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United against Spain’s Gag Laws: change bottom-up

The most worrying consequence of the Gag Laws is the population´s fear of exercising their freedoms, in particular freedom of expression and information. Español

Five years ago Spain’s ‘indignados’ or the 15M movement erupted onto the scene in the context of a political and socio-economic crisis resulting from successive corruption scandals, social welfare cuts, and largescale privatization of public services. 2011 saw an intensive period of social mobilization with widespread grassroots participation, alternative forms of horizontal organization, and thousands of people talking to each other in citizen assemblies in the main squares and marching in the streets across the country.

Instead of listening to popular demands, the government proceeded to develop new laws aimed at limiting citizen protests, namely restricting the freedom of assembly and expression. Faced with the prospect of the so-called Gag Laws, civil society activists came together to create a new space for action. The result was “No Somos Delito”, translating as “We are not a crime”, a platform of civil society organizations formed in late 2013 to raise awareness of the Gag Laws and campaign against their implementation. Acts of peaceful resistance such as opposing home evictions or publishing images of police abuses are now heavily penalized.

What exactly are these Gag Laws? And how did a movement with no financial resources go about canvassing grassroots support? Officially billed as reforms to the Penal Code and the Citizens’ Security Protection Act, the Gag Laws allow disproportionate fines and prison sentences to be levied from those criticizing the way the Spanish government is running the country. Basic rights that now are limited by the Gag Laws include demonstrating near the Parliament and the Senate and holding meetings between groups of over twenty people. Acts of peaceful resistance such as opposing home evictions or publishing images of police abuses are now heavily penalized. The reforms also criminalize poverty and migrants, namely by legalizing the collective and summary push-back of migrants from the Spanish enclaves. This is a violation of international law and specifically, the ‘non refoulement’ principle.

Given the blatant attacks on basic rights, No Somos Delito found its ranks swelling to over 100 civil rights associations, social movement groups and NGOs. Its online presence in social media also increased significantly. Despite these achievements, one of the main issues the platform faced at the outset was limited awareness among the general population with regards to the government’s proposed reforms, and limited participation when demonstrations against the Gag Laws were called.

To overcome this, No Somos Delito engaged in a reflection process trying to answer the question: how to achieve a strong online mobilization which doesn’t jeopardize street mobilization? How to translate our online success (such as Twitter trending topics at a national level) into a tangible street presence?

The answer was to use multiple fronts to promote street mobilization: targeted advocacy efforts with opposition parties, creating ownership of the issue amongst social networks, and creating a critical body of thought in national and international media. Furthermore, if the government was clamping down on the right to protest we were going to reclaim this right through original street action, including theatre techniques to help make complex legal issues understandable to the general public. Finally, we decided to involve international multilateral bodies such as the Special Rapporteur of the UN for freedom of expression and the Human Rights Commissioner of the European Council.

These bottom-up efforts helped breathe new life into an issue the government had hoped it could get away with without domestic opposition. The Gag Laws became a regular item in political debates of the main print and televised media. An opinion poll conducted in December 2014 showed that 82% of the Spanish population opposed the Gag Laws. That same month No Somos Delito launched a new hashtag (#SOSHumanRights) which became a trending topic worldwide, and organized memorable performances such as a funeral procession for the death human rights in Spain. International coverage of the holographic march reached an audience of 800 million people.

December also saw over 30 demonstrations in the main cities across Spain and certain European capitals with thousands of people marching in the streets demanding a halt to these reforms.  Despite all of these successes, and despite a group of United Nations human rights experts urging Spain to reject these plans for legal ‘reform’, the government was due to approve them.

The next step was to harness the potential of creative ideas in using new technologies. So that people around the world might know what a demonstration would look like if demonstrating in person was illegal, we organized the first hologram march in history. Apart from the eye-catching novelty of this technology which made headlines around the world, the Spanish government found its external reputation and valuable ‘marca España’ undermined. International coverage of the holographic march reached an audience of  800 million people and generated a worldwide online debate over issues of freedom of expression and civil liberties. Media impact extended to a New York Times editorial comparing “The ominous Gag Law” to “the dark days of the Franco Regime. It has no place in a democratic nation”.

Since then and despite a sustained grassroots opposition campaign, the conservative government has approved these laws. Results are as feared: in the first seven months of implementation of the Gag Laws, a staggering 40,000 sanctions were imposed, according to statistics from the Ministry of Interior. Has there been an increase in crime to justify such punitive action? No. On the contrary, Spain enjoys one of the lowest crime rates in the European Union, lower than Sweden, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and France. Instead these ‘sanctions’ have been applied for cases of “lack of respect to the police” (determined, of course, by the police officers themselves). Citizens have received fines for anything from tweeting about badly parked police vehicles to knitting in groups on the street. After all, the democracy we live in depends on all of us. 

The most worrying consequence of the Gag Laws is the population´s fear of exercising their freedoms, in particular freedom of expression and information. The struggle against these reforms is by no means over; No Somos Delito will continue defending civil liberties though creative campaigns. But most of all, we will continue fighting by exercising our rights. After all, the democracy we live in depends on all of us.

About the authors

Carlos Escaño is a political activist and human rights campaigner advocating against the Gag Laws as part of the civil society platform No Somos Delito. He has over ten years’ experience in the development cooperation and humanitarian aid sectors, primarily in Latin America.

Hélène Michou is an independent researcher and political analyst working on issues of human rights, civil society advocacy, and European foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.


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