Information or Propaganda? The Hunger Strike of Eta Terrorist Ignacio de Juana Chaos and its Coverage in ‘The Times’ (ARI)

Information or Propaganda? The Hunger Strike of Eta Terrorist Ignacio de Juana Chaos and its Coverage in ‘The Times’ (ARI)

Theme: This paper analyses at the portrayal of Spain’s terrorist phenomenon as depicted by the London Times through its coverage of the hunger strike of the convicted ETA terrorist Ignacio de Juana Chaos.

Summary: The publication in early February in The Times of declarations by Ignacio de Juana Chaos, a member of the terrorist organisation ETA, alongside a photograph of the prisoner on hunger strike, shows how the media approach to issues relating to the terrorist gang can contribute to manipulating the reality vis-à-vis terrorism. This episode demonstrates that the press can become an agent that, exploited by a terrorist organisation, can distort the socio-political context in which violence occurs, thus  underestimating the propaganda effects sought by the terrorists. It also confirms that terrorists are able to cloak their propaganda under a guise of credibility if their actions are presented in a certain way by a prestigious newspaper which –appealing to the right to information and the satisfaction of the public interest– can, on the contrary, misinform the public while undermining the very democratic institutions with which society defends itself against terrorism.

Analysis: On 5 February 2007, The Times devoted considerable attention to the hunger strike of Ignacio de Juana Chaos, a jailed member of the terrorist organisation ETA. De Juana Chaos had been refusing to eat for some time, in protest at the sentence handed down by judges from Spain’s Central Criminal Court relating to threats issued by him. A large-format photograph filled the entire width of one of the newspaper’s pages, showing the terrorist lying in a hospital bed where he had been moved a few weeks earlier so that specialised medical personnel could monitor his health. De Juana posed for the camera strapped to the bed with restraints which the authorities had required to prevent the terrorist from removing the tube which was being used to feed him and the sensors which monitored his vital signs. The caption under the posing terrorist’s photograph in The Times read: ‘Shackled and emaciated, ETA killer pleads for peace from his deathbed’.[1] Under the guise of a balanced news item which presumed to give an accurate account of both the news and the terrorist’s bloody past, the newspaper became a mouthpiece for the terrorist organisation to convey its propaganda to a wide audience. It falsified reality by conforming a piece in which text and image were complementary to one another, completely misguiding its readers. Reality was confounded through the deliberate simplification of the situation of the ETA terrorist, leading readers on to make specific conclusions, helped by the appeal to emotional factors such as those aroused by the striking picture chosen by the newspaper and the tendentious language used by the journalist, Thomas CatanAs elaborated below, and contrary to the view expressed by the editor of the newspaper, the story was not ‘well-researched and thoroughly professional in its preparation’. As a result, the piece was definitely not going to ‘contribute meaningfully to a crucial debate in Spain and around the world’.[2]

Shackled to his Deathbed?
First, it is necessary to question the procedures by which the journalist obtained the photographs and the written statements of a prisoner who was supposed to be subject to strict supervision. The fact that it was the ETA activist’s own supporters who provided the photograph and written statements which were clearly aimed at strengthening De Juana’s position at a decisive point in his campaign to blackmail the State is clear evidence that the interpretation conveyed by The Times was decisively predetermined by the interests of the prisoner himself. Proof of this was the publication of a deliberately theatrical photograph. The picture of the inmate’s thin body, in a hospital environment evoking suffering and weakness –with straps apparently restraining him–, sent a message of empathy with someone who was very likely going to be identified as a victim. This was emphasised by the use of language which linked De Juana with the positive but vague objective of searching for ‘peace’. A scene was therefore set which induced readers to perceive a very different reality, since the fact is that, contrary to the headline, the prisoner was not ‘shackled’ but restrained with a purpose that the journalist’s fabricated version of events sought to undermine, namely to prevent the prisoner from removing the tube which was keeping him alive. Instead of ‘shackle’ the term ‘restraint’ is the one used to refer to situations in which police or health workers must ‘restrict the movement’ of prisoners or patients.

Contrary to what the article reported, this assisted feeding is precisely what was preventing  De Juana from being ‘close to death after three months without eating’. It should be stressed that doctors acknowledge that it is absolutely possible to live for years with this kind of feeding system. And all this amidst highly convincing accounts by those protesting that the prisoner was in fact taking food provided by the same visitors who, in contravention of the rules of supervision, managed to photograph De Juana on a ‘deathbed’ which was quite clearly no such thing. In fact, representatives of the main trade unions within the Spanish National Police criticised in very strong terms the constant breaches of the security measures that should have prevented the prisoner from benefiting from a very relaxed form of imprisonment.

The semantic inversion achieved through text and photograph is laid bare by comparing the coverage in The Times and that of media sympathetic to the terrorist organisation ETA, such as Gara and Berria. The first of these papers chose to show a picture of De Juana in a defiant pose with his fist held high and no longer restrained by the straps which were so apparent in the picture carried by The Times. Neither was there any doubting the prisoner’s ability to move in the photograph printed by Berria, in which De Juana appeared standing up and holding a T-shirt in which the total amnesty for all ETA prisoners was demanded. In the photographs printed by Gara and Berria there were no tubes, sensors or restraints to hint at some kind of weakness in the terrorist’s image. The decision of the ETA terrorist to pose in such different ways for very  different media confirms his interest in adequately choosing the messengers for his propaganda according to the audience to whom he wished to address specific messages for maximum effect. Thus The Times became a useful means for conveying a message which prevented readers from feeling the same rejection towards De Juana which they would certainly have felt had The Times published the same photographs as the ones shown in the press that is sympathetic to ETA. Accordingly, the existence of an undeniable reality which Gara and Berria made no attempt to conceal raises questions on the truthful interpretation of events which The Times misleadingly presented as objective and neutral. The supposed objectivity of The Times’s coverage was totally deceitful, since its veracity depended not so much on what was shown with the terrorist’s approval, but precisely on what he chose to conceal from the journalist. This is so because the coverage of news relating to terrorism requires compliance with strict professional criteria due to the need to prevent manipulation of the media by terrorist organisations which consider communication as a crucial instrument in their arsenal of weapons against the State which they seek to undermine. The Times unquestioningly accepted the stage management of De Juana’s situation which was most fully in line with his interests.

Terrorist or Basque Separatist?
As well as the carefully-staged photograph with which the terrorist sought to sway his audience, the language chosen by the journalist to contextualise the picture deliberately composed by the prisoner also helped extol his image. At no time was the terrorist organisation identified as such; rather, the journalist employed the euphemism ‘Basque separatist group’. This is no exception to the way non-Spanish media refer to the terrorist organisation ETA, often justifying this erroneous definition’s lack of accuracy through inconsistent allusions to some supposed neutrality emanating from their role as impartial observers. The negative connotation of the term ‘terrorist’ conditions its use, despite the fact that scientific analysis of the actions performed by the terrorist organisation ETA render the term entirely fitting. Terrorism is the method undoubtedly used by ETA to pursue its separatist objectives, leading its members to generate a terror made evident by the hundreds of murders they have perpetrated and by the victims they have left in their wake. Accordingly, the insistence of the media in avoiding an accurate definition of ETA as a terrorist organisation itself questions the objectivity and veracity of any information in this respect, as well as the interpretations which this error fuels. Furthermore, ‘failing to use the term terrorism to refer to violence with recognisable distinguishing characteristics or the accurate epithet of terrorist to those who practice it in the past or at present, is equivalent to adopting a complacent attitude, as citizens and as individuals, towards the use of death as their main political argument’.[3]

This is not a merely rhetoric question, since the absence of conceptual accuracy contributes to the widespread use of terms which manipulate reality by removing their true meaning, ignoring their deliberate exploitation by terrorists. In this regard, it is worth noting how the Times correspondent presented De Juana as a ‘key figure in the peace process’ who ‘urged a fresh effort to solve the conflict’. The positive terms of the brief statements by De Juana used a language in which the terrorist crystallised stereotypes in order to structure reality around his persona in a precise and favourable manner: ‘I am completely in agreement with the democratic process of dialogue and negotiation… to resolve the political conflict between the Basque region and the French and Spanish states’; ‘After the event at Barajas… resolution of the conflict is more necessary than ever’.

Propaganda to Disguise Reality
As leading academics have concluded, it is wrong to overlook the strong propaganda element in terrorism and how acts of violence by a terrorist organisation are accompanied by communication actions aimed at affording it credibility in the battle of wills with the State which it challenges.[4] It is precisely the theatrical impact of the large photograph of the terrorist lying on the bed and the headline accompanying it, with its implicit and sensationalist emotional appeal, that led readers to overlook the intentionality of the words of the ETA activist. The journalistic composition concealed that something as evident as the concept of ‘peace’, interpreted from the perspective of the terrorist gang and its activists, is without doubt incompatible with the meaning of the term for those members of society who accept the rules of democracy. This noun, and the copious use of the term ‘peace process’, a generic concept to which the terrorist expressed his support, represent talismanic words whose intended use has nothing to do with their real meaning. As shown by the constant public and internal communiqués of ETA, the ‘peace process’ to which the terrorist lent his support, as well as the ‘dialogue and negotiation’ he urged, are nothing but discursive resources with which the terrorists have tried to appeal to the minds and hearts of different audiences while the terrorist organisation keeps up its intimidation. These ‘key words’ serve to disfigure reality, shuffling the facts so as to trigger very different responses to the problem,[5] the classic aim of ETA’s propaganda. One has only to look at how the terrorist group has always sought to internationalise what it terms the ‘Basque conflict’, depicting the problem of terrorist violence as a historical dispute between Spain and the ‘Basque people’, alleging democratic deficiencies in a State which, contrary to the evidence, systematically tortures and imposes serious restrictions on the rights and freedoms of the ‘supporters of independence’.

It would not therefore have been amiss, but rather would have helped clarify the facts, had the information appearing in The Times explained how ETA has kept up its violence and extortion throughout the ‘ceasefire’. However, the journalist merely said about the already broken truce that it had been ‘defined by the group as permanent’.[6] To this extent it would have also been necessary to define ETA’s terrorist phenomenon in its real terms rather than insisting on misguided interpretations about it.[7] The deconstruction of De Juana’s language confirms that the latter does not see his own concept of the so-called ‘peace process’ as being incompatible with ongoing violence and coercion by the terrorist organisation. Accordingly, the widespread use of positive terms such as peace and dialogue constitutes an attempt to predispose readers to redeeming the terrorist’s image and making him out to be favourable to ‘peace’. This was done by concealing the fact that ETA’s constant demonstrations of violence are the only obstacle in the road to a real peace which, if it is to be achieved, requires the full restoration of the rights of citizens who are deprived of their freedom precisely because of ETA’s threats. This is why in the battle of wills implied by terrorism, the media must avoid becoming the mouthpiece of terrorist claims that, being objectively false, are aimed at gaining the empathy of certain audiences by being presented as reasonable. When the media take on this role, they act unprofessionally and unfairly, undermining those who represent democratic rules by devaluing them or comparing them to those who through terror, intimidation and deceit try to mislead society.

The coverage’s stage management blurred the fact that the State was being blackmailed through a hunger strike, and transformed its perpetrator into an exponent of peaceful dialogue when he was in fact trying to coerce the democratic institutions through recourse to the extreme violence of using his own body as a means of pressure. The newspaper intentionally blurred the image of a cruel real personality with that of a represented personality clothed in compassion. This pernicious reversal of roles was reiterated with the inclusion of De Juana’s statements contrasting the acts of the ‘oppressed’ with those of the ‘oppressor’ who supposedly violated his dignity. The selective glossing over of De Juana’s past by the journalist made possible this unfair and damaging metamorphosis, by overlooking decisive biographical elements that lend unquestionable credibility to the terrorist’s threats, an offence which the journalist undervalued using various tactics. On the one hand, the terrorist’s criterion was uncritically accepted, deliberatedly minimising the criminal threats for which he was tried and convicted, while denouncing the ‘brutal attack on freedom of expression’ he suffered. The journalist accepted this interpretation, indicating that the ‘new sentence’ was the result of the government having ‘unearthed two opinion articles’. The judicial decision was thereby ignored, also avoiding any reference to the seriousness of the offences, such as the court ruling or the testimonies of those who testified to having been ‘threatened’ by De Juana’s writings, regardless of the fact that his criminal record afforded considerable credibility to his threats.Five prison officers responsible for jails where the ETA member had been jailed testified to having felt ‘directly threatened’, themselves and their families, by the content of his articles, leading several of them to move house. It is also interesting to note that in 1992 Ignacio De Juana sent a letter to the Judge in charge of Penitentiary Supervision in Cadiz warning him that he was on ETA’s list of ‘candidates for execution’.

All of these omissions served to soften the terrorist’s cruelty and the seriousness of the criminal threats for which he was sentenced; the concealment was further pursued by semantic tricks such as the following: the information in The Times indicated that ‘[De Juana] is said to have ordered prawns and champagne from his jailers to celebrate the killing of a politician and his wife’. By using the expression ‘said to’ in relation to the actions of the Eta killer, when there is absolutely no doubt that De Juana did indeed celebrate the murder of local councillor Tomás Caballero with such an insulting request, the objective facts were veiled in a shadow of doubt which again benefited the terrorist. The journalist was also wrong in confusing the murder of Caballero with the murder of local councillor Alberto Jiménez-Becerril and his wife, Ascensión García Ortiz; this latter murder led De Juana Chaos to express his joy by writing ‘I love seeing their shocked faces’.

Conclusion: This analysis has shown that The Times was used by Ignacio De Juana Chaos as a propaganda mouthpiece for the terrorist organisation ETA, enabling it to convey to an international audience its criticism of Spanish democracy, thereby reinforcing its pressure on society and on the judicial power at a decisive time. The newspaper’s approach to the episode flagrantly lacked any respect for the most basic principles of journalism by constantly inducing the reader towards a bias in favour of the positions held by his source of information, which in this case happened to be a terrorist who was allowed to mould the basic elements of the news item in line with his own interests. The need to verify sources of information is one of the maxims of journalism that is particularly relevant when the subject of the news and the person providing the information belongs to a terrorist group. This circumstance should have led the journalist to consider that communication has been one of the pivotal fronts of the terrorist organisation ETA, an obvious priority when one of its members is seeking to challenge the State by demanding unconditional freedom under the threat of his own death. The selective and intentional use of pictures and words such as those described conformed a particular narrative that was fully in line with the objectives of the terrorist, thus manipulating reality so as to fit the facts to his propaganda aims. The language served to transform an event such as a sentence for criminal threats into a mere and harmless exercise of freedom of expression, overlooking the brutal content of the threats and the credibility which their author’s track record affords them. This deceitful manipulation reverses the attributions of blame for De Juana’s hunger strike, heaping all responsibility for its start and for its outcome upon the State.

Furthermore, contrary to the claims made in the newspaper’s editorial, De Juana was not at all close to death when he was photographed, although that was precisely the idea he sought to convey so as to pile on further pressure as part of his blackmail, to which purpose The Times did contribute. It did so by transferring to the State the responsibility for the hypothetical death of the prisoner, whose fate was entirely in his hands and not in those of the judges who were obliged to uphold the law. This latter obligation was minimised by the newspaper when it erroneously associated the judiciary with a certain ideology by asserting that ‘the courts are entirely sympathetic to the Conservative opposition’. Based on these parameters, the international publicity given to the event, and admitted by the newspaper itself, can only have been positive for this member of a terrorist organisation who gained the credibility he sought as a result of the backing of a prestigious newspaper.

Consequently, the newspaper’s attempts to defend its actions are entirely untenable: ‘reporting which questions and probes terrorist thinking strengthens society’s ability to deal with the enemy within’.[8] The newspaper in fact replaced objectivity with sensationalism which increased the efficacy of the terrorists’ propaganda. As shown by academic studies of the terrorist mind, understanding them requires bearing in mind the criminal’s reasoning and motivation and the denial mechanisms he uses to justify and legitimise his actions.[9] However, as we have seen, the journalist’s benevolent treatment of this ETA terrorist sidestepped any questioning whatsoever of his arguments, which is especially serious since we are talking about a terrorist who has been tried and convicted. Such decisive irresponsibility guaranteed the terrorist organisation the boost of favourable ‘publicity’ by grossly distorting the terrorist’s image and the true extent of his attempt to blackmail the State through a hunger strike. In this regard, the editor of The Times who defended his newspaper’s coverage should have been struck by the fact that the story made no reference at all to the influence of people who, in addition to the prisoner himself, could stop the protest, namely Eta and the prisoner’s own associates (who were precisely the ones who provided the journalist with the photograph and the questionnaire presumably duly filled in by the prisoner). On the contrary, an editorial published in the newspaper under the revealing headline ‘Madrid’s Dilemma’ insisted on holding persons other than the activist responsible for his fate, most notably the government and the judges, who are naturally bound by the law. It would have been far more accurate to explain how De Juana could have used methods other than a hunger strike, such as accepting legality and waiting for his appeal to be heard, or demanding ETA’s disbandment in the hope of obtaining an early release.

Consequently, the story was far from being information which the newspaper’s editor described as having been ‘thoroughly professional in its preparation’, and which was going to contribute ‘meaningfully to a crucial debate in Spain and around the world’. A rigorous explanation of the situation of this ETA prisoner  required not an acquiescent attitude towards him from the newspaper, but the questioning of his own behaviour, since his record as a terrorist should have led the journalist to adopt a critical approach which was entirely absent. The criteria of other sources which could have contributed some accuracy to the facts presented were completely silenced, and the terrorist’s claims were the only ones made to count. This confirms a widespread tendency among the media to focus more on those who resort to violence than on those who suffer it. This affords terrorists a dehumanising influence that damages the State’s political efforts to counter terrorism by conferring upon them a legitimacy which only encourages their utter disregard for peaceful and democratic means.Rogelio Alonso
Lecturer in Politics, at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos

[1] ‘Shackled and Emaciated, Eta Killer Pleads for Peace from his Deathbed’, Thomas Catan, The Times, 5/II/2007,

[2] ‘Outrage at Eta Prisoner’s Interview’, The Times, 6/II/2007,

[3] Fernando Reinares, Terrorismo y Antiterrorismo, Paidós, Barcelona, 1999, p. 45 (quote translated into English).

[4] Alex P. Schmid and Janny de Graaf, Violence as Communication. Insurgent Terrorism and the Western News Media, Sage Publications, London, 1982.

[5] Luis Veres, La retórica del terror. Sobre lenguaje, terrorismo y medios de comunicación, Ediciones de la Torre, Madrid, 2006, p. 109.

[6] For a comprehensive list of the criminal activities of Eta between March and December 2006, see ETA en “alto el fuego”: nueve meses de actividad terrorista. Quinto informe de verificación de la violencia terrorista, Mikel Buesa, Documentos Foro de Ermua, 31/XII/2006,

[7] This was also the case in another simplistic news item which associated the remote Franco period with the current situation and with the terrorist violence of a group which has continued to murder throughout the long-consolidated Spanish democracy, with the killings since the end of the dictatorship being overwhelmingly more numerous than those that took place before it ended. ‘The Man Whose Fate is Dividing Spain”, Thomas Catan, The Times, 7/II/2007,

[8] ‘Madrid’s Dilemma’, editorial, The Times, 7/II/2007,

[9] See, for example, Bonnie Cordes, ‘When Terrorists do the Talking: Reflections on Terrorist Literature’, in David Rapoport, Inside Terrorist Organizations, Columbia University Press, New York, 1988, p. 150-171.