Journalists' associations criticize LaLiga for "attacking" freedom of information: "They play with fire"

"As you ask something that is not in the manual, you will not come out again." This phrase is from Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga, the association of professional football clubs that organizes the main competition in Spain. It is not new, it is from 2019, but it has circulated again on social networks after this medium pointed out how the new television contract gives all the control of the information, both what is taught and what is said, to the business organization during the broadcasts. In that interview he gave to the Cope program 'El Partidazo', Tebas already defended what has subsequently been reflected in the specifications for the operators that have been broadcasting football on television since this season.

"If you are with the microphones of LaLiga you are not going to ask something that we consider to be inappropriate," Tebas added at that meeting, pointing out that this occurs because LaLiga has an "editorial line". The latest television contract affects this limitation and extends it. Two platforms currently broadcast the championship: Movistar and Dazn. The first acquired the entire LaLiga package, which includes its announcers and commentators. The second, opted for having its own professionals. The contract, however, also limits the information during these broadcasts.

The CNMC has already warned that this limitation, which forces professionals to give a "positive" image of clubs and competition, collided with article 20 of the Constitution, which protects freedom of information. "The CNMC is right in its assessments," says Miguel Ángel Noceda, president of the Federation of the Association of Journalists of Spain (FAPE). "It supposes a control that goes against the objective exercise of information and is attentive to freedom of information and the right of citizens to receive balanced information," says the representative of professional associations in Spain.

His predecessor in office and member of the Madrid Association of Journalists, Nemesio Rodríguez, agrees with this assessment. "These conditions clearly limit the right to freedom of expression of commentators and the right to information of citizens, both guaranteed in article 20 of the Constitution," he points out. "The conditions also limit the right to criticize, expressed either with images or with voice, and this is a basic element of freedom of expression," adds the former FAPE president.

To date, Movistar+ had the exclusive rights and had a team of professionals who broadcast the matches, although the technical production depended on LaLiga. In December, the auction of the rights for this season and the next four was held. In total, five years for which Telefónica and Dazn will pay 4,950 million to share this package of 10 games per week. Movistar decided to stop having its own team due to LaLiga's proposal to also include the narration and the commentators. Dazn, which premieres in the broadcast of this competition in Spain, preferred to have its own professionals.

"The successful bidder will undertake that the personalization of the production is carried out in a positive way, avoiding damaging the image of the competitions, clubs, players and the public", reads the specifications for that award. In other words, LaLiga is guaranteed to be able to supervise what is said during the broadcasts. In case of "violation", the employer will ask the platform not to "reoffend". It even reserves the ability to "request the relief of those speakers, narrators, commentators and editors who have failed to comply with the aforementioned principles." In this way, control on both platforms is guaranteed by contract.

"It is a form of prior censorship," Rodríguez points out, since it is anticipated that "negative" images or opinions will not be broadcast. "It is clear that, in certain cases, such images or comments can be essential to understand what is happening in a certain game," he says. "The citizen is robbed of the information he needs to form his own opinion," he adds.

LaLiga even establishes how interviews should be carried out in the stadium, both with managers and with players or coaches. The specifications raise issues such as consulting with the interviewee the questions before the interviews, or not asking questions about the referees and that the content of the questions focus only on aspects of the match. Tebas himself already pointed out in that interview in 2019 that a player could not be asked about his renewal with his team.

"The free exercise of journalism, an essential support of democracies, supposes that the journalist has the right (and the duty) to ask what he deems appropriate and serves to guarantee the citizens' right to information," Rodríguez points out in this regard.

Noceda, current president of FAPE, warns that LaLiga is "playing with fire" with this strategy. "Any manipulation of information is detrimental to the manipulator himself, since the images are seen by everyone and it is difficult to misrepresent them," he points out. "It is a control that not only damages the plurality, already affected by the football law and payment channels, but also offers a partial vision of an interested party such as LaLiga", he underlines.

Carlos Sánchez Almeida is a lawyer and legal director of the Platform for Freedom of Information and has taken cases in court against LaLiga for disputes over football copyright. "The audiovisual rights contract is contrary to freedom of expression," says Almeida. "It's outrageous that the owner of the content controls what is reported," he adds. The lawyer considers that the comment made during a broadcast falls under "freedom of expression", if he does not point out that it can be "unconstitutional".

Almeida recalls that the fact that these limitations established by LaLiga are found in a contract that the operators have accepted does not exempt from respect for freedom of information. This also affects the labor issue that opens with the paragraph of the specifications that indicates that LaLiga can request the dismissal of a commentator or narrator if he is a repeat offender in his failure to give a "positive" image of the competition. "Dismissal based on non-compliance with a fundamental right is null dismissal, non-compliance with the Spanish Constitution cannot be imposed," he emphasizes.

LaLiga has defended on this matter that, although it is true that these capacities are contemplated in the contract, it does not mean that measures are applied to limit freedom of expression. "The editorial line is to avoid questions about non-sports issues. Nothing to do with freedom of the press. It's something obvious," Tebas has assured on Twitter about the limits to the work of journalists.

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