Reporters Without Borders said it is very concerned about alleged political interference at Portugal’s main public radio station, Antena 1, which suddenly scrapped a morning current affairs programme called Este Tempo and terminated the contracts of five of the programme’s commentators just days after one of them, Pedro Rosa Mendes, was very critical of the government on the air.
“If confirmed, these actions are absolutely unacceptable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This case highlights the urgency of the need to overhaul the method of appointing those who run the public broadcast media in Portugal and several other European Union member states, so that media independence is guaranteed.
“Portugal’s state broadcaster, Rádio Televisão Portuguesa (RTP), must explain itself because questions need answering. If the decision to drop this programme had been taken ‘some time ago,’ as claimed, why did it wait to tell the commentators until the last week of their contracts? And what were the editorial grounds for this decision, because so far none has been given?”
Neither RTP’s director-general nor his press office responded to Reporters Without Borders’ request for a comment.
It was on 23 January that Antena 1’s news director told Este Tempo’s five commentators that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the month and that the programme would cease to be broadcast from 30 January onwards.
Mendes believes these decisions were the direct result of his 18 January commentary criticizing a special broadcast by the state TV channel RTP1 two days earlier from the Angolan capital, Luanda, in which Portugal’s parliamentary affairs minister, Miguel Relvas, also the minister in charge of the state broadcast media, took part. The broadcast, about relations between Portugal and Angola, was widely criticized as a “piece of propaganda” on behalf of Angola’s authoritarian government.
RTP director-general Luís Marinho told the national media he took responsibility for the decision to scrap Este Tempo, which he said was taken “some time ago.” The decision nonetheless took all of its reporters and producers by surprise. Raquel Freire, a filmmaker who delivered a commentary every Tuesday, only learned on the eve of her last commentary.
Mendes has told journalists that one of Antena 1’s news director’s told him the programme had been pulled in response to a direct request from the RTP administration, which is appointed by the government. “Luís Marinho explicitly told two Antena 1 directors that the 18 January commentary on Angola had not pleased the government and that this opinion slot was going to be eliminated.”
Mendes told Reporters Without Borders that, when members of the Antena 1 administration contacted him about a technical issue regarding his contract on 20 January – two days after the broadcast of his commentary but before the announcement of the programme’s demise – they said nothing about his contract being terminated. Until then, their contracts had been renewed almost automatically every six months for the previous two years.
“Doesn’t his prove that Antena 1’s decision was taken after 20 January, rather than before? “ Reporters Without Borders asked.
The opposition in parliament has been pressing for an explanation from Relvas, the parliamentary affairs minister. The Media Regulatory Body meanwhile questioned Antena 1 programmes chief Rui Pêgo, news director João Barreiros and deputy news director Ricardo Alexandre (who was responsible for the morning slot).
Alexandre announced that he was relinquishing his responsibility for the morning slot. When reached by Reporters Without Borders, he refused to say why. The press freedom organisation will continue to follow this case closely.
Portugal is ranked 33rd out of 179 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.