Written by Natalie Berner

Back to Country Selection


  • Area: 505.990 square kilometers
  • Population: 46.3 Million (2016)
  • Capital: Madrid
  • State form: parliamentary monarchy
  • Official language: Spanish, regional languages
  • Religion: 90 percent Roman Catholic

  • Flag of Spain

    The media system in Spain is shaped by its strong autonomous regions. Being part of the European Union, Spain has an open and democratic press culture. However, due to the economic crisis the journalistic profession is facing redundancies, low payments and employment uncertainty. Because of financial squeeze the Spanish media is dependent on advertising customers. This leads in many cases to editorial instructions not to report critically about companies or branches which are potential clients for the media outlets. Furthermore political partisanship is characteristic for the Spanish media landscape. Private ownership is concentrated and in the hands of a few large companies, self-censorship is on the rise. Nevertheless, the Spanish press is ranked as “free” (Freedom House, 2016), the general situation is “satisfactory” (Reporters without Borders, 2016) since journalists do not have to fear physical threats or severe interventions by authorities.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment
    After Franco’s death Spain implemented a parliamentary monarchy with a new constitution in 1978. 17 cultural diverse autonomous regions were set up each having an own parliament and governmental system. In regard to media policy the regional governments are responsible for local and regional media, while national telecommunication falls in the responsibility of the central government (Mateo, 2009: 644). With having these powerful regional parliaments, ”Spain is one oft the most decentralized countries in the world” (with island territories like the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands on top) (Freedom in the World, 2016).
    Traditionally the Spanish political landscape was dominated by two parties over decades: the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the center-left Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE).
    Meanwhile two new parties – Podemos and Cuidanos – have entered the political stage. In 2015 they could succeed in the general elections with 21 and 14 percent of the votes, respectively. So Spain had to open up its two-party system and is dealing now with coalition politics (Freedom in the World, 2016).
    A permanent topic regarding politics in Spain is the secessionist movement of Catalonia and the Basque region. While the radical Basque ETA organization has stopped its terroristic activities since 2011, the independence movement in Catalonia is still very important. Both regions have their own languages and attach importance to their own cultural and political identity. The demand for independence of Spain is a national field of tension for years (Freedom in the World, 2016). This differentiation is also visible when regarding the media landscape of these regions. For instance Catalonia has very strong Catalan press and broadcasting outlets. Even more, the whole regional media structures can be seen as an autonomous “Catalan media system”, which is coexisting with the Spanish one. Even some historians refer to the “two Spains” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 129).
    Following Hallin and Mancini (2004: 89) one of the main characteristic of the Spanish media system is the “late and contested transition to democracy” in comparison to the rest of Western Europe or North America. This produced a special relationship between the media and the political world since “mass media were intimately involved in the political conflicts that mark the history of this region” (ibid.: 90). Therefore, there is a strong tradition to regard the mass media as “means of ideological expression and political mobilization” (ibid.). Political partisanship, high political parallelism and influential political parties are further attributes for the Spanish media system which was classified by Hallin and Mancini as belonging to the Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model. While political parallelism declined in the rest of Europe, it increased in Spain in the last decades (ibid.: 103).
    Because the commercial market developed very slowly, the media was often “dependent on the state, political parties, the church, or wealthy private patrons” (ibid.). Clientelism was historically very important, too, because of the lack of liberal structures (ibid.: 137). This circumstances inhibited the media to become an autonomous organ earlier. Generally media in Southern Europe developed with the influence of the political and literary worlds not with the one of the market (unlike in Northern Europe and North America) (ibid.: 90). Meanwhile “the forces of globalization, commercialization, and secularization” as well as digitalization “are strongly at work in Spain” (ibid.) and have transformed the country’s’ media system.
    In the political context is has to be mentioned that corruption is still a problem which media is trying to investigate on. Freedom in the World (2016) quotes a survey from Transparency International in 2013 in which “83 percent of respondents felt that political parties in Spain were corrupt or extremely corrupt”.

    Legal Environment
    The press is not specially submitted to legislation since 1978. Press activities are restricted legally only by the Law of Privacy and Honor and by the criminal code (Mateo, 2009: 644). In the constitution there is an explicit recognition of each citizen’s right to receive fair and truthful information”. Furthermore it is mentioned that the professionals of journalism have the rights “to the clauses of conscience and professional secrecy” (Alsius, Mauri, Martinez, 2011: 156). Apart from that there is no particular legal protection of the professional group of journalists (Mateo, 2009: 644). Regarding legal conditions, Spanish media could develop “in a free environment” since democracy was restored in 1978. Nevertheless, there are legal boundaries which the press is not allowed to cross. For instance, the authorities monitor websites and social-media accounts that publish hate speech and promote terrorism or xenophobia (Freedom of the Press, 2016). In 2015 a new public safety law was established which provoked criticism. The so-called “Gag Law” is said to threat freedom of expression and the right to assembly (ibid.). The law imposes high fees on the unauthorized use of images of public officials or members of the security forces. It also sets strict guidelines when and where protest can take place. The International Press Institute said the “vague and disproportionate” content in the public security law frightens news media and is “harming the Spanish public’s right to information on matters of public interest” (Kassam, 2015). That’s why a group of journalists launched a lawsuit at the European court of human rights. They argue that “the law encourages self-censorship and paves way for diminished accountability of police forces in Spain” (ibid.). The regulatory authorities in Spain are seen to be weak: There are no professional councils “with authority to punish bad practices or abuses made by journalists in Spain” (Salaverría & Gómez Baceiredo, 2010). On a regional level there were three Audiovisual Councils created (in Catalonia, Navarre and Andalusia) “to monitor the content of the audiovisual sector for compliance with the laws” (ibid.).

    Trade unions and associations
    According to the Worlds of Journalism Study 41 percent of the interviewed journalists were members of a professional association (2016). In comparison, Germany has 53 percent (ibid.). According to the analysis of Ramón Salaverría (2010) the press associations are „grouped around the Federación de Asociaciones de la Prensa de España (Federation of Press Associations of Spain, FAPE). It is the main organ of representation, coordination and defense of the journalistic profession in Spain“. In addition, regional trade unions do exists. “These organizations are grouped in the Federación de Sindicatos de Periodistas (Federation of Journalist Trade Unions, FeSP). The three most important associations of media publishers are: AEDE for newspapers, UTECA for commercial television and AERC for commercial radio” (Salaverría & Gómez Baceiredo, 2010). However, only nine percent of the interviewed journalists in the Worlds of Journalism Study (2016) were saying that they trust the trade unions “completely” or at least with “a great deal”. Therefore trade unions have a similar low trust level like “the government” (as well nine percent).
    Media Offers
    Characteristics of the media market
    The economic crisis had a huge impact on Spain’s media industry. It favoured the concentration of the media and led to ownership consolidations (Alsius et al., 2011: 158). Since 2008, about 375 media outlets had to close (Freedom of the Press, 2016). Currently, “many newspapers receive either sizable subsidies from the government or funding from banks and large corporations. Lack of transparency regarding the government’s advertising purchases is a major problem” (Freedom House, 2016). Since the deregulation of ownership in 2009, Spain has de facto a duopoly regarding private broadcasting: “Atresmedia and Mediaset control 70 percent of private television networks” (ibid.). In terms of accountability especially commercial TV broadcasting has almost no regulatory mechanisms (Alsius et al., 2011: 167).
    Next to the privately owned TV stations, there is also the state-owned broadcasting Corporación de Radio y Televisión Española (RTVE) (Alsius et al. 2011: 157). It is advertisement free and has to serve the public interest. Unlike in Germany, the citizens do not have to pay fees for it. RTVE t is financed by public subsidies and was, closely linked to this, criticized for the “growing government influence” because of changes in the leadership in 2014. Critics interpreted it “as a sign of increased government control ahead of elections in 2015” (Freedom of the Press, 2016). According to Hallin & Mancini (2004: 125), “public service broadcasting in the full sense of the word never really existed in Spain”. Some regional TV offers are very popular, especially the Catalan channel TV3 is famous for its investigative reporting. “People call it the BBC of Southern Europe” an interviewed experts said (2017). However, other regional broadcasters had to shut down because they were no longer profitable after the crisis. Such a case was, for instance, the regional public service broadcasting in Valencia, Radio Televisió Valenciana (RTVV).
    When it comes to ownership structures in the press market, most of the power lies in a few hands: the biggest Spanish commercial media conglomerate is PRISA (Promotora de Informaciones S.A.). It owns the most important daily newspaper El País, the daily sports newspaper Diario As and the business paper Cinco Días. Besides these key media outlets PRISA also holds important radio stations and television providers like the subscription TV channel+ or the TV channel Cuatro. The cooperation is also very active in Latin America. The launching of El País in 1976 by PRISA was a key event after the transition to democracy “when the so-called Parlamento de Papel emerged in a commercial context” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 103).
    Another important player of the media industry is Vocento. It is a result of the merger of El Correo und Prensa Española in 2001. The media group contains 120 companies and publishes inter alia the history-steeped newspaper ABC. Vocento is also active in the radio, television and online sector. The leader regarding daily press and the online sector is the cooperation Unidad Editorial. It is a merger product of Grupo Recoletos and Unedisa. It was established in 2007 in its present form. Flagship brands are the daily newspaper El Mundo and the very popular sport newspaper Marca.
    In Catalonia the Godó family controls Grupo Godó, which publishes important Catalan newspapers like La Vanguardia or El Mundo Deportivo. Both were founded around 1900 and are two of the most ancient media outlets in Spain. La Vanguardia is after El País, El Mundo and ABC the number four daily newspaper (Mateo, 2009). With altogether more than 100 newspapers the Spanish press is covering a wide range of perspectives. Some of them also investigating in problematic topics like high-level corruption (Freedom of the Press, 2016).
    Nevertheless, political parallelism is very marked in the Spanish media. Every medium can be assigned to a specific political party. La Vanguardia is close to Catalan nationalist; El Mundo and ABC are conservative and close to the Popular Party alike the big economic player Telefonica. El Pais and generally PRISA is close to the left Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). The daily La Razon (number six in the market) is conservativemonarchy friendly, and rightist (interviewed expert, 2017). COPE, a popular conservative radio station is church owned. 90 percent of the Spanish citizens are still Roman Catholics, therefore this influence should not be underestimated. So the media landscape is predefined in specific political camps which were most of the times parallel to the two groups in the parliament. That politics and media are closely tied together demonstrates the use of the legal system “to pressure media owners by threatening selectively to enforce tax laws and other regulations”. As an example serves Jesus de Polanco, former owner of PRISA, who was brought to charge as soon as his Socialist allies were out of power (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 138).
    Altough concentration took place, there is still pluralism regarding the media companies and their owners. Even if the political orientation of many outlets is obvious, there is a wide range of opinions possible. With strong local actors having own interests, like the Catalan press, the media landscape of Spain stays heterogenous and dynamic. The advertising market is weak which makes the economic pressure the severest danger for free reporting. The Spanish media system can be characterized as Clientelism type, with tendencies towards Cartellism (especially if the concentration keeps proceeding).

    Access and consumption
    About 79 percent of the Spanish population had access to the internet in 2015 (Freedom of the Press, 2016). “With the decline of traditional media, Spain has experienced a rapid increase in the use of online media, which has encouraged political pluralism and digital activism” (ibid.). Similar to many industrialized Western countries the younger generations don’t use TV anymore according to the estimates of an interviewed Spanish expert (economist and former freelance journalist, 2017). The young get their news mainly through social networks and (international) news brands they follow. Concerning audience preferences, “there are signs of more appreciation of top-quality information in some sectors of the population, but the audience rankings keep supporting “junk television” (Alsius et al., 2011: 155).
    When it comes to newspaper readership numbers, the historical roots are relevant. “The press of Spain is coming out of a period of transition. Salient characteristics of this press are low circulation and equally low per capita readership, at least in comparison to presses in other modern European countries” (Chabran, 2002). Spain has “the lowest rates of newspaper readers per inhabitant in Europe” (Alsius et al., 2011: 157). The “narrow readership of the print press“, was a classification criteria for Hallin and Mancini (2004: 140), too. The national newspaper El País is at the top of the daily sales ranking, followed by the sports newspaper Marca, which has the highest readership but not the highest circulation. Apart from serious information news, the Prensa Rosa (“pink press”) is extremely popular. Titles like Pronto magazine reach 1.000.000 sales, Hola almost 500.000 (Alsius et al., 2011: 157).
    Journalists' autonomy

    There is an estimated number of 18.000 thousand people who are working as journalists in Spain (Berganza & Jiménez, 2016: 6). In general they hold a university degree (96.7 per cent of the interviewed journalists in the Worlds of Journalism Study, 2016). The key element for the professionalization of the journalism culture in Spain was the integration of journalism studies into universities in the 1970s (Alsius et al., 2011: 158). Nowadays the most important journalism university programs are those of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and the Journalism Faculty of the University of Navarra under the control of Opus Dei (Chabran, 2002). However, Hallin and Mancini (2004) claimed a weaker professionalization level within the Southern European countries than in the rest of Europe. Since these countries emerged from “very difficult circumstances, they deviate in many ways from the dominant liberal norms of neutral professionalism and the ’watchdog‘ media” idea (ibid.: 91). After the dictatorship, journalists clearly promoted the new democratic regime, an advocacy orientation were most common (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 104). Nowadays, almost every Spanish journalist (96.9 percent, 2016) indicated in the Worlds of Journalism Study that he or she “wants to report things as they are”. They agree in the “irrelevance of conveying a positive image of political leadership” or “supporting government policy” (Berganza & Jiménez, 2016). Because of the small and sophisticated readership, the quality in certain Spanish newspapers is said to be very high (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 111).
    There is a growing awareness of risen self-censorship “due to political pressure and the threat of layoffs amid the ongoing economic crisis.” (Freedom in the Press, 2016). That’s why some journalists have founded independent online outlets. An example gives the online dailyEl Español, which was founded by Pedro J. Ramírez, former cofounder and ex-director of El Mundo. The page was crowdfunded and is said to be “the most innovative product of the Spanish media landscape” (Medium Magazin, 2016). According to the interviewed Spanish economist and media entrepreneur (2017), the reputation of journalists used to be very good and they were very well paid before the crisis. The Spanish society demands the media to behave ethically and the civil society seems to be more constrictive than media professionals when it comes to individual rights vs. right for information (Alsius et al., 2011: 155.).
    After the economic crisis and the ongoing digitalisation, the status of journalists has dramatically changed. The effects of the crisis hit the media branch in Spain particularly hard: within seven years 11.000 journalists had lost their job (Minder, 2015). The increased economic pressure on the media conglomerates started to affect editorial decision making (Freedom of the Press, 2016). “Several examples of corporate pressure affecting editorial decisions concerned the newspaper El País and its owner, the PRISA conglomerate.” A prominent journalist, Miguel Ángel Aguilar, spoke about the bad conditions with the New York Times. Five days after the article was published, he was dismissed from El País and the cooperation with the New York Times was cancelled by the management of the newspaper (Freedom of the Press, 2016). This shows clearly the limited scope of action if journalists contravene the interests of their employers. According to the interviewed expert, “you can publish want you want in the regional papers, but if you go on the national level it gets stricter and the economic pressure becomes severe”. Since advertising revenues are shrinking, the editors don’t want to offend prospective clients. The expert, describing his experience when writing economic analysis for a big newspaper: “I wanted to cover a critical story about a fitness chain company. My boss told me that they were leaving a lot of money to the paper as advertising customers, so he recommended me to choose a different topic. Which I did.” This story emphasizes how poor economic prospects and financial pressure leads to negative effects on free reporting. It also illustrates the legitimate concern if Spain’s “most established papers have lost their editorial independence amid the financial squeeze“ (Minder, 2015). There are branches almost no one dares to tackle e.g. the pharmaceutical industry: “There is a lot of money in this business and media companies can’t forego this”, the interviewed expert put it. The same applies to the bank sector or powerful companies like Telefónica, a shareholder of PRISA and the most spread Telecommunication Company in Spain. Criticising the Royal family was a taboo topic over a long period of time. “This is not anymore the case. When a TV channel made fun of the Royals for the first time, it was a very big deal throughout the country.”. Meanwhile the Royals have lost this privilege of journalistic mercy. The political pressure groups which have effects on journalists’ autonomy are diverse, they include business and land owning interests, the political elite, commercial owners, the Catholic Church and other political organizations (Chabran, 2002). Still the press freedom rankings see the situation in Spain as “free” (Freedom House, 2016) or as a “satisfactory situation” (RWB 2016). “I can partly agree”, the interviewed expert said. “Economically caused limitations should not be forgotten.”.

    Interviewed experts

    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Natalie Berner: Spain. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    The big Spanish newspapers have a small and sophisticated audience.

    Contact the author:
    [contact-form-7 id="58" title="Contact form 1"]