At age 10, Spanish daily has grown up with democracy

Like many Spaniards, Ana Fernandez Virgala has bought ``El Pa'is'' from the start. ``Compared to other newspapers, El Pa'is seems to be the one to most tell the truth,'' she says.

Sociologist Victor Perez Diaz puts it this way: ``El Pa'is projects credibility.''

It is no small compliment for a newspaper which grew up from the ashes of a 40-year dictatorship and a rigidly state-controlled press. El Pa'is celebrates its 10th anniversary this week.

It is even said that when Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez took office, he strongly recommended to his staff that they not read El Pa'is before the morning's work was over, fearing that the paper might influence policy decisions.

A good part of the newspaper's present success stems from the role it played during the return of democracy, in helping to form opinion and serve as a platform for ideas at a time when political parties were still not legal.

Headed by a young editor, Juan Luis Cebrian, and a similarly youthful team, the paper was launched six months after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco. Untainted by Francoism, El Pa'is caught the mood of the country and boldly pushed for reform.

It denounced the old political system and supported proposed changes. It helped to build up the image of the King as an institution. In its reporting on the Roman Catholic Church and the Army, it was careful not to stir up anticlerical sentiment or to provoke the military.

Mr. Cebrian received an International Editor of the Year Award for the paper's stance on a coup attempt in 1981. As Army tanks rolled toward Madrid, El Pa'is rushed out an edition with the banner headline ``Constitution'' on the front page and a signed editorial by Mr. Cebrian in defense of the democratic system.

The paper's bright layout and balanced presentation of the news also captured an immediate audience among the educated middle class. Cebrian admits that El Pa'is has borrowed many features from other European and American newspapers.

With its center-left leaning, El Pa'is stresses in its pages the defense of human rights and minorities, women, prisoners, and religious groups other than Roman Catholic.

The paper has also served as a forum for Latin American writers and journalists, many from countries with repressive regimes. Its extensive coverage of the arts has contributed greatly to Spain's current cultural boom.

Along with the rest of the Spanish press, El Pa'is still has some traditions to overcome. In the opinion of sociologist Victor Perez Diaz, it's high time for more investigative reporting, deeper analysis, and more rigorous writing in the Spanish press in general.

Today, the Spanish press represents a broad range of ideas. Except for extremist papers of the right and left, all Spanish papers seem to suffer somewhat from the practice of self-censorship left over from the Franco regime. Government censorship was officially abolished in 1966, leaving it up to editors to decide what was acceptable.

According to Cebrian the practice still affects news coverage. Even El Pa'is can be too cautious when it comes to sensitive topics such as the military, he says. However, Cebrian says he is ``not too unhappy'' about the Spanish press on the whole. He says he is aware that El Pa'is is often regarded as an institution, and is aware of the danger of readers and journalists becoming too complacent.

``On El Pa'is we try to be more self-critical than other papers,'' he says.

El Pa'is's Sunday magazine regularly carries a satirical version of the paper. Also last November, to guarantee editorial standards, El Pa'is created the first-ever ombudsman of the Spanish press, to check out complaints or advice from readers. Though relatively common in the US, the ombudsman's role is little known in Europe.

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