Spaniards rock the vote
Electorate fed up with perceived media manipulation
For eight years, Spain's ruling Popular Party has been accused of barefacedly manipulating the media.
During Sunday's general elections in Spain, the practice came back to haunt it.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's PSOE socialists swept to power in a dramatic turnaround, gaining 164 seats, 12 short of an outright majority.
That triumph, say analysts, was in part a reproof for the PP's attempt to control TV and press coverage in Spain before and at the elections.
When on March 11, almost 200 Spaniards were killed in bomb explosions, Spanish politicians initially pointed the finger at ETA, the Basque terrorist group. ETA suspects had, after all, been arrested on Dec. 24 and March 1 transporting explosives and bomb-making material toward Madrid.
An alternative culprit to ETA is Al Qaeda. But if any Islamic fundamentalist group were to be identified as the author of the bombing, the PP risked a severe corrective at Sunday's elections for dragging Spain into the line of fire by supporting the U.S. attack on Iraq.
From Thursday to Saturday afternoon, a substantial body of evidence and basic logic began to point at Al Qaeda or associated orgs as the massacre's authors: neither the scale, nor target nor lack of warning to the attacks bore ETA's usual hallmarks; unlike ETA's, the detonators were copper, not aluminum-based; the explosives used Goma 2 ECO, which ETA has abandoned.
On Friday, an alleged ETA spokesman called Basque news outlets denying ETA responsibility, and a van was discovered near Madrid with explosives and a tape of Koranic verses.
Despite such clues, Spain's conservative government insisted on ETA, and friendly media played along.
On Friday night, the anti-government Cadena Ser reported that Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio had instructed ambassadors "to exploit those occasions that arise to confirm ETA's responsibility for these brutal attacks." (The Spanish ambassador to the U.S. denied on CNN Intl. that he had received such a letter from Palacio).
Foreign correspondents complained to the socialist-supporting El Pais that they had been phoned on Thursday by a government official who claimed that the explosives used in the attack typified ETA.
By Saturday, the government was backtracking, but too little too late and the government-controlled pubcaster RTVE had reported that ETA remained minister of the interior Angel Acebes' prime suspect.
At 8 p.m., however, a discomforted Acebes appeared before the media to admit that three Moroccans and two Indians had been detained the night before in connection to a cell phone found in an unexploded backpack. That admission came after news of the arrests had appeared in El Pais' Web site.
On Saturday night, RTVE changed it programming schedule to screen the acclaimed docu "Assassination in February," about ETA murders.
In all, four ministers appeared on TV Saturday to push ETA as the atrocity's most likely perpetrators. But by Saturday evening, after Acebes' admission to arrests, the government's credibility had crumbled.
Incensed Spaniards took to the streets protesting the what was perceived as PP's smoke-and-mirrors obfuscations. The next day, they punished the PP at the polls.
Spain's new prime minister, Rodriguez Zapatero, has promised that the next head of RTVE will be appointed by an independent commission.
Concern about media manipulation is often limited to an engaged educated elite in Europe. On Sunday, however, a larger part of Spain felt duped.
Spain's now former foreign minister Palacio still maintained to the BBC on Sunday that ETA could be behind the bombings.