Reporters at Spain’s ABC face trial for allegedly revealing investigation secrets

Brussels, May 2, 2016–A Madrid court has ruled that Cruz Morcillo and Pablo Muñoz, two journalists at the Spanish daily ABC, should face trial for their reporting on a police wiretap investigation into suspected members of the Italian Camorra crime syndicate, according to news reports and Muñoz.

The journalists were notified on April 20 that a Madrid judge had ordered on April 11 that the pair should stand trial on charges brought by a prosecutor in October last year, for allegedly violating the secrecy of an investigation, according to local media reports. If convicted, the journalists could each face a two-and-a-half-year prison term and a fine of €50 (US$57) a day for 20 months.

The charges relate to a report published by ABC on July 11, 2014, based on a conversation that allegedly took place in March 2013 between two suspected members of the mafia. During the coversation, which ABC reported had been intercepted by Spanish police during an investigation known as Operation Tarantella, the two suspects allegedly discussed Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of Spain’s ruling center-right Popular Party.

Bárcenas, who according to reports is facing several charges of corruption and money laundering, has also started criminal proceedings against Morcillo and Muñoz. A lawyer for Bárcenas pressed the same charges against the journalists on October 28, 2015, according to court documents. He is requesting a three-year jail term for them. Bárcenas denies the corruption charges against him, according to reports.

Three days after the ABC article was published, the judge overseeing the Tarantella operation opened proceedings against the journalists for allegedly revealing investigation secrets and ordered police to analyze their phone traffic for the 10 days leading up to the date the article was published in an attempt to identify the source of the leaked conversation. The names of everyone who had spoken with the journalists in this period were made available to the proseuctor and Bárcenas, according to reports and Muñoz. In September 2015, the prosecutor’s office referred the case to a Madrid criminal court. The court has not publicly announced if the source of the leaked documents was identified in the phone records.

“We call on the prosecutor’s office to drop charges against Cruz Morcillo and Pablo Muñoz,” said Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator. “Jailing journalists for doing their job by publishing information that is of the public interest would set a dangerous precedent. Furthermore, the court order to access telephone conversations between journalists and their sources could also hinder the flow of information.”

The reporters said that their article did not harm the police investigation because the two suspects had been arrested before it was published. Muñoz told CPJ, “We proceeded as we always do, guided by three key principles that our information was relevant, truthful-factual and had been obtained by lawful means.” Muñoz added: “Moreover, we always add a fourth guiding principle to our investigative reporting, that our information does not harm ongoing police investigations, as was the case, and will always be.”

All but one appeal attempt by the journalists’ lawyers have been rejected, Muñoz said. The journalists are awaiting a court’s decision on one final appeal, and would have to appear before a judge if it is also rejected.

In response to the April court ruling, ABC published an editorial on April 28 criticizing the “inquisitorial zeal” of the prosecutor. Bieito Rubido, editor-in-chief at ABC, told CPJ he condemns the “outrageous moral audacity of the prosecutor and the judge not to prosecute the criminals but the journalists for truthful information that doesn’t even affect national security.”

The Press Association of Madrid released a statement in defense of Morcillo and Muñoz. “Journalists have the professional and moral duty to publish information that is truthful and of general interest,” the statement read. The journalists also received the backing of a liberal judges’ association, Jueces para la Democracia (Judges for Democracy), who referred to the jurisprudence of Spain’s constitutional tribunal. “If the information is truthful and has public relevance, the right to information must prevail” the association’s spokesperson Joaquim Bosch said.

Spain’s attorney general Consuelo Madrigal announced in congress that she “would act on behalf of the journalists’ right to freely publish truthful information in cases of public interest.”