BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. As the NFL protests and divisive discussions of free speech dominated the American media, a struggle with serious speech suppression was being waged in Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Thousands of protesters take to the streets of Barcelona, the target of their fury, the police. Earlier, the officers of the Catalan regional government were searched and 14 people arrested, their alleged crime, preparing for the independence referendum on October the 1st.
BOB GARFIELD: All signs of an escalating power struggle between Catalonia and the Spanish government. Since 1978, the Spanish Constitution has granted the region a great deal of independence -- its own parliament, police force and even, in recent years, the privilege of referring to itself as a nation. But in 2010, Spain's High Court scaled back much of that autonomy and, thus, the modern Catalan separatist movement was born. As the Catalan government prepares for Sunday's referendum on independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly reminded voters that the vote has been ruled unconstitutional.
[CLIP/PRIME MINISTER RAJOY SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER FOR PRIME MINISTER RAJOY: Those in charge at the Catalan government who are the protagonists in this challenge to our coexistence, I ask them to cease in their illegal activities. They should abandon their objectives. They now know that this referendum cannot be organized. It was never legal or legitimate. It is now no more than an impossible dream.
BOB GARFIELD: Intent on quashing the votes, Spanish officials have threatened Catalan media and seized referendum posters and flyers. And in Barcelona, this has an all-too-familiar ring. Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Catalan language and culture were brutally repressed for nearly 40 years. After his 1975 death, Madrid promised the region autonomy but that promise is now broken, says Vicent Partal, founder and editor of VilaWeb, a Catalan news outlet based in Barcelona.
VICENT PARTAL: I was born in the dictatorship. My parents, my family, my whole town spoke Catalan but when I went to school Catalan was strictly forbidden. They beaten us if we say a single word in Catalan. But after Franco’s death, there were a sort of agreement between Spain and Catalonia on how to conduct our relationships, and this agreement was broken unilaterally by the Spanish government ten years ago. And from this moment on, a lot of people here in Catalonia began to think why not have a separate republic inside the European Union.
BOB GARFIELD: As I understand it, there’s essentially three reasons for the current move towards independence. One is the historical desire for Catalonia to be recognized as a true nation. Then there is the fact that it's quite prosperous putting more into the federal pot than it is receiving from the government, and thirdly, that the federal government of Spain has reneged on the autonomy deal that gave you the power you do have.
VICENT PARTAL: Yeah. Of course, people in Catalonia is concerned about the money, but it is not the driving force. The driving force is the dignity.
BOB GARFIELD: What are some of the tactics Madrid has taken to suppress the vote?
VICENT PARTAL: They've taken the detention, some junior members of the Catalan government, that provoke a strong situation in the street, with hundreds of thousands of people in the streets defending the buildings of the Catalan government. They are seizing print plants looking for the ballots. They are looking for the ballot boxes. They are doing everything they can in order to prevent the referendum.
BOB GARFIELD: Raiding newsrooms?
VICENT PARTAL: They have. They raid the media in Catalonia. They sent the paramilitary police to all newspapers, including mine, with an order to stop publishing political parties’ ads on the referendum. So some newspapers decide to stop and accept the censorship. And, of course, I refused to do it.
BOB GARFIELD: They got the post office involved. How did they do that?
VICENT PARTAL: They went to the postal service and give them orders to open the envelopes they believe are suspicious, looking for ballots. But also, for instance, there were magazines that were distributed via postal service, and there is a reporter magazine here in Catalonia, they decide to stop the distribution of, of these magazines, and this is absolutely unlawful but they did it.
Not only that. They gave orders to the telecoms in Spain to block 200 government websites, civil society websites. Now, for instance, you cannot reach the official website of the referendum from Spain but you can reach it from New York. It’s not a problem because they are using the censorship in the same way Turkey is doing it, by forcing the telecoms not to allow the people to reach these domains. But the Catalan president is a young journalist well known for being a Twitter pioneer, and he knows very well technology. And the Catalan government is using social networks where people can reach the information they need in order to know the place where they must vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. Now, you mentioned the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. Then there is the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who, you say, is fighting an 18th century battle in a 21st century war. What do you mean?
VICENT PARTAL: It’s funny. Since the day Prime Minister Rajoy went into public TV and said, okay, referendum is over, saying the power of the state is stopping this thing, while he was speaking on TV, President Puigdemont sent just a tweet, saying, okay guys, here is the website where you will find how to vote and where. At least from a journalistic and sociologic point of view, this battle between the old way to do things and the new way is very interesting.
The Spanish police, for instance, go in to a print plant and got the referendum posters made by the Catalan government. The reaction of the people was to create new posters that can print in the house printers, and that become a phenomenon because young people was creating new kind of posters. The Spanish Prime Minister entourage, they just didn't understand how this is happening.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now what you’re describing is a populist movement that is growing with every effort by Madrid to suppress it. However, Madrid also has the police.
VICENT PARTAL: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: And they have made attempts to move 4,000 civil guard into Catalonia to keep people from the ballot box on Sunday. Is there a chance that there will be violence?
VICENT PARTAL: We don’t know. Today, the situation in Catalonia is a big problem, a big concern for the European Union. The European Union is highlighting itself as the champion of civil rights in the world. This week, for instance, in Brussels there have been some press conferences where the journalists are saying, how can you say to Turkey, you cannot close down websites and Spain is closing down websites? How can you say that you cannot go into the newsrooms and say to the people what can publish and what not, if they are Turks and you cannot say the same thing for the Spanish? So I don’t know what will happen on Sunday but it’s very difficult to imagine a mass violence.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about VilaWeb and you. You are, obviously, arguing for press independence --
VICENT PARTAL: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: -- versus suppression by Madrid. But you are also an advocate for Catalonian independence and you have taken sides.
VICENT PARTAL: I has been a journalist seems 1993. I have worked all my life in foreign affairs, in places like The Balkans or Tiananmen Square in China or the apartheid in South Africa, so I have seen how the world works. And one of the things that I learned very quickly is that most often when people ask you to be balanced, in fact, what they are trying to say is, don't think. My heroes always in journalism has been those professionals who understand that they think for themselves and trying to help the society who trusts them, trying to stay away from a discussion that everyone is involved it.
Here in Catalonia today, from the Futbol Club Barcelona, to the banks, to the union laborers, everyone is taking sides. So why not I should take sides, especially if I'm taking sides not for a political party, not for the discussion of who's ruling the country the next four years but for something that happens only once in the life of a country?
BOB GARFIELD: Vicent, thank you very much.
VICENT PARTAL: Thank you to you.
BOB GARFIELD: Vicent Partal is chairman of the board of the European Journalism Center and founder and editor of VilaWeb, a Catalonian news site based in Barcelona.