A crusading editor who stood up to the fascists
By WILLIAM WEST | The Age | March 11, 2010
THE death of Antonio Fontan, named by the International Press Institute as one of the "heroes of press freedom", ends a critical chapter in the battle for freedom of the press around the world.
Fontan, editor-in-chief of Spain's Madrid daily newspaper from 1967 until 1972 when it was forced to close by the Franco government, refused to back down when the fascist regime repeatedly tried to silence the newspaper.
During that period, Fontan continued to publish pro-democracy material and to criticise the government.
As a result he was prosecuted 19 times and fined 10 times for a range of articles, including those championing civil liberties and defending democratic principles.
The paper had to cope with large losses when it was shut down for four months in 1968. Eventually the Franco government threatened to take steps to close the publication permanently unless Fontan was replaced by a journalist close to the governing Falange party. It also demanded that a director be appointed to represent the Ministry of Information. The publisher and owner of the paper, Rafael Calvo Serer, refused to accept the terms and was forced to flee the country.
Madrid's editorial staff then formed Spain's first journalists' association to fight for the independence of the profession and to defend Fontan's position as editor. In Serer's absence, the Franco regime prosecuted him for "actions prejudicial to the reputation and authority of the state".
The paper came to a spectacular end when it was closed and the building that housed it was literally blown up with dynamite in 1972.
Fontan's stand was vindicated when democracy was restored in 1975 and Spain's Supreme Court overturned the order forcing Madrid's closure, forcing the state to pay damages.
In the democratic elections that followed, Fontan ran for the Senate as a member of the Union de Centro Democratico coalition party, became the first Senate president of Spain's democracy and helped to draft Spain's 1978 constitution which legislated freedom of information and expression. Fontan then served as a government minister for three years.
In addition to his roles in the media and government, Fontan played an important role in training young journalists. He established the country's first university school of journalism at the University of Navarra, a university under the guidance of Opus Dei, of which Fontan was a member.
His role in opposing the Franco government, which numbered members of Opus Dei, was seen in Spain as a confirmation of the political freedom of Opus Dei members.
An old friend of Fontan, the former vice-consul of Spain in Sydney, Francisco Casadesus, said he caught up with him on a visit to Madrid in July last year.
"He explained to me why Madrid had never been revived despite the award of damages to the paper,'' Mr Casadesus said.
''The paper had sold all of its assets, including its presses, in order to reimburse the staff for wages during the drawn-out dispute. Also, by the time that the damages were paid, staff members had other professional commitments.''