23 July 1998 Edition
Spain's mad race against Basque independence
The shutdown of Egin and Egin Irratia
by Teresa Toda, journalist at Egin for over 14 years
In the early hours of 15 July, just after the last van left the premises of the daily newspaper, Egin, with the last load of the day's edition, over 300 armed Spanish policemen, led by Baltasar Garzón, judge of the special court for ``terrorism'', the Audiencia Nacional of Madrid, invaded the building and began a thorough search that lasted five hours.
The building in Hernani, in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, houses both the newspaper Egin and Egin Irratia, the radio station. A few hours before, the police had arrested 11 members or former members of Egin's Board of Directors.
The police did not allow the paper's lawyers to witness the search, claiming that the proceedings were secret. Only two people, both workers of the paper, were allowed to act as formal witnesses. They saw how policemen took away pieces of the machinery to render it useless.
In the meantime, Egin's and Egin Irratia's journalists and workers gathered in front of the building, very worried and, as yet unable to believe what their eyes saw and what it implied. Those implications were confirmed when police sealed the doors and gates and informed Egin's representatives that the paper and the radio station were to remain shut by judicial order.
The immediate reaction of Egin and Egin Irratia's personnel was to inform all the media that were covering the story that ``we will go on, Egin will continue to exist somehow''. The afternoon was a hectic series of meetings, ``squatting'' on a sympathetic newspaper's facilities, establishing the first contacts with political parties, trades unions, other media, social organisations, trying to see what could be done in the future... the very next day a modest, but new, paper was out, ``Euskadi Información''. It cannot print a large number of copies, but, in solidarity, hands photocopy its pages and spread them around. The money forthcoming helps to support Egin's personnel, and keep the paper going.
Meanwhile, the Minister for the Interior, Jaime Mayor Oreja, appeared overjoyed in a press conference, dishing out a series of accusations as explanations of why Judge Garzón had ordered the close down and arrests. It was all very mixed up, as it has been since then. On the one hand, all members of the Board of Directors were charged with tax offences and financial crimes; on the other Mayor Oreja talked about Egin having stable relations with the Basque armed organisation ETA.
During the five days the 10 men and one woman remained in police custody, and in spite of the proceedings being secret, all sorts of partial pieces of information were ``leaked'' by the Spanish media. By the time they were taken before the Judge for the official statement, the Spanish Government had made them members of ETA in a whirlwind of rising charges. That was what TV and radio audiences and newspapers got outside the Basque Country.
For there, in Euskal Herria, things were different. The press and media in general did not crash down on Egin and Egin Irratia as much as the Spanish media. Basque nationalist parties expressed concern over the closure and the situation the 210 workers were left in, and actions began to be taken denouncing the harsh measure as a direct attack on freedom of expression and freedom of information.
Last Saturday over 70,000 people filled the streets of Donostia, the capital of Gipuzkoa, in a silent demonstration calling for a democratic solution for Euskal Herria and the re-opening of Egin and Egin Irratia. Among the demonstrators were four members of PNV, the largest nationalist party. Although the party as such did not support the demonstration, it has voiced its concern over the closure. It must be noted that this is the first time in over a decade that highly placed PNV members attended a demonstration called by Basque independence supporters, a fact that reveals the extent of their worry.
The personnel of Egin and Egin Irratia have called a day of action and strikes for today (Thursday) and, although they got support from trades and the Basque independence organisations, parties were extremely cautious in view of Judge Garzón's long edict justifying the shutdown because Egin and Egin Irratia ``constitute part of ETA''. To support these accusations, Garzón bases his statements on interpretations of certain pages of the paper, on half-truths, and on a mixture of different data gathered by police operations against ETA.
The judge and the conservative Spanish Government, as well as the Spanish parties PP (the ruling conservative party) and PSOE (social democratic), maintain that the measure does not infringe freedom of expression and information, because Egin was a vehicle for ETA's ``criminal activities''. A few journalists and jurists in Spain have said they think it necessary to close down the paper, as measures could have been taken against those charged, and not against the newspaper and radio themselves and its workers.
The fact is that the Basque people's right to have all sorts of media reflecting the wide spectrum of political and social opinion has been seriously damaged, as well as their right to see their general opinions reflected in a newspaper or on the air. That is absolutely unquestionable, never mind what the charges were against the Board of Directors and the paper itself.
But it is not altogether surprising, although the depth of the decision was fairly unexpected. Even though Egin had always been under fire from Governments and courts, it did seem unlikely that any of them would make such a fascist-type move. Now, the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar has taken a step further in its mad race to eradicate the Basque independence movement in all its forms. The Minister for the Interior, Mayor Oreja, leads the crusade, backed by judges and an obliging media.
It began with the trial and sentencing of the former National Executive of Herri Batasuna, and continued with a series of raids on small companies related to Basque independence, charging them with helping ETA's finances. The latest visible and very hard blow indeed has been against Egin, a 21 year old paper born in response to a very real social demand. The Government accuses the paper and radio station of forming the ``fourth front'' of ETA's strategy, the other three being ``the institutional front, the social front and the military front''.
Underlying all these attacks is the PP's policy against all things Basque and for all things Spanish. The ``unquestionable unity'' of Spain is a driving force in Aznar's Government which, coupled with his absolute ``no'' to negotiations or talks for solving the conflict between the Basque Country and Spain, paints a very sombre picture for forthcoming months. It must not be forgotten that there are elections in the Basque Country in October, and the Spanish parties are trying hard to beat the existing nationalist majority.
For, although Herri Batasuna does not participate regularly in the Basque Parliament, such a majority exists and it has made itself visible lately in a couple of significant votes on Basque sports selections and against making members of the Basque Parliament swear allegiance to the Spanish Constitution before taking office. Those votes were one of the results of the talks that Herri Batasuna and PNV have been holding over the last few months to try and break the existing deadlock. Those talks, very discreet, have nonetheless given rise to certain hopes in Basque society, and have angered the Spanish government which, paradoxically, has PNV's support in the Spanish Parliament in Madrid. But such is the intricate structure of Basque politics...