On February 20, 2003, the judge of the National Court Juan del Olmo decreed the closure of the newspaper ‘Egunkaria’, a newspaper that had been published in Basque since 1990 and that on that date had a circulation of 15,000 copies. The reason: his alleged association with the terrorist group ETA. That day, 10 people were arrested, including the director, Martxelo Otamendi, and other members of the management team. That action brought numerous protests. There was a huge demonstration in San Sebastián and even journalists like Luis María Anson ran against the closure. Seven years later, on April 12, 2010, the National High Court issued a acquittal for all defendants. No link to ETA was ever proven. The newspaper, however, never returned to the presses.
“Either you are with freedom of expression or you are against it.” Thus begins ‘Los papers de Sísifo’, the play written by Rock Cano —Author of novels like ‘Twist’, about the murder of Lasa and Zabala— and directed by Fernando Bernués who opens this Friday at the María Guerrero theater in Madrid (National Dramatic Center) after passing through Vitoria, Bilbao and San Sebastián. It includes the so-called Egunkaria case, but as Bernués acknowledges, it is above all a work on freedom of expression “and a tribute to journalism and journalists who have professional ethics.” A work about a profession that consists of climbing a mountain every day – like Sisyphus – so that everything begins again the next day. A work that, he insists, flees from dogmatism.
It is above all a work on freedom of expression “and a tribute to journalism and journalists who have professional ethics”
The montage takes place in two planes. One of them is for the drafting and command of the Civil Guard where the interrogations take place. The other shows the moments of the process that the creators intend to highlight. “You can see the ins and outs of a newsroom from the gaze of a young journalist and, on the other hand, how the judicial closure is cooking,” says Bernués.
To delve more into how this work has been made, we have spoken with its author, Harkaitz Cano.
QUESTION. The play premiered in the Basque Country at the end of 2020. How was the reception?
ANSWER. Indeed, as it is a co-production by the CDN together with the three theaters in the capitals of the Basque Country, it premiered at the Principal in Vitoria and later it has been seen at the Arriaga in Bilbao and at the Victoria Eugenia in San Sebastián. The reception has been very good and the pandemic situation has also contributed to this, which has led us to appreciate the fragility and privilege of the stage event from our own fragility. I notice a special climate in theaters.
The writing in ‘Los Papers de Sísifo’.
Q. The text is commissioned by Fernando Bernués, isn’t it? As was?
R. Fernando experienced the closure of the newspaper ‘Egunkaria’ in very special circumstances: at that time he was directing the Music Awards gala and when he went out to collect his award, Fermin Muguruza with a t-shirt supporting the newspaper was booed by the public … That boo, which came from the deepest ignorance of what the newspaper ‘Egunkaria’ supposed, was very painful. I published my first texts in that newspaper and I experienced the closure as a mutilation. I started writing the play back in 2016 and being an ambitious project in terms of cast, etc., it has taken time.
P. Why was there a greater protest for the closure of ‘Egunkaria’ than for that of ‘Egin’, which had been in 1998? In fact, a few days later there was a huge demonstration in San Sebastián.
R. I could not tell you if there were more or less protests … There would also be a lot to tell about the closing of ‘Egin’ (its director, Jabier Salutregi, spent more than seven years in prison). But there is a particularly bloody added fact in the case of ‘Egunkaria’, and that is that it was the only newspaper that was published entirely in Basque and that since its foundation tried to bring together different sensibilities. You can read several newspapers and your degree of identification with them may vary, but I don’t know if people outside the Basque Country are aware of what it means to have a single newspaper in your mother tongue, that different ideologies converge under the same headline. .and how hard it was to be left with nothing overnight. Hence the amazement of the people and that massive support.
“I don’t know if people from outside the Basque Country are aware of what it means to have a single newspaper in your mother tongue”
Q. What do you think the closing of ‘Egunkaria’ is / was a symptom of?
A. To begin with, it was a symptom of a great ignorance of what Basque culture entails, its collaborative roots and the tradition of carrying out projects in a totally altruistic way… The money that was used for its foundation was mistrusted when it was thousands of small popular contributions. Here more than 50 years ago we invented ‘crowdfunding’. The ‘Egunkaria’ case was a legal nonsense, an example of the outrages that were made under the umbrella of ‘everything is ETA’.
Q. The question that many asked themselves then is why not investigate the possible defendants first and decree the closure if you find that relationship with ETA?
R. That same I wonder. But the instruction is done the other way around: first there are the conclusions and prejudices, and then one begins to search for the sources of the Nile.
Q. Almost 20 years have passed … How do you think we are on this issue of freedom of expression and freedom of the press? Sometimes it is said that now we are in the worst moment, but seeing these closings … it does not seem that before we were better [en este tema].
R. My feeling is that, having seen what we have seen, we have been domesticating and censoring ourselves. Thinking twice is healthy, but thinking twice because your convictions can lead to problems with Justice is a symptom of a defective democracy.
“To think twice because your convictions can lead to problems with the Justice is a symptom of a defective democracy”
P. On the other hand, the work is a tribute to the paper newspapers and the press of those years and the nineties. How do you read the press now? How do you see it?
R. I continue to make reading ‘online’ compatible with paper. As one of the protagonists of the play says, “a newspaper is like ‘War and peace‘in little one’. It is an endless novel that is renewed every day, hence the metaphor of Sisyphus. Someone has worked so that there is an order, a scale and a range of what is important and I am formatted to process the world from there. I have always been fascinated by the newsrooms, the fight against the clock … I am especially proud of the parts of the work that reflect the profession, the idealism of some and the disappointment of others, their reflections on the impossibility of reflecting with fidelity to the facts, the art of the interview and the perverted interview that is the interrogation … Living to tell it is what defines us as human beings, and journalists do it in a radical way.
Scene from ‘The Sisyphus Papers’.
P. The work reflects on the ethics of journalism. The truth is that I do not know if we are worse now than 20 years ago. What do you think?
R. As Max Aub used to say, “the truth is a weather vane and it varies according to the winds and indicates different norths …”. I think it is about being suspicious of those who say they have found it and making it clear when we do a chronicle and when we make an assessment … The journalism that I like the most is the one that Chekhov preached: good shoes and a notebook.
Q. ‘The roles of Sisyphus’ is a dramatic work, it is fiction, it is theater, but how do you think it challenges society to face a fact that was real?
A. The theater has the great advantage of catharsis, it allows you to relive the events in real time, and this incarnation can leave a more lasting residue than a novel on the viewer: a torture scene, for example, is much more effective. when it happens before your eyes … The tools of fiction are often confused with fantasy, but more important than invention is synthesis, order, ellipsis … Fiction makes it possible to universalize the particular and, paradoxically, to find a more important story plausible than reality itself: hence everyone fights over The Story.
After Madrid, the play will rotate through Pamplona, Irún and Andoain. The actress Mireia Gabilondo, who plays the judge Natalia Ruiz Arcas, ditch: “This is a story that had to be told.”