It’s not just Poland and Hungary that are moving towards illiberalism, Spain is also on a very slippery slope.
If you were reading this piece in the 1960’s and I asked you for your thoughts on Spain, you’d most likely describe a country brought to its knees by a dictator who jailed and killed political opponents, heavily censored all forms of cultural, religious and artistic expressions and vehemently opposed the notion that Spain was a country full of many different languages and ethnicities. Life in Spain, under the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco, was a very illiberal affair.
If I were to ask you that question now, I’d be genuinely curious as to what your answer might be. I would venture to guess — based on Spain being a member of various binding treaties that guarantee and promote the right to freedom of expression and human rights (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights); that it’s a European Union member and one of the most visited countries in the world by tourists, that it’s the home of Pedro Almodóvar, Penelope Cruz and the setting for Vicky, Christina, Barcelona — that you’d probably say it’s a pretty chilled out liberal democracy, known more for being one of the first countries in the world to legalise same-sex marriage than jailing rappers and various other artists for expressing opinions considered anathema by the ruling establishment.
Yet in the year 2018, 40 years after the death of Francisco Franco, I cannot confidently say that Spain is, in fact, that chilled out liberal democracy I so desperately want it to be.
A necessary disclaimer before we begin: seeing as I’m writing a piece on how Spanish citizens (I am not a Spanish citizen) are being sent to jail for simply expressing opinions which the government deems to be offensive, I want my own views on the matter to be perfectly clear. I am not comparing Spain’s current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to Francisco Franco, nor am I in any way calling for a violent uprising of any kind against the government or the Spanish monarchy. And though I defend the rights of those who have so far been jailed or fined for expressing opinions the government has deemed as threatening, I am in no way defending the actual opinions expressed by them; nor am I endorsing the content of their speech. All I am doing, as per the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, is defending these individuals’ right to freedom of expression and highlighting the violation of liberal democratic values these sorts of persecutions, by governments, bring about.
While I appreciate some of you reading this might think the above preamble is overly dramatic, hopefully, the next thousand words or so will prove to you how necessary a disclaimer of this sort is in the year 2018.
Paris, France, January 2015 — gunmen stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others. Their aim? To bring terror to the people of France and avenge the Prophet Mohammed for the misuse of his image by the satirical magazine.
Paris, France, December of that same year — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) carry out one of the largest and most devastating attacks on French soil since World War Two. 130 Parisians and tourists are killed by gunmen and suicide bombers claiming jihad against France and the West.
Manchester, United Kingdom, May 2017– 22 people, including some as young as eight are killed due to an explosion set off by an ISIS-inspired suicide bomber at pop singer Ariana Grande’s concert. The biggest attack in the United Kingdom since the 7/7 bombings in 2005.
London, United Kingdom, June 2017 — eight people are killed near London Bridge and Borough Market by three attackers who drove a van into pedestrians and launched a knife attack.
London, United Kingdom, June 2017 — a man drives into a crowd of innocent Muslims near Finsbury Park Mosque, killing one and injuring eight others.
Barcelona, Spain, August 2017–13 people are killed, 130 others are left injured as a man drives a van into pedestrians in the popular tourist attraction, La Rambla, in an ISIS-inspired attack.
Terrorism in Europe is a salient and visceral issue, and the above is only a parsimonious selection of some of the most prominent headline-grabbing attacks. There is legitimate cause for concern and governments must do everything in their power to protect the freedom and livelihood of their citizens. Everything they possibly can, except deny their citizens the freedom to express their opinions and concerns.
March 2015, two months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Spanish government passes an amendment to the Spanish Criminal Code, Article 578, aka ‘The Gag Laws,’ whereby “glorification of terrorism” and “humiliation” of victims of terrorist-related events are deemed to be criminal offences punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, fines of up to €600,000 (in certain instances) and mandatory disqualification from serving in the public sector, including holding public scholarships, public office and certain other professions.
In July of that year, 27-year-old Eduardo Diaz is fined for posting a critical comment on his mayor’s Facebook page, calling members of the police force “lazy,” and undeserving of a new, headquarter facility. Since then, rappers, puppeteers, and other regular civilians have been arrested or fined for tweeting, writing, singing or posting material that the government has arbitrarily flagged as either ‘glorifying’ terrorism or ‘humiliating’ victims of terrorist attacks. To read a detailed account of many of these cases, I highly recommend you read through Amnesty International’s report, Tweet if you dare.
Freedom of expression versus a serious call to arms
The Spanish government’s justification for implementing The Gag Laws is the safety of society at large. The main premise of its argument is that by clamping down on speech that either glorifies terrorism or humiliates its victims, society will see a significant reduction in terrorism-related violence overall. A seemingly well-intentioned piece of legislation that sets a very disturbing precedent and has, up until now, been used to imprison and fine individuals that have carried out no violent acts themselves or, through their speech, inspired others to carry out violence on their behalf.
When it comes to violence and speech, conflating the two or even trying to establish a causal link between the two can be a very difficult thing to do, often coming down to a matter of opinion, rather than a matter of fact. This, of course, isn’t to say that speech never incites violence — it does — and under international law, governments are already able to impose certain limitations on the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, when it comes to national, racial or religious hate speech, governments are able to enforce codes of conduct, and if necessary, bring about criminal prosecution if the offence is significantly grave — say consistent racial or religious discrimination against a certain individual or group by another individual or group. Likewise, under international law, states already have the right to impose restrictions on certain types of speech if that speech is shown to impact national security, disturb public order or if restricting that speech is absolutely essential to the protection of the rights of others. However, when restricting such speech, a government should do so in a way that interferes the least amount possible with the right to freedom of expression, and the punishment should be specific and proportionate, and again, not put at risk the fundamental right of citizens to express themselves.
If the Spanish government was only concerned with the safety of society and its citizens, you would think the powers already granted to it under international law would suffice. However, as the vagueness and broad scope of The Gag Laws show, something much more sinister and far more illiberal seems to be at play.
Take, for example, the case of Arkaitz Terron (as detailed in the previously cited Amnesty International’s report). This 31-year-old Basque lawyer was detained for a day and charged with glorifying terrorism and humiliating victims of terrorism for posting nine tweets that were sympathetic to those who fought, killed and died on behalf of the ETA, a Basque terrorist group that championed Basque independence and were also opposed to General Franco’s military dictatorship. The content of Terron’s tweets themselves were not violent, nor did they call for a new terrorist attack or even call for the start of a new Spanish civil war, rather they were simply paying tribute to those men and women who fought for a cause he and many other Basque residents believe in, and commemorated those who gave their lives for the movement.
It should go without saying that violence, especially violence that relies on terrorism is absolutely inexcusable and I personally do not endorse, nor even agree with the ETA. In fact, my personal view is in total opposition to their whole existence. Indeed, I am opposed to any violent separatist movement that relies on the death and suffering of others in order to get its message across. However, as much as I personally disagree with groups like the ETA, tweets that merely express sympathy for such a group should not be cause enough to land a Spanish citizen in jail, no matter how personally offensive I or you may find them.
It may well be — especially if you or a family member were victims of the ETA — that you might find any and all material that is sympathetic to such groups absolutely disgraceful. I completely respect your right to feel offended and also respect the trauma that such an attack could have left on your emotional and psychological well-being. I don’t think I or an organisation like Amnesty International are sympathising with terrorist. What we are sympathising with is a citizen’s right to express their views, even if those views are controversial, offensive or insensitive.
Why? Well, in order to understand why we need to start thinking more broadly about the implications certain laws can have when exercised by malicious actors.
Let’s, for argument’s sake, say that The Gag Laws as administered under the current Spanish government are carried out in an appropriate and benevolent way. Great. We can breathe a sigh of relief. We have successfully given the government powers that allow it to police speech it deems as hateful and that incites violence, and for now, citizens and government are aligned. Now, what happens if the next government that comes to power, who by law and precedent also has the right to police speech, in the same way, decides that it’s not the ETA that is the real terrorist but rather those who oppose the dominance and superiority of the Aryan race.
Suddenly, it’s not the lawyer who’s expressing sympathy with the ETA that’s being jailed but the thousands of citizens that are using social media to try and establish a resistance against a right-wing, white supremacist government, who are deemed to be ‘glorifying’ the ‘terrorist’ Allied forces that stopped Europe from becoming the Supreme White Continent it was destined to be. With all the highly charged anti-immigration sentiment that’s been sweeping Europe recently, a government of this kind while highly unlikely is not entirely impossible to imagine.
As should be obvious to any casual student of history, the zeitgeist of any society can change radically from one generation to the next. What yesterday was deemed as acceptable, today is held up as morally abhorrent. What will and will not be acceptable tomorrow is anyone’s guess.
This is precisely why a law — such as The Gag Laws — poses such a threat to liberal democracy; it’s a set of laws that are far too narrow and far too focused on the current zeitgeist. In order for a law to truly work in a democracy, it needs to stand the test of time, it needs to be impartial, and it needs to be backed and respected by society regardless of who’s in power. Laws that can quickly point to a tweet, or a lyric in a rap song and immediately lead to imprisonment and disqualification from public office don’t stand the test of anything other than governmental overreach and illiberalism.
It’s easy and understandable to ask more of your government when you feel scared. The rise in groups like ISIS has forced us to deeply consider how much liberty we’re willing to give up in the name of safety. I’m not going to quote Benjamin Franklin at you, it’s been done far too much recently. What I will do is leave you with a question: How much freedom you are willing to concede in the name of ‘anti-terrorism laws”?
Personally, an anti-terrorism law like Spain’s Gag Laws does nothing to stop violence or terrorism and everything to intimidate innocent people from speaking out against their government, a government, mind you, that is supposedly in servitude to the people.🔷
(The views expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect the opinions of any of the companies for which I am employed to write.)
(This piece was first published on The Blog!.)