Free speech in Spain

I consider myself a free speech fundamentalist. Alas, many, both on the left and the right will only pay lip service to the idea. If you allow people freedom, they will take advantage of it. In recent years Spanish democracy has been under the spotlight. There is the situation in Catalonia, but there has also been a heated debate on free speech. I want to look at a controversial piece of legislation and a few of the cases that have emerged in the last couple of years.

In the summer of 2015 the Popular Party government of Mariano Rajoy introduced a public security law. They claimed that it would reinforce civil liberties, but opponents soon dubbed it the “gag law”. It is a wide-ranging law, which deals with demonstrations, internet, drug trafficking, drinking in the street, public interactions with the police and social media activism. There are some aspects which I find particularly troubling. The prohibition on photographing and videoing police officers is a particularly egregious example. There are fines of over $33,000 for recording and disseminating images of police officers. You just have to think of the cases of police violence against African-Americans to see what a terrible idea this is. Surely the fact that police officer fears that he may be caught on camera acts as some kind of deterrent on police brutality. There is another section dealing with disrespecting a police officer. If you show a “lack of respect” to or fail to them in the prevention of public disturbances you could be fined between €600 and €30,000.

I live in Madrid, and I can assure you that there is no shortage of demonstration. Indeed I am somewhat critical of the politics of mass protest. Under the new law, anyone who organizes or takes part in an “unauthorized protest” could be fined between €30,000 and €600,000 if the protest takes part near institutions such as the Spanish parliament

On a more trivial note there is the Spanish tradition of getting together with mates for outdoor drinking sessions. The botellon is a typical teenage rite of passage. I understand that this can cause annoyance. But a fine of €600 seems disproportionate. Parents are responsible.

César Montaña Lehmann, aka César Strawberry, is a Spanish writer, composer and singer, a member and spokesman for the group Def Con Dos. He is also a vocalist in the Strawberry Hardcore group. As a writer he has published three novels, and has contributed to an anthology. He has also written the first volume of the biography of Def Con Dos. He was sentenced to a year in prison for tweeting jokes about Eta and giving the king “a cake-bomb” for his birthday.

On Tuesday Feb. 20th 2018 the Supreme Court ratified the three-and-a-half year sentence against Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, a rapper known as Valtonyc. He was sentenced to for “Inciting terrorism”  “insulting the crown” and threatening Jorge Campos the leader of the Círculo Balear, a political party in the Balearic Islands

Between 2013 Cassandra Vera tweeted 13 jokes about Luis Carrero Blanco, an admiral and leading Spanish politician in Francoist Spain, who was assassinated by members of the terrorist organization ETA on 20 December 1973. Here are a couple of examples:

ETA launched a policy against official cars combined with a space programme

Five months later, she tweeted:

“Kissinger gave Carrero Blanco a piece of the moon; ETA paid for the trip there.”

As the offence was not violent, she was handed a suspended sentence she fears the court’s decision will “mark me for life”. The Supreme Court has now quashed the conviction, saying it was clear that Vera had been joking. They were in very poor taste, but were familiar variations of familiar jokes about Carrero Blanco’s murder.

Santiago Sierra’s piece, Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain, was due to be exhibited at the Arco contemporary art fair in Madrid. It consists of 24 pixellated photographs, including images of the deposed Catalan vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, and two leading figures in influential Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez of Òmnium Cultural,  a pro-independence organisation. They are all currently in prison. It was taken down. Despite the protestations of the organisers, it is hard not to interpret this as an act of censorship. I have been critical of the Catalonian independence movement, but all you are doing is giving the oxygen of publicity to the artist. Indeed, he must be looking forward to the cash rolling in.

It’s like the FA charging Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola for wearing a yellow ribbon. Guardiola is concerned about human rights in Catalonia. However he has no qualms about managing a club that is bankrolled by a ruling family not characterised by its love for democracy. He likes to sing the praises of Sheikh Mansour and the owners of Manchester City, whose fortune has largely been built on slave labour. If I were a journalist I would call out Guardiola every time he chooses to don the abovementioned ribbon. Kudos to the journalist Rob Harris, who had the balls to ask Guardiola the question in the press conference after City’s victory in the Caprabo Cup last week.

What strikes me about these cases is the lack of intelligence demonstrated by the authorities. I am disturbed by a lot of the vague language employed by prosecutors such as tweets “a real threat” or a cause of “social alarm”. I do not agree with banning the “wrong kind of speech”. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. I draw the line at inciting violence. But freedom of speech laws exist to allow words that are not reasonable. Cassandra Vera has argued that freedom of expression has been dealt an almost fatal blow in Spain. This is not true. We need to put this in context. Spain is a free country. There is a free press, rule of law is guaranteed. In 2017 the country’s score dropped from 8.30 to 8.08 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. On the Reporters Without Borders website Spain, 29, is above the UK, 40. I don’t know the methodologies of these surveys but Spain is consistently listed as a free country in any serious international survey. These are, however, illiberal and ultimately stupid laws. I am hoping that they will soon be repealed.

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