Spain’s repression” (common argument in tertulias and morning programmes).


The public-funded media has drawn an hegemonic narrative together with mainstream Catalan private media for a long time.  Catalan media, and especially TV3, tend to justify their coverage exposing that the Spanish media message is just one, and that they have the duty to focus in the “Catalan perspective”. Yet, they have been referring to Catalonia as “country” for the last years and some of them, like the Diari ARA, also campaigned for the leaving Spain option by selling t-shirts for the Catalan national day saying “Yes” followed by slogan “Referendum is democracy”.


The suspended independence declaration day

The big moment was strongly expected. The Catalan public TV3 carried out an special newsletter from 4:30pm live from the Catalan Parliament until the regular news bulletin at 9pm in the day of the suspended independence declaration. Their coverage was followed in a big screen by a crowd of pro independence supporters waiting for the President’s speech near the Parliament. The big crowd image was also shown in TV3, which talked about “more than 30.000 people” waiting for the President’s speech. The Spanish state’s TVE did not alter their normal grill and while broadcasting Puigdemont’s speech and the responses in the Catalan Parliament, they talked about “hundreds” of pro independence supporters outside the Catalan Parliament and showed images of them leaving the concentration.


The result, an ambiguous speech of suspended independence, was a great deception for pro independence people which is taking most of the space of analysis and coverage in the Catalan media. And an unclear declaration which, if it is completely confirmed, is still a great defeat and needs a strong answer, according to the Spanish media.


After Puigdemont’s speech day, Catalan media put an important focus on the “cooperative catalanism” (name of an article in the Diari Ara) in comparison to the close “no negotiation” from Spain. A strong “disgust” with the EU has also been present in the media coverage in Catalonia, as the famous Catalan journalist Antoni Bassas described Catalan’s feeling with the EU. The mainstream public and private coverage has argued that European Institutions  are in the Spain’s side as “Juncker refuses to mediate in the Catalan case if Madrid does not request it”. On the other hand, the Spanish newspaper leader El País, headlines the same Juncker’s words by pointing out his reasons of not wanting independence conflicts to spread around Europe.


Who loses?

Clearly, in a political conflict like this, media play a strategic role for the sides in dispute, with their silences and their focuses as an instrument of cohesion for each one of the parties and pointing out enemies. In Spain and Catalonia (also within it), the ideological construction of the “us” and “them” is growing faster. Editorial lines are legitimate, but turning them into a propaganda tool damages the citizen’s right to information. Both sides media coverages have been feeding these divisions. To whose benefit?

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