Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro on Wednesday bestowed upon himself the luxury of some off-the-cuff remarks in Congress about the media, which sounded dangerously like threats. He criticized the attitude of some “media” for “giving lectures in ethics when they owe significant amounts of money to the tax office.” Delivered in his usual poor tone, the minister’s warning was directed at the sections of the media who “point out to the Spanish public the importance of bringing to light tax bases for the financing of public services.” Montoro called for “coherence and logic,” saying that media critical of the government, or loath to indulge it, should “religiously pay their taxes on time.”
It is precisely “coherence and logic” that should be required of the minister. His hectoring is reminiscent of that of Argentinean President Cristina Fernández — someone hardly likely to be accused of being a stickler for legal details — when she asked the Argentinean tax inspectors for a made-to-order report against a real estate company that had criticized the fallout from the country’s corralito, the measures taken by the government to stop a bank run.
Mr Montoro’s vexatious discourse invites concern that henceforth, the governing class can attack media companies and people who dare to find fault with the ministerial line using all the means available to the administration. This dropping of threats and extortion, tantamount to an invitation to self-censorship, is close to — if not crosses — the line of legality in what is an intolerable dereliction of democratic principles. The information the tax office possesses on taxpayers is not the dominion of the minister who oversees it. It belongs to those who declare their taxes and needs to be protected with the utmost discretion.
The minister should go
The finance minister has committed a grave offense against the principle of confidentiality that is the duty of any public administrator. Beyond the structural reforms (which amount far too often to nothing more than cutbacks) announced by the government, there is one that needs to be urgently brought on board and it should apply to public servants, above all ministers and secretaries of state: respect for the discretion that is afforded to taxpayers in their affairs with the administration and the prohibition of using public information as a weapon against the public. Of course, the best and most efficient reform would be one that ends with Montoro’s departure from the government.