A group representing reporters and editors at Spain’s state-run news agency, EFE, says the agency knew about evidence pointing to involvement by Islamic terrorists in the Mar. 11 train bombings in Madrid that very morning, but kept it under wraps due to pressure from the government of Prime Minister José María Aznar.
“EFE knew, from the very morning of (last) Thursday’s attacks in Madrid, about the existence of a cell-phone configured in Arabic and about the van found in Alcalá de Henares, and knew that one of the dead was a terrorist,” the committee of EFE employees said in a press release.
But “Reporting or broadcasting information pointing to involvement by extremist Islamic terrorists that was obtained from primary sources by our national news service writers was expressly prohibited,” the committee said Monday.
The heads of the Madrid Press Association (APM) met Wednesday with the committee of EFE employees, who are now demanding that the agency’s news director, Miguel Platón, resign.
The EFE writers accuse Platón of imposing “a regime of manipulation and censorship in this company over the last few days, to favor the interests of the Popular Party (PP) with a view to the Mar. 14 elections.”
They maintained that the government’s manipulation of information was aimed at ensuring a victory at the polls last Sunday by the conservative PP, which ended up being trounced by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
A little over an hour after 10 explosions tore through three commuter trains during the morning rush-hour last Thursday, killing 200 and injuring 1,500, the government blamed the Basque separatist group ETA, and was echoed by the Spanish media, political parties, trade unions and social organizations.
Decades of terrorist attacks staged by ETA in demand of an independent Basque homeland and two similar aborted attempts made it logical that the group would be viewed as a likely suspect.
The on-line editions of Spain’s main newspapers carried headlines that day with different versions of “Massacre by ETA.” The first IPS report in Spanish was also titled “ETA Votes with Bombs and Dead Civilians,” while the headline of the agency’s first article in English was “ETA Main Suspect in Rail Blasts, More Than 170 Killed.”
Not until Thursday evening did the government announce that in the town of Alcalá de Henares, the starting-point of several of the trains carrying explosives, police found a stolen van carrying detonators and an audiotape of Koranic verses in Arabic.
Investigators also found a sports bag containing an unexploded bomb, a detonator and a cell-phone configured in Arabic at one of the sites of the explosions.
Shortly after the government reported the discovery of the van, a London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that it had received an e-mail in the name of a group with links to the al-Qaeda Islamic terrorist network claiming responsibility for the blasts.
Nevertheless, Aznar personally called the directors of El País, Jesús Ceberio, in Madrid, and El Periódico, Antonio Franco, in Barcelona, to tell them there was not the slightest doubt that ETA was responsible.
“It was then that I, under the conviction that the prime minister of my country was incapable, in the exercise of his duty, to give me assurances about something he was not completely sure about, decided on the headline: ‘ETA’s M-11’,” Franco wrote in an editorial that was posted on the Catalan newspaper’s website.
“The prime minister gave his word to the heads of the media so they would present the attacks as the work of the ETA terrorist group,” wrote El País in an editorial on Sunday, the day of the elections, in which the PP, previously expected to win handily, was defeated by Spain’s socialists.
The association of foreign journalists, to which the IPS correspondent in Madrid belongs, also complained that a dozen of its members had received phone calls from the State Secretariat of Communication, “explicitly requesting that our reports state that ETA was the perpetrator of the attacks.”
The association of employees (APM) of the Madrid public TV station also complained of “outright manipulation,” “censorship,” “falsification of news,” and the “concealing” of information.
“In the future, we demand that ethical standards be respected, so journalists are able to work freely and provide truthful information,” APM president Fernando González Urbaneja told IPS.
On the day of the attacks, Foreign Minister Ana Palacios sent instructions to Spanish embassies around the world. According to El País, her memo stated: “You should use any opportunity to confirm ETA’s responsibility for these brutal attacks, hence helping to dissipate any type of doubt that certain interested parties may want to promote.”
“The Interior Ministry has confirmed that ETA was responsible” she added in the message, which she later said was aimed at “providing guidance” to embassies at their request.
Even the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution on the day of the attacks blaming ETA, on the insistence of Madrid, which said it had irrefutable evidence of involvement by the Basque separatist group.
The embarrassed Security Council is now preparing to annul the resolution.
Senior European officials also complained this week that their governments felt misled by the Aznar administration’s insistent blaming of ETA.
EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana, a Spaniard, said in interviews with Spanish television that it seemed certain that ETA was involved because of the characteristics of the attack and the kind of explosive that was used.
The government erroneously reported on the day of the blasts that the explosive was Titadyne dynamite, which ETA used in earlier attacks after stealing several tons of it in France.
“It is clear that there was pressure,” Enrique Bustamante, international relations expert and member of PSOE prime-minister-elect José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s advisory team, told IPS.
“This was the first time that the head of government called all of the major media and that censorship and control of information was applied in the official news agency (EFE).”
When the SER radio station, the most popular in Spain, reported that “99 percent” of the evidence found by the military intelligence National Information Center pointed to extremist Islamic groups, “the phone immediately rang, and a ‘denial’ came from the director of the Center himself,” said Bustamante.
While the government repeated “ETA” over and over again, like a kind of mantra, the evidence that increasingly suggested Islamic involvement continued to pile up.
Analysts say the public’s anger at the way the government handled the information arising from the investigation, as well as the fact that Spaniards overwhelmingly opposed Spain’s support for the U.S.-led war on Iraq, led to the Sunday defeat of the PP.
Despite the fact that surveys indicated that over 80 percent of Spaniards were opposed to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Aznar administration dispatched 1,300 Spanish troops to take part in the occupation.
The Madrid train bombings, apparently staged by one of the radical Islamic groups that have threatened to take reprisals against the allies of the George W. Bush administration in that war, reactivated the public’s memory of its opposition to the war.
While the Spanish media continued to echo the government line that ETA was responsible, thousands of Spaniards took to the streets on Saturday, Mar. 13 to repudiate the attacks and protest the government’s manipulation of the facts.
Outside PP offices in cities around Spain, demonstrators shouted “We Said ‘NO’ to the War!” and “Your War, Our Corpses.”
Bustamante pointed out that the spontaneous outpouring of anger and grief was “prompted by cell-phone, e-mail and Internet messages” that circulated widely throughout Spain.
The initial conviction that ETA was responsible might be compared to what occurred after a car-bomb destroyed a U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City on Apr. 19, 1995.
A total of 169 people were killed in that terrorist attack, for which no one claimed responsibility. Immediately after the blast, the media reported that it was the work of “Arab terrorists” a version that continued to be echoed for two days.
IPS, on the other hand, stated just hours after the explosion that certain signs suggested involvement by far-right white supremacists.
Timothy McVeigh, who fit that description, was eventually found guilty and put to death for the bomb attack.
“It was a cultural question,” journalist Jim Lobe told a fellow IPS writer.
“Americans don’t see their young as capable of the kind of violence that was visited on the federal building, but, through movies, news coverage, and facile assumptions by so-called ‘terrorism’, experts (many of whom are Islamaphobes), and an occasional off-the-record official, the notion that it must have been Middle Eastern or more precisely Arab in origin simply took hold.
“We in the Washington bureau were 36 hours ahead of the rest of the media in pointing to the (far-right) militias,” said Lobe.
“As a person from the US west with experience with Posse Comitatus and other far-right groups in the court system, I was convinced that some Americans were perfectly capable of such an outrage, and that the target itself, a federal building, made perfect sense,” he added.
“With Pratap Chatterjee, our former colleague, quickly scoping out sites on the web, we saw the chatter from far-right groups and realized that April 19 was an important anniversary. It was a matter of ‘connecting the dots’,” said Lobe.