Prime Minister in alleged plan to control press

By CHRIS GRAEME [email protected]

Sensational allegations that sections of the government and business figures were masterminding a plan to create a “malleable and government-friendly” media group were published in the weekend Portuguese newspaper Sol on February 12.  

The claims are based on a series of recorded phone conversations between the non-executive vice president of private banking group, Millennium bcp, Armando Vara, and the Prime Minister, José Sócrates, in July and August 2009.

The plan to control sections of the media included using a part-owned public company, Portugal Telecom (PT), to buy 30 per cent of the Media Capital newsgroup’s TVi, the private television station which has the largest audience figures in Portugal.

But it has now emerged that the government’s plans to control sections of the media had extended much further, with possible plans to use public money to buy up part of the Cofina Group, which owns Portugal’s biggest selling tabloid daily Correio da Manhã, or media tycoon Pinto Balsemão’s Impresa Group, which owns weekend broadsheet Expresso and the TV station SIC.

A third possibility also became apparent with revelations that the government was allegedly involved in manoeuvres to purchase the Controlinveste Group, which owns the respected dailies Diário de Notícias and Jornal de Notícias, and radio news station TSF.    

The scandal, which is known as Face Oculta (Hidden Face), is currently being investigated by Public Ministry magistrates at the behest of the Portuguese Attorney General, Procurador da República  whose investigations have stated that “there are strong indications that the government is directly involved, particularly the Prime Minister”.

In June 2009, he said: “This business deal (between Media Capital and PT) could result in serious economic losses for PT which may well be paid for by the State (i.e the taxpayer) or at the very least would make political decision makers dependant on economic ones. In all, this would represent a corruption in the fundamental rights of the Democratic State of Law, an attack on the State of Law directly involving the government.”   

Against the backdrop of a dangerous interplay between political and economic interests, it emerged that “Portugal Telecom (was) interested in having a strong shareholder in the media, the more the better if it could construct an operation with Media Capital”.

The barely ‘hidden face’ of this game involves the strategy investments company Ongoing, headed up by its President Nuno Vasconcelos and Vice President Rafael Mora, who are both key shareholders in Portugal Telecom and the Impresa Group.

The Procurator of Aveiro, Marques Vidal, also added, in support of the Attorney General’s dispatch, that there was “a plan to control the TVi group as well as the acquisition of the newspaper Público with the objective of…..interfering with the editorial content of media organisations for electoral benefits.”

José Sócrates, for his part, has stated before Parliament that he never gave indications that PT should try and buy TVi and added in statements to SIC TV that “the publication of recorded conversations by Sol (was) a criminal act – a crime against justice and individuals”.

President Cavaco Silva has stated that “everyone must respect the law and freedom of expression”.