Four decades ago, I interviewed the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker about the relationship between the government and the press. It was the Watergate era, and journalism appealed to me as a noble calling.
Mr. Wicker told me that conflict was all but inevitable between executive branches and newspapers that did their duty. He observed that where democracy was weak, newspapers that criticized the government would pay dearly for their audacity. “Careful with the Leviathan,” he said. He quoted John Adams: “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing.”
The truth of that statement was confirmed for me last week, when I was fired as the editor of El Mundo, Spain’s second-largest newspaper, which I co-founded in 1989. The paper’s owner, Unidad Editorial, which is part of an Italian conglomerate, praised my tenure but denied buckling to political pressure. Sunday’s issue was my last.
My confrontation with the government began last year, when an ally of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — his political party’s former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, now jailed on charges of corruption and tax fraud — furnished documents showing illegal financing of the party over nearly two decades. We published an exposé, and turned over the documents to a judge investigating the case. We also published text messages of support that Mr. Rajoy had sent to Mr. Bárcenas.
Mr. Rajoy was livid. “El Mundo distorts and manipulates to produce slander,” he told the Senate on Aug. 1. Shortly after this, the party’s secretary general, María Dolores de Cospedal, said, “I don’t read El Mundo,” which was interpreted as a government-sanctioned boycott of the newspaper. High-level officials, unlike in the past, stayed away from an international journalism awards ceremony we had established in the memory of three reporters who had died in the line of duty. Some of Spain’s biggest companies, many of which are in sectors that are heavily regulated by the government, canceled their advertising. Barry Sussman, an editor who helped lead The Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate, wrote in our pages that we were dealing with the same situation: a combination of dirty money and efforts to intimidate the press.
This heavy-handed government, which has been mum about my dismissal, reminds me of 1974, when I interviewed Mr. Wicker. Gen. Francisco Franco was still in power, but Spain’s collective desire for freedom and democracy had taken on a life of its own. He died the next year, and the press was pivotal in the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Newspapers linked to the old regime had no credibility. Opportunities suddenly opened for journalists of my generation. In 1980, at age 28, I was named editor of the newspaper Diario 16. It was a crash course in journalism and democracy.
In just a few years we endured seemingly all of the nerve-racking situations that a new democracy could possibly experience. We categorically opposed attempts by Franco’s former generals to undermine the new government. We opposed the terrorism of Basque separatists — but also the death squads that Prime Minister Felipe González’s Socialist government assembled to fight the separatist group, known as ETA.
In 1988, after our investigative reporting linked the Spanish government to the death squads’ killings in the south of France, Mr. González intercepted me in a corridor at the Parliament and asked me to stop publishing “those terrible things.” I refused, and a few months later I was fired. The owner of the newspaper had succumbed to political pressure.
Dozens of journalists quit and joined me to found El Mundo, “a new newspaper for a new generation of readers.” It was a rapid success. We quickly occupied a center-right political space, with a strong base of readers among young urban professionals. We resumed our investigation into the death squads.
In the late 1990s, as a result of our exposés, Mr. González’s interior minister and his director of state security were convicted of kidnapping. A general in the Spanish military police was found guilty of murder.
Previous prime ministers, including José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Mr. Rajoy’s Socialist predecessor, accepted press criticism. But everything changed when Mr. Rajoy, the leader of the conservative People’s Party, came to power. Though we had endorsed him on three occasions, once in power he exhibited hostility toward uncomfortable truths and indifference to public opinion.
As elsewhere, journalism in Spain has been under economic pressure. Newspaper advertising fell by two-thirds in six years, and print circulation by more than one-third. El Mundo is a leading newspaper online in Spain, with 7.2 million monthly unique users of its main website and 127,000 digital subscribers, but online revenues are not enough to balance the books. So the political pressure from the government, and its effect on advertising, came at a vulnerable moment.
Spain has been in serious trouble since the property bubble burst in 2008. Unemployment has been hovering around 25 percent, and the economy is barely out of recession. Mr. Rajoy’s governing party lacks internal democracy. The independence of the judiciary has been weakened. The monarchy has been tarnished by a spending scandal. Add in the attack on the press, and it seems clear to me that democracy might be more fragile now than at any point since Franco died in 1975. I plan to keep writing about it.
Pedro J. Ramírez was the editor of El Mundo from its founding in 1989 until Saturday. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.