Laureate 2004: La Voz de Galicia

La Voz de Galicia
largest newspaper in Galicia, Spanish coastal region where the "Prestige" tanker sank in November 2002, uncovered the events surrounding the spill with great journalistic commitment.

La Voz de Galicia (The Voice of Galicia) was quick to get involved, with critical and farsighted reports challenging the attempts of the government and local authorities to downplay the catastrophe. Its editors resisted political pressures and demonstrated the strength and necessity of a free and independent press in exemplary fashion.

"We were dealing with goverment officials who never asked questions, never listened, and never spoke to us. Their incompetence was matched only by their hostility towards their fellow citizens," fumed popular Spanish writer Manuel Rivas on the anniversary of one of Europe’s largest environmental disasters. "They still don’t realize the damage they’ve done. They sank the ship in their own shame. They mocked their fellow citizens and thought that the truth had spilled in the sea, along with the heavy oil."

That the ailing oil tanker "Prestige" sprang a leak off the Atlantic coast of Spain during a storm in early November 2002 was the fault of neither the government of Galicia nor that in Madrid. Yet much of what followed, and which turned the incident into a "maritime Chernobyl" for the local population, was the result of carelessness, ignorance and thoughtlessness. Despite the 77,000 tons of highly toxic cargo on board, the government responded by simply hauling the bothersome tanker out of sight. The oil tanker eventually sank, causing unprecendented levels of contamination. The flawed decision was then covered up, along with the dangers that lay ahead. Journalists were fordbidden from viewing the site or taking aerial photos of it, and their questions were left unanswered.

The majority of Spanish media outlets would have simply acquiesced or let themselves be hoodwinked – not least because public media in Spain are subject to strict government controls, many regional newspapers are dependent on local authorities and national papers are too far away and too partisan in their orientation. But this time La Voz de Galicia, the region’s highest circulating newspaper, accepted the challenge. Despite the opposition of authorities, they sought the objective facts and didn’t fall for disinformation campaigns or the government’s attempts to shrug it off.

The La Coruña-based paper began by doing what the authorities should have done: they consulted with shipping experts, maritime biologists, the captain of Prestige, and local fishermen. In a neutral, matter-of-fact tone, its journalists refuted the attempts of people in high positions to play things down, uncovered inconsistencies, and accused the government of making false statements. The oil would neither rest harmlessly on the bottom of the ocean nor remain in the hull of the Prestige, wrote La Voz; the government’s emergency aid package was sufficient neither in terms of personnel nor money; the economic consequences would be far worse than predicted; the disaster could have been greatly averted by reacting in a professional manner; and even one year after the incident there was still no suitable contingency plan for a similar event in the future.

The newspaper became required reading for informed individuals in Galicia and the key source of information for media agencies around the world. It proved that freedom of the press is something that needs to be sought out actively, time and again – even in the established democracies of Western Europe.