“EL PAÍS stands by the Constitution”

Founding editor Juan Luis Cebrián remembers the events of February 23, 1981

At 6.20pm on February 23, 1981 I turned down the radio just as the secretary of Congress was asking deputies to vote in Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo as new prime minister. While the investiture session was underway I called in Antonio Ramos, whom I wanted to interview before hiring him as a staff writer for EL PAÍS in Andalusia. But as soon as he had taken a seat in front of me, deputy editor Augusto Delkáder called me on the intercom. He sounded alarmed.

"Are you following the congressional session?"

"I turned it down, I'm not interested in the voting."

"Turn up the radio, turn it up right now!"

I turned the dial and heard some blows, indistinct voices, confusion and a radio presenter who was murmuring in dazed tones: "Armed individuals are entering the chamber; it's the Civil Guard. We don't know what's going on."

Rumors about the army making a move had been in the air for months
I decided that we should publish a special edition of the newspaper
It dawned on me that we were alone; it was a decision shared only by journalists
If EL PAÍS is out on the streets, the coup must have failed on the outside

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"I'm sorry, Antonio," I said. "Would you mind waiting outside a little longer, until this gets cleared up? I'll see you soon."

The radio host wondered whether the guards had come in pursuit of an ETA member, but then we soon heard a rattle, a cry of "Nobody move!" and we knew that the man addressing the deputies from the rostrum, gun in hand, was Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero. There was no doubt about it: a coup was underway.

Did it catch us off guard? Not in the least. We certainly did not expect such histrionics, but rumors about the army making a move against the democratic regime had been in the air for months, and the possibility was regularly discussed in political coteries. The fact that Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez had recently resigned fanned the rumors amid a thick atmosphere marked by internal division within the ruling UCD party; the more reactionary sectors of public opinion spoke out loudly to demand "a strong government." Opposition leaders did so too.

My office began to fill up with emergency visits and soon resembled the stateroom in the Marx Brothers' movie A Night At the Opera. All the newsroom and board chiefs were there, arguing over the confusion of unfolding events. Radio Nacional and SER soon stopped airing news out of Congress, as did the state-owned television station TVE, although an oversight meant that one of the cameras was still rolling, recording historical images of what was going on inside. At the time, I was under police protection because of terrorist threats, and my bodyguard was called in to the Interior Ministry. "I'll stay here with you, in case guns are needed," he said, recommending that we sealed all the access points of the building.

Meanwhile, some were suggesting that this was just another macabre joke by Tejero, the living caricature of the Civil Guard's worst image. Since the entire government was being held against its will in Congress, it occurred to me to phone the secretary of the Royal House, General Fernández Campo, who informed me that they were following events but still lacked a precise analysis of the situation. Shortly before 7pm I got a call from Ana Cristina Navarro, a journalist at Televisión Española, saying that troops had entered the station's facilities.

Almost at the same time, Delkáder brought me the news wires reporting that a state of exception had been declared by General Milans del Bosch in Valencia, and there was no more room for hesitation: the coup was an organized affair, and it was affecting other military regions besides Madrid. Jesús Polanco (a founding member of EL PAÍS and later main shareholder of the PRISA Group) got in touch with the Burgos field marshal, a distant relative of his, who told him that most of his colleagues, if not all, backed the coup. That was when I said that I thought we should publish a special edition of the newspaper immediately. What for? I was asked. In order to do what a newspaper such as ours needs to do, I replied: to report on events and to state an opinion about it.

Debate soon became argument, which then descended into chaos. Jesús Polanco and another of the founders of EL PAÍS, José Ortega, were not sure it was a good decision. Javier Baviano, one of the paper's managers, pointed out that there would be no vans to distribute the paper, and that newsstands would be closed given that people had locked themselves up at home in fear. Besides, even though many writers were at the newsroom, most printing press operators had ended their shifts. Carlos Montejo, a member of the newspaper union, said he would call in as many operators as necessary and that unionists would even sell the papers on the streets if necessary. Somebody said that would be very dangerous, as they could be attacked by fascist activists. Delkáder and Martín Prieto, my two deputy editors, urged me to make what they considered the only possible decision: to put out the paper as soon as possible. But it seemed impossible to reach a consensus amid that hullabaloo, so in the end I slammed my fist against the desk and said that we would publish this edition if it was the last thing I did as an editor.

From that point on, everyone piped down and got to work. I went to the newsroom and asked the journalists to sit down at their desks because we were going to publish EL PAÍS. It was the only thing we could do to help stop the coup. I added that I had been informed that troops from the Saboya No. 6 Regiment were advancing toward the capital with the sole mission of occupying our facilities, and that if anyone was afraid and wanted to go home rather than take part in this initiative, they were free to do so. My only concern was that the soldiers would get here before we were able to complete the edition, making our efforts useless, and increasing the danger we would be in once the military realized what we were doing. It was imperative that not a single minute be lost. The little groups of journalists immediately formed and everyone started to split up the work. For a moment, I myself felt the fear I'd been referring to a minute earlier. Then I figured that if instead of just EL PAÍS publishing a special edition, other papers did the same, we'd all be more protected.

I locked myself inside an office and phoned Pedro J. Ramírez, then in charge of now-defunct Diario 16, and the current editor of El Mundo. I called on him to publish his own special edition. We can't, he replied, using that tone of hesitating self-assurance that he still uses when talking on the radio. We have no press operators, no journalists and no technical capacity, he said. I privately thought that they just didn't have the balls and told him so, though not with those exact words.

It dawned on me then that we were alone, that this was a decision that only us journalists shared, with support from the press workers. Another image from the past came to mind: that of a Czech television presenter, in August 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded the country and put an end to the Prague Spring. The presenter's distorted face, reflected on a screen full of interference, and his plea for help had haunted me ever since: "We're being invaded, help us." I thought that it was necessary to tell the outside world what was happening, that we required the solidarity of the international press and public opinion to stop the coup from being successful.

I asked aides to get in touch with The New York Times, Le Monde, The Times of London and foreign wire services to keep them abreast of the situation. In a very short space of time the edition was ready. We only changed two pages of that day's paper. The point was to get it out on sale as soon as possible. There were still no photographs available so we decided to illustrate the front page with an archive image of Congress. Jesús Hermida and I argued briefly over the headline, and in the end we wrote: "GOLPE DE ESTADO: El país con la Constitución." (Coup d'état: the country stands by the Constitution). It then occurred to me that if we wrote "El País" in capitals, readers would understand that not just citizens in general, but our paper in particular, was speaking out against the rebels. By 8.30pm the presses were starting to spew out the paper. Later, Tejero himself showed up inside the chamber carrying a copy, which he brazenly displayed. Then-deputy Javier Solana told me subsequently that he had thought if EL PAÍS is out on the streets, the coup has failed on the outside. He and other hostages felt their hopes renewed thanks to this.

Four years later, at the presentation of the Andalusian edition of EL PAÍS, a man came up to me. "Do you remember me?" he asked with a smile. No, I confessed with a mix of shyness and confusion. "I'm Antonio Ramos. I was in your office on February 23 and you asked me to wait for 10 minutes while we waited to clear up what was going on in Congress." We hadn't seen each other since.

Juan Luis Cebrián is the CEO of PRISA, the owner of EL PAÍS.

Journalists on the night of February 23rd at the Hotel Palace in Madrid, located opposite the Congress building, reading one of the special editions of EL PAÍS published during the coup. Pictured: María Antonia Iglesias, Gaspar Rosety, Miguel Vila, Roberto Villagraz, Javier Martín, Jordi Socias, Gustavo Cuevas, Sigfrid Casals, Luis Magán, Antonio Suárez y José Ángel Esteban.
Journalists on the night of February 23rd at the Hotel Palace in Madrid, located opposite the Congress building, reading one of the special editions of EL PAÍS published during the coup. Pictured: María Antonia Iglesias, Gaspar Rosety, Miguel Vila, Roberto Villagraz, Javier Martín, Jordi Socias, Gustavo Cuevas, Sigfrid Casals, Luis Magán, Antonio Suárez y José Ángel Esteban.

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