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Free speech under siege in Spain

The situation has become darker in recent months. The monarchy, which has traditionally enjoyed a good image among Spaniards, is now at the heart of the controversy on free speech.

Pablo Castaño
30 March 2018

King Felipe VI of Spain seated opposite Ada Colau at the Mobile World Congress Official Dinner Inauguration on February 25, 2018 in Barcelona. NurPhoto/Press Association. all rights reserved.Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has been detained by the German police while the Spanish Supreme Court has ordered imprisonment without bail for five other pro-independence leaders.

They are only the most recent victims of a wave of repression of free speech unlashed by the Spanish government and judiciary in recent months. Indeed, an increase in judicial rulings and police actions that challenge fundamental freedoms has been taking place. The most serious manifestations of this trend have occurred in Catalonia, where the Spanish police violently repressed the self-determination referendum convoked by the Catalan government last October 1 (declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court), and courts decided to prosecute  several pro-independence politicians and social leaders.

While the latest detentions of pro-independence politicians have prompted the mass media to focus on Catalonia again, free speech seems now to be threatened throughout Spain. The environment of exalted Spanish nationalism promoted by Mariano Rajoy's government in response to the Catalan pro-independence movement has encouraged conservative judges to clamp down with increasing severity on crimes of opinion.

However, highly questionable rulings had already been handed down before October 1, such as the condemnation of a 21-year-old university student for jokingly referring on Twitter to the murder of Francisco Franco's PM Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973 — Cassandra Vera was sentenced to one suspended year of prison, but the Supreme Court eventually absolved her.

More generally, Amnesty International has condemned in its 2017 Annual Report the prosecution by the judiciary of “dozens of individuals” for the glorification of terrorism and humiliation of its victims on social media — according to the human rights NGO, many of the prosecuted “had expressed opinions that did not constitute incitement to a terrorism-related offence and fell within permissible forms of expression under international human rights law”.

The Spanish Supreme Court provided a good example of this worrying trend in November 2017, when it issued a ruling specifying that retweeting a message that glorifies terrorism is sufficient for sentencing. Condemnation of the glorification of terrorism has skyrocketed since 2011, after the Basque terrorist group ETA laid down its arms. It looks as if the special anti-terrorist court Audiencia Nacional has decided to justify its existence by intensifying the prosecution crimes of opinion allegedly related to terrorism.

But the situation has become much darker in recent months. Last February, three blows to free speech took place in the space of 24 hours: rapper Valtonyc was condemned to three and a half years in prison for the lyrics of his songs, Santiago Serra's work 'Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain' was excluded from the Arco contemporary art fair in Madrid, and the book Fariña was seized by a judge because it points out alleged links between a Galician Popular Party leader and drug trafficking. Serra, whose censored work has denounced the situation of Catalan political prisoners, duly protested: “If Spain isn't a dictatorship, it surely looks a lot like one”.

The monarchy, which has traditionally enjoyed a good image among Spaniards, is now at the heart of the controversy on free speech. King Felipe VI has been accused by Catalan leaders of legitimating the violent response of the Spanish government to the pro-independence movement, which led Barcelona leader Ada Colau to boycott the welcoming ceremony for the king, who travelled to the Catalan capital on February to attend the Mobile World Congress.

Instead, street protestors greeted Felipe VI. In addition, 24-year-old rapper Valtonyc will be imprisoned on charges of 'serious slander against the Crown', together with incitement to terrorism and threats. Other rappers have been condemned during recent years in Spain for similar reasons, but Valtonyc will be the first musician in decades effectively to serve a prison sentence for his songs.

Two of the last victims in the long list of attacks on free speech and freedom of demonstration have been a 24-year-old Andalusian day labourer and Ermengol Gassiot, regional secretary general of the CGT union in Catalonia. The former has been condemned to a 480-euros fine because he published on Instagram a image of Christ with his own face, which constituted an 'offense to religious feelings', according to the judge.

The case of Ermengol Grassiot is more serious: he has been arrested for his participation in the occupation of the rectory of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in 2013, an action of protest against the fee increase decided by the Catalan government at that time.

According to the prosecutor, the occupation of the rectory had “the hidden end of destabilizing the institution”, allowing him to sentence Gassiot to more than 11 years in prison sentences along with other university workers and students who took part in the protest.

As president of the Spanish section of Amnesty International recently said, “2017 has been a bad year for free speech” in Spain. And so far, 2018 looks no better.


People protesting against the King outside the Palau de la Musica de Barcelona on February 25, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

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