Spanish power company Iberdrola is suing the holding company of business news site El Confidencial over coverage of an industrial espionage case, a move the site's director says threatens its survival.
The multinational energy firm, which is seeking $20 million in damages, said that for more than two years up to November 2021, El Confidencial published 225 stories on the espionage case, including 68 that harmed the company and 12 that were untrue.
The company contends the reports were a "violation of its right to honour," a term that in Spanish law refers to reputational damage.
Such cases are rare in Spanish business, where public companies don't often take legal action against the news media, especially for large sums.
El Confidencial is a respected publisher known for exclusive stories about business. Nacho Cardero, the site's director, told VOA, "This is an attempt to silence El Confidencial and is an attack on the freedom of the press."
"Logically, if this case succeeds, then it will mean the closure of El Confidencial," Cardero said. "But it will not stop us from reporting on this case or this company."
Company, 4 executives investigated
El Confidencial reported on a wide-ranging criminal investigation into Iberdrola's alleged role in an industrial espionage case in which Iberdrola and four of its executives are being investigated. None of the four has been charged with any offenses, and all deny wrongdoing.
At least a dozen Spanish companies are being investigated about allegations that they paid a police officer, who also ran a private company while working for the police, to carry out investigations into rival firms. The National Criminal Court, which handles Spain's biggest fraud and terrorism cases, is conducting the complicated probe.
Cardero said El Confidencial has 200 staff members and in December had 18.8 million unique monthly visitors to its website. Its holding company, Titania Compañia Editorial S.L., reported income in 2020 of $22.85 million and a profit of $5.14 million.
"The court case was not good news, but we are not afraid," Cardero said. He noted that in all the Iberdrola coverage, there was only one correction.
A spokesperson for Iberdrola, whose market capitalization exceeds $69 billion and whose annual revenue in 2020 was $37.7 billion, declined to identify the El Confidencial stories at the center of the legal case.
"We have initiated legal action in relation to a significant number of articles published over the last two years that include false information," the spokesperson said. Iberdrola declined to name the spokesperson, citing company policy.
"We fully support the freedom of the press," the spokesperson said. "This is an exceptional circumstance that we never wanted to initiate, but we need to defend ourselves following two years in which multiple articles have been published with materially false information."
Iberdrola argues in its submission to the court that El Confidencial carried out a campaign of "aggressive and biased" coverage of the company, said the Iberdrola spokesperson.
The company's legal submission was accompanied by two legal reports.
One was written by Justo Villafañe, a professor of corporate reputation at the Complutense University in Madrid, who evaluated 225 articles up to November 2021.
The second report was by the law firm Alvarez & Marsal, which assessed the damages caused to Iberdrola at $20 million. The claim related to 12 articles that, Iberdrola said, were "flagrant examples of transgression of truthfulness."
Media groups in Spain and elsewhere have condemned the case.
"Faced with Iberdrola's lawsuit against El Confidencial for alleged violation of the right to honour, [we] defend the fundamental right to information based on the assumption that the information in this digital medium is truthful," the Federation of Associations of Spanish Journalists and the Association of Economic Information Journalists said in a statement.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), based in Paris, called the lawsuit an attempt at intimidation.
"We urge the electric company to reconsider and withdraw all legal actions against El Confidencial," Edith Rodríguez Cachera, RSF vice president in Spain, said in a statement.
Iberdrola's lawsuit was filed with a court in Bilbao in northern Spain on January 21. Judges at the court must decide if there is a case to answer before proceeding.
Iberdrola has said that if the defamation case is successful, it will give any awarded damages to nonprofit organizations.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.