Spain democracy clouded by court decisions on press

The recent sentencing of a well-known liberal Spanish newspaper editor underscores the painful price this country may have to pay for a transition to democracy.

El Pais editor Juan Luis Cebrain was handed a three-month prison sentence May 9 for a two-year-old editorial in his newspaper highlighting press-freedom problems in Spain. Mr. Cebrian will not likely to jailed because he has a clean record.

Nevertheless, his conviction for "desacato" -- a crime similar to contempt of court -- illustrates the seemingly arbitrary punishments meted out by courts in post-Franco Spain.

Last month, a military tribunal charged the director of a controversial Spanish film with "insulting" the paramilitary civil guard. She now faces up to an eight-year prison term.

By contrast, a member of the national police force and a colonel in the Spanish civil guard recently received minimum six-to seven-month sentences for allegedly conspiriang to overthrow the government. Mr. Cebrian's sentence came only two days after the International Press Institute expressed deep disappointment over measures it said were shackling press freedom in Spain.

Among those the institute cited: the government's continued reluctance to hand over the state television and radio to independent control; the government's continued control over a chain of newspapers and radio stations set up during the Franco era; the growing number of military court prosecutions of journalists and newspapers.

Under the new Constitution, military jurisdiction is strictly limited to the armed forces. But military tribunals have continued to intercede in civilian affairs over the past three years.

It also came the day before Mr. Cebrian was named newspaper editor of the year by the American publication Monthly World Press Review. This award is given to editors who show courage, initiative, and leadership in the promotion of freedom of expression and defense of human rights.

Many here considered it a just prize for an editor who, more than any other in spain, has come to be identified with all that is progressive in the fledgling democracy.

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