Spain Briefing: The Socialization of Suffering

The Basque separatist group ETA is not above killing journalists for publicity

May 25, 2001
— The outlawed Basque separatist group ETA apparently struck another blow against the Spanish press yesterday, gunning down the chief financial officer of a regional daily.

Santiago Oleaga Elejabarrieta of El Diario Vasco was shot dead outside a hospital in the Basque port city of San Sebastián. And ETA had already made its presence felt with two terrorist attacks during recent regional elections in the three Basque provinces of northern Spain: a car bomb in Madrid and a parcel bomb that maimed Gorka Landaburu, a well-known Basque journalist and broadcaster.

Like many journalists who report on Basque politics, Landaburu had received ETA death threats. He is one of about 3,000 people in the Basque country who must live and work with 24-hour police protection.

ETA, the last active guerrilla army in continental Europe, has killed more than 800 people during its 30-year war for an independent Basque state. The group used to target policemen, army officers, and less frequently, politicians. But as support for independence has waned–today, the Basque region enjoys a considerable degree of self-government within Spain–ETA has become more ruthless. Anyone who criticizes ETA or separatist violence risks becoming a target.

Since the guerrillas called off a truce in December 1999, ETA has killed 30 people, including town councilors, a Supreme Court judge, a journalist, and a history professor. ETA has also planted bombs in university campuses, Basque businesses, and in one case, outside the home of two Spanish journalists who covered the Basque country for a national newspaper and a television network.

Murder is the message
The guerrillas regard the Spanish media, and much of the academic world, as adjuncts of the state, and therefore, legitimate targets of its “liberation war.” ETA calls its new strategy “the socialization of suffering.” ETA’s opponents say this euphemism amounts to a terror campaign aimed at silencing the press and spreading fear in the Basque country.

The intimidation of journalists is not only a deplorable attack against the freedom of speech. It has also had the effect of transforming those whose job it is to observe and report on a political process into participants in that process. As a result, reporting on the Basque conflict has become as subjective, emotionally charged, and polarized as the conflict in the Basque country itself.

On Spain’s state-owned television networks, for example, the guerrillas are referred to as “terrorists,” and reporting on the conflict is often highly emotional. Even those journalists who wish to remain impartial find it difficult to do so. El Correo is a regional Basque newspaper, not affiliated to any political party. It tries to reflect the plurality of views within the Basque country. For its pains, its offices were bombarded with Molotov cocktails by ETA sympathizers in March.

“In my 30 years as a journalist in the Basque country, I have never lived through such a difficult situation as this,” says El Correo editor Angel Arnedo. “Basque society has become so polarized there is no longer room for an independent newspaper like ours. We are branded as traitors because we defend the Basque country’s ties to Spain, but we also support the region’s autonomy. That apparently is no longer enough.”

El Correo is owned by the Grupo Correo, a Basque media conglomerate that also owns El Diario Vasco, where the late Oleaga Elejabarrieta worked.

Arnedo, who has received ETA death threats, is constantly accompanied by at least two bodyguards. He travels everywhere in two cars (one is a decoy). He must book flights and restaurants using pseudonyms, and simple pleasures like going to the cinema are out of bounds because of the security risks involved.

Tough beat
Newsgathering can also be an unpleasant affair, particularly when pro-Spanish journalists enter towns or neighborhoods controlled by ETA sympathizers.

José María Calleja, a former anchorman with a Basque regional television network who now works for Canal Plus in Madrid, says ETA sympathizers distributed posters with the word “assassin” over his portrait after he started describing ETA’s attacks as “terrorism.” In the past, he says, ETA was referred to simply as “the organization.” “I was the first anchorman who called ETA terrorists on television. I said that what they did was murder. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the victims,” Calleja says. He decided to leave the Basque country after police warned him that ETA was planning an attack against his family. He now works in Madrid, with two armed bodyguards constantly by his side. Once you become a target, he says, it is impossible to remain indifferent.

Calleja has become one of the most outspoken critics of the moderate Basque Nationalist party, which has governed the Basque region for 21 years. Calleja blames nationalists for instilling hatred against Spain, and for perpetuating the divisions in society that have allowed ETA to continue recruiting new members 26 years after the restoration of democracy in Spain. The Basque Nationalist party, for its part, says it has never advocated violence, and points out that it has also been a victim of ETA attacks.

On the other side of the divide, it has become increasingly difficult for pro-independence media such as the newspaper Gara, to advocate the secession of the Basque country without being branded as an ETA mouthpiece. Spain’s anti-terrorism laws makes justifying separatist violence a criminal offense. In the past, public prosecutors have used these laws to shut down pro-independence publications and jail their editors.

While appearing to thrive in this volatile, highly polarized environment, ETA is also impervious to international criticism for its violation of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression. This does not mean that ETA is insensitive to how the organization is portrayed in Spanish and international media. Foreign correspondents have received letters from the group cautioning neutrality when reporting the Basque conflict.

But the guerrillas are losing the propaganda war. ETA’s decision to target journalists is, in some respects, a reflection of its failure to convince society of the validity of its cause. Many Basques aspire to independence, but most of them condemn ETA’s violent methods.

The May 13 regional elections were a disaster for ETA. Less than 10 per cent of the region’s 1.8 million voters supported Euskal Herritarrok, the political party closest to ETA. Moderate nationalist parties, who condemn ETA’s violence, won 43 per cent of the vote, with pro-Spanish parties polling 42 per cent. The elections were hailed as a victory against terrorism and its supporters.

ETA responded by sending the parcel bomb to Landaburu.

The author cannot be identified for security reasons.