Around a dozen Spanish journalists have filed a complaint with the Madrid Press Association (APM), claiming that the leftist party Podemos is intimidating them every time they produce critical news stories. “Harassed,” “pressured” and “in a state of fear” is how these reporters, who work for a variety of news organizations, have described their personal situation.
On Monday, the APM issued a release confirming the existence of intimidatory messages, and told Podemos to put an end, “once and for all, to the systematic campaign of personal and online harassment” against members of the press.
“The APM considers it completely incompatible with the democratic system for a party, no matter which one it may be, to try to guide and control the work of journalists and curb their independence,” reads the release. APM President Victoria Prego has called party leaders for a meeting on Friday to discuss the issue.
Evidently, what’s at stake here is freedom of the press, but it comes at a terrible personal price
Anonymous Spanish reporter
EL PAÍS has seen insulting and threatening messages sent to journalists by individuals who are within Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s circle of trust.
Some of the messages use expressions such as “either you’re stupid..” while in other cases, reporters say they have been told in conversation that “if you write this, I will destroy you.” There is no written record of this latter statement.
The anti-establishment party denies pressure of any kind on the media. Podemos organization secretary Pablo Echenique said on Monday that he was puzzled by the complaint, given that Spain “is the country of the gag law, where 75% of journalists, according to the association itself, admit to being pressured not by the parties but by media owners.”
Another senior party member, Gloria Elizo, suggested that the complaint is part of a plot against Podemos.
“Another campaign in the scheme to discredit Podemos,” she tweeted.
But the APM has confirmed the existence, content and origin of these messages. Some of the reporters talked to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity.
“I accept that all professions have their own set of difficulties, but reporting on Podemos requires being a hero every day,” said one journalist.
“Evidently, what’s at stake here is freedom of the press, but it comes at a terrible personal price, because you are dealing with terrible bullying and threats on a daily basis,” this source continues. “In the long run, what they are trying to do is to delegitimize journalism itself, so that any news that is critical of them becomes illegitimate too.”
The APM’s public defense of its members is a turning point in an eroding relationship between Podemos and the media – a process that has long since left the private sphere and is now playing out in the public limelight.
In 2016, during a public lecture, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias pointed out a journalist and accused him of writing news stories “that don’t necessarily have to be true.”
At a dinner organized by the Association of Parliamentary Reporters (APP) that same year, Iglesias criticized two journalists in front of dozens of fellow reporters and politicians.
Online, Podemos typically attacks unfavorable media coverage by mobilizing its own social media followers under the hashtag #lamaquinadelfango (themudmachine). After that, it occasionally provides the names of targeted journalists in articles, blogs and tweets.
A senior party member has suggested that the complaint is part of a plot against Podemos
As a result, reporters are flooded with angry messages from Podemos supporters, to such an extent that the former sometimes hesitate to disseminate their own work.
“Sometimes I don’t tweet news items that I know might generate more of a reaction against me from the party’s followers,” admits one journalist who says he is being pressured on Twitter. “When you’ve gone through that 15 times, you wonder whether it’s even worth it to cover the story at all.”
As soon as the critical stories get tweeted, reporters are treated to a barrage of insults from social media users who regularly retweet Podemos content. Often, hoaxes begin circulating to propagate fake information about the reporter’s personal and professional background. Some journalists say they have seen messages that include emoticons holding a gun.
Asked about it, sources at Podemos denied any ties to these cases. In an internal document that EL PAÍS has had access to, the party notes that it cannot be held responsible for what its followers may or may not do on social media. It also defends freedom of speech (“not freedom of slander”) and says that “it is absolutely false that Podemos is exercising any kind of harassment or issuing threats.”
One reporter who has been following Podemos since its foundation says that “I have not received direct messages from Iglesias or his immediate circle.” Instead, “what they do is to ridicule our work through public comments or sarcastic online messages, all of which encourages their army of trolls [people who bombard others with online criticism], who then turn on you and harass you.”
“At public events they always try to put the journalist in an uncomfortable position through jokes,” he continues, who notes that some reporters have been banned from Podemos’ informal meetings with the media.
On one occasion, he recalls, members of a Podemos candidate list booed down a question. “The party’s hardliners act like this, although there are lots of exceptions as well,” he adds.
English version by Susana Urra.