Antonio Fontán was the editor of the independent national daily Madrid from 1967 to 1971. The government suspended the liberal newspaper, which was in favour of democracy and against the authoritarian rule of General Francisco Franco, for four months in 1968 while Fontán was prosecuted on 19 occasions and fined some 10 times. In October 1971, the authorities demanded Fontán’s resignation, closing down the paper for good a few weeks later. Fontán’s staunch defence of the principles of free expression during those five years as editor of Madrid earned the paper and the men and women on its staff a unique place in the annals of Spanish journalism.
Antonio Fontán Pérez was born in Seville, Spain, on October 15, 1923. Educated at the Universities of Seville and Madrid, he received his doctorate in classical philology in 1948 and was active in clandestine royalist and liberal circles. He was the director of a weekly magazine, La Actualidad Española, and the monthly Nuestro Tiempo before joining the evening paper Madrid in September 1966, shortly after the introduction of a new press law had led to the lifting of prior censorship.
However, when Fontán was appointed editor-in-chief of Madrid on April 15, 1967, he soon learned that the end of prior censorship did not necessarily mean true freedom of the press. Madrid quickly became unpopular with the authorities for its coverage of such taboo subjects as student and labour unrest, the growth of regionalism, illegal trade unionism and opposition party activities. Fontán and his paper were bombarded with sanctions for publishing articles defending democracy and civil liberties and criticising the Franco regime. Between January 1967 and May 1968 alone, proceedings were initiated against the paper on 12 separate occasions. Madrid was shut down for four months on May 30, 1968, inflicting heavy financial losses on the paper, which continued to pay the salaries of its staff.
After Madrid’s reappearance on September 30, 1968, judicial proceedings against the paper continued on a regular basis and under the smallest pretext. Finally, in October 1971 the Minister of Information, Sanchez Belle, demanded the replacement within 24 hours of Fontán with a journalist close to the Falange fascist party and the appointment of a director to represent the Ministry. In case of refusal, Belle warned, the newspaper would be temporarily suspended and an investigation started to consider its permanent closure. However, Madrid’s publisher and principal owner, Rafael Calvo Serer, refused to agree to these conditions. The paper’s editorial staff formed a journalists’ association, the first of its kind in Spain, to defend the independence and dignity of the profession and to fight for the retention in office of the present editor.
On November 25, 1971, after the paper published an article critical of General Franco’s right-hand man, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, the Ministry of Information removed Madrid from the register of press publishers, allegedly because of irregularities in the paper’s ownership. He also told the paper to cease publishing. The banning of Madrid affected public opinion and was widely criticised by the Spanish press. “To close an economically sound and well-read paper is murder,” commented the Catholic paper Ecclesia.
Madrid’s journalists and workers agreed to support the management and not surrender the newspaper to the official trade unions, which had offered to take charge of the newspaper under a new editor and with its own editorial line. “We are ready to sell the presses to pay the staff rather than agree that the paper should lose its independence,” the journalists said. Madrid stayed closed. Calvo Serer, who went into exile in France a few days before the government closed the paper, was tried in absentia and charged with actions “prejudicial to the reputation and authority of the State.”
When democracy was restored in Spain after Franco’s death and the monarchy was re-established in 1975, the Supreme Court revoked the order to close down Madrid. The state was ordered to pay damages to the paper, but this was not enough to restart the daily, which had sold everything in order to compensate its employees.
Fontán was elected to the Senate as a member of the Unión de Centro Democrático coalition party in the first democratic general elections in June 1977. He was one of the authors of the country’s Constitution of 1978, which recognised freedom of expression and freedom of information as fundamental rights. He also served as a minister of the government from 1979 to 1982.
In addition to journalism and politics, Fontán had an active career in academia. He set up the first university-level school of journalism in Spain at the University of Navarra in 1958. Up until his death, he was the president and publisher of the bimonthly magazine Nueva Revista de Política, Cultura y Arte, which he founded in 1990.
Antonio Fontán died on January 14, 2010 aged 86.