As dissident media blow the whistle on tax evasion and corruption in southern Europe, compromised governments and economic elites are trying to shoot the messenger—maybe even literally.
In Spain, the radically pro-market and big business–friendly Partido Popular government has threatened to take legal action against any media outlet that publishes more revelations about what appears to be a massive slush fund in which construction companies have made illegal payments to politicians, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Meanwhile, in Greece, reporters investigating tax fraud in the oil market have received death threats.
Rajoy’s government in Madrid is fighting dirty, as more details emerge of kickbacks and money laundering in the ruling party. “Those who filter information and those who publish; we are going for all of them,” said PP spokesperson Carlos Floriano, after incriminating documents apparently written by former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas were published by Spain’s leading daily, El País. The documents indicate undeclared payments worth millions of euros to PP apparatchiks, from lowly MPs right up to ministers, including Rajoy and former Prime Minister José María Aznar. Aznar, accused by an El País source of setting up a system of bonuses for party leaders that “should not be subject to taxes,” filed suit against the newspaper last month. This week, another PP leader, secretary general María Dolores Cospedal, announced her own legal action against El País after suggesting that the paper had acted as part of a conspiracy against Spain “just in the moment that we were beginning to recover.”
Bárcenas’s credibility is undoubtedly suspect; he is implicated in another investigation of bribes paid to PP officials known as the Gürtel case. But the attacks on El País seem to reflect PP intolerance of media freedom, a flashback to the origins of the party in pre-democratic Spain. “It’s like Franco,” wrote José María Calleja in the new online Diario.com. “For the PP, this is all a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy, more or less Marxist.… They will sue anyone.”
The independence of the Spanish media and judiciary have been weakened in recent years by events such as the derobing of critical judge Baltasar Garzón for his investigation of Franco-era war crimes, and the assertion of direct government control over public broadcaster Radio Televisión Española (RTVE). But newspapers like El País and El Mundo still seem prepared to put up a fight, albeit with their own agenda. While the left daily Público closed last year, new dissident publications like Mongolia and La Marea are also trying to maintain critical journalism in difficult circumstances. On the legal front, the attorney general has pledged to pursue the Bárcenas case to its conclusion.
The depth of the new scandal will be difficult to conceal, however aggressively the government counterattacks. As if the accusations of illegal kickbacks were not enough, there is evidence that Bárcenas may have taken advantage of a government tax amnesty to channel some of the 22 million euros he held in a Swiss bank account back into Spain. Construction companies—which allegedly contributed to the PP slush fund in return for receiving building permits and public works contracts from PP administrations during Spain’s delirious construction boom—also appear to have benefited from Prime Minister Rajoy’s decision to grant a post-bubble tax amnesty. According to El País, Alfonso García Pozuelo, chairman of a small construction firm accused of involvement in illicit party financing, legally laundered half a million euros thanks to the amnesty.