Since 2015, Spain has in place restrictive legislation dubbed “Gag Laws”. In 2018, the Socialist Government led by Pedro Sánchez opened a window of opportunity for reform, which was suddenly stalled when the new General Elections were called in April 2019 and no change since then. Social movements saw this as a clear signal of lack of political will to end the Gag Laws.
We interviewed Daniel Fernandez from No Somos Delito, a social movement and a platform bringing together activists who resist the gag laws in Spain, to learn more about the creative way they came up with to bring forward their struggle.

Could you tell us more about No Somos Delito and how this movement was created?

The spark that led to the creation of No Somos Delito ignited after the 2008 economic recession and the manoeuvres put in place by the Spanish government to rescue banks and financial institutions. Thus, in 2011 activists got together and created the 15-M movement, the so-called Indignados, which began protesting against the austerity measures introduced by the Spanish government.

The government reacted to this movement by initiating a legislative process in 2014 which led to two new laws: the Penal Code and the Law of Citizens Security. The latter in particular targeted mainly the right to assembly, while the former both the right to assembly and the freedom of speech. The social movements which were created in 2011 united in a platform to protest even further against the new laws, the so-called “gag laws”. This is how No Somos Delitos was created, with the aim of bringing together both organisations and individual activists. NSD was the “motor group”, coordinating the various actors and since the beginning it was quite successful, as dynamite for the platform.  The laws that the government passed in 2014 highly impacted the society. It is important to notice how it did this even though there was a consensus within civil society that these laws would have been harmful.

Another aspect which impacted civil society and social movements was that the legislation against terrorism and against hate crime which had been passed years before. By this time, Spain was not witnessing a problem with terrorism any longer (the interviewee refers to ETA mainly, ndr) so all those extra state capabilities had to be deployed elsewhere. We progressively assisted to a shift from fighting terrorism to targeting other groups e.g. Spanish artists. This is a clear case of bad legislation being taken and used out of contest. For example, people were fined for hate crimes against the police. Legislation against hate crime is meant to protect powerless people, which is definitely not the case of police in Spain, which in fact has huge powers and influence. The charges raised against them were of making “art violence”, glorifying terrorism, referring to several jokes which spread on social media but were also used as lyrics by the artists. They were only criticising the establishment, but they were put on trial for the content of their songs or for what they posted on social media.

We often see Artificial Intelligence (AI) being used as a repression tool so how did you come up with the idea of using AI for your own campaigns?

Some people concerned with the loss of freedom of speech, that worked in companies of advertisement, managed to persuade their companies to help us campaigning against the gag laws. We resorted to the idea of AI to make a song because the artists couldn’t sing for themselves and we came up with “Voice of Freedom”. At first we tried using Siri, but we had issues with the licence. So we created IRIS, the AI singer. It sings the songs of artists who were put on trial for their lyrics.

Working with these companies was not easy, as they have different pace compared to social movements. Additionally, they were also concerned about the consequences and effects of the campaign on their business. A lot of legal advice was also needed and we did not have the economic means and the time for it.

Our former campaign, the Hologram protest, was highly reported on media, not only in Spain but all over the world and the impact it had was huge. I strongly believe it was the most successful campaign of NSD.  It had some 50K views on YouTube. While “Voice of Freedom” did not have as huge impact as this previous one. The causes could be several.

Today, the media agenda has changed, they are less interested in social movements and in giving them visibility, and this could explain why the impact was less. Another issue is a trend of demobilisation of civil society in Spain. Due to the gag laws, people are afraid to mobilise and to protest because they know they could get fines or be arrested.

We also assisted to a rise in political parties, such as Podemos, which stole somehow the scene to social movements.

Lastly, we should not underestimate the impact of worsen economic conditions, as a consequence of the economic recession: lower wages, lower social security and more working hours. This also contributed to decrease the impact of social movements and their actions and the time people spent mobilising.

Was it a difficult or controversial decision for your movement to work with the private sector?

Well, I think that it is great that enterprises support this kind of battles for rights. We need the creativity as well as the resources of the private sector. As I said, it is more and more difficult to capture the public attention with civil society’s fights. We need to continuously reinvent ourselves to succeed in this. And the private sector can help.

However, it was also challenging at times. The private sector works differently from us, it has different rhythms, priorities and modus operandi. We are all volunteers, we can only dedicate a limited time of our lives to projects, which lengthens the time needed to develop a campaign. We also had to face many legal issues, for example, related to privacy and copyright. The advertisement agency that helped us with the project “Voice of Freedom” feared that if the campaign grew too much, there would have been retaliation. When this didn’t happen, they proposed to re-launch the campaign and the impact was greater.

As we are now in the aftermath of Spanish elections, do you think there is a willingness from the winning parties to finally reform the gag laws?

I am not very positive. Back in 2015, the Socialist party had campaigned for the abrogation of the gag law of Citizens Security and also afterwards, when it was in the opposition. But last year, when the government led by the Popular party fell and the Socialist party was able to establish a new coalition, the priorities and positions of the party shifted as they became the government. The goal was no more to abrogate the law, but to reform it. And the party did have a majority to do so, but still this didn’t happen. Now I do think that the Socialists will try to reform the law, but they will probably put in place only cosmetic changes that will not alter the substance of the law.

Additionally, we NSD saw that the socialist government wanted to reform the gag laws not with the final goal to improve the life of Spanish citizens but merely for their electoral support.

Additionally, the police forces have been lobbying the government to keep these laws as they grant them more power (it is important to note that many police chiefs are still the same as under Franco’s regime and thus conservative).

What do you think No Somos Delito and “Voice of Freedom” can teach European civil society?

First of all, I think it is always important to keep in mind that we can and shall learn from our mistakes. In 2014-2015, we were protesting against the gag laws because we thought that, once in place, it would have been impossible to protest or to speak out. In fact, the gag laws did make it more difficult for people to go out and protest, but not impossible. Often, the effect of fear is worse than the effect of the restrictive laws themselves. We can monitor and collect data on the fees or the lawsuits against protesters, but deeper and more worrisome effect of these law are the chilling effect and the demobilisation of society as they are invisible.

Additionally, you should not mobilise people against repressive laws. If you only mobilise against repression, you will end up becoming repressed. You have to mobilise people for the real societal problems: austerity, injustice, migration policies … These are the issues that keep them mobilised and allow and lead to create change.

On the positive side, No Somos Delito’ strength lies in bringing together a variety of stakeholders. Not only big civic organisations but also smaller ones. And it is essential to understand that big organisations are not the engine of the movement, we –  the volunteers – are. Empower the activists and let them lead the movements!

For a related interview and to know about gag laws in Spain, see also:

SPAIN: Feminist and housing movements under pressure but resisting – interview with Defender a quien Defiende