SPAIN: artists and social media users impacted by legal restrictions on free expression

(CIVICUS Monitor) A number of court cases over the last two months in Spain have raised concerns over an erosion in respect of the right to freedom of expression, particularly through art and online communications.

In late February, Spanish rapper Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán (also known under his stage name Valtonyc) was sentenced to three and a half years in jail because of his song lyrics, some of which were highly critical of Spanish foreign policy, corruption and the Spanish royal family. The Spanish Supreme Court upheld Arenas’ conviction because of what they said amounted to glorification of terrorism, slander, defamation against the crown and threats. After the verdict was announced, Valtonyc announced that he would appeal the conviction to the European Court of Human Rights, adding that he “expects nothing” from the Spanish justice system.

Valtonyc’s case is one example of a trend in recent months and over the last several years where there has been an increasingly censored public space in Spain, with artists, musicians and social media users on the front lines of the battle to protect free speech. In another recent example of such trends, in early February 2018 a young man in the south-central Spanish city of Jaén was fined 480 EUR when a court ruled that he had broken the law after he posted an Instagram photo montage in which he replaced the face of Jesus with his own. The prosecutor in the case claimed that the 24 year-old man’s actions constituted “an embarrassing and inappropriate manipulation of the face of a religious image”. The court imposed a lesser fine, even though the prosecutor had requested a fine of over 2,000 EUR or 180 days in jail for failure to pay.

In January 2018, a football fan was fined 7,200 EUR for booing during the national anthem and whistling at the Spanish King during a football match in 2015. In this case, the court claimed that these actions were not protected under freedom of expression because of what the Crown symbolises for the nation. Also in January, a court upheld a fine of 700 EUR for the lead singer of a rock band who had mocked police during a concert.

Courts in Spain continue to navigate the boundary between free speech and hate speech on social media. In recent weeks, a number of Twitter users have been sent to prison for the crime of glorifying terrorism and humiliating victims, while others have been acquitted. In two cases reported in early February, one Twitter user was sentenced to six months in jail for praising the Spanish terrorist group ETA, while another was sentenced to twelve months in jail, also for tweets concerning the ETA. A judge in the latter case dissented, stating that “despite their very bad taste, there is no real invitation to violence, nor contempt for the victims”.

On 2nd March, the website Think Spain reported that a twitter user under the name of “Cassandra” had been acquitted of similar charges, having faced two years in jail for retweeting a series of messages concerning historical attacks by ETA and terrorist group the Irish Republican Army. The Supreme Court ruled that while Cassandra’s tweets may have been cause for “moral reproach”, punishment with a criminal sentence was “out of proportion”.

Spain’s Gag Law

In September 2017, two proposals were approved by Congress to reform the Organic Law on the Protection of Public Security, otherwise known as the “Gag Law”, initially approved in 2015. While these moves were welcomed by some, the Platform for the Defence of Free Expression, a Spanish rights group, does not believe the changes to the law sufficiently protect free speech.

As previously reported on the Monitor, in 2016, 25 people were found guilty under this law for “glorifying terrorism”. The law also aims to prevent hate speech. One of the 25 cases which wasdismissed in early January 2017 involved two puppeteers who staged a show in which a combination of Al Quaeda and ETA names were used. They were arrested for “glorifying terrorism”, and though they were released several days later, their case took a year in court before finally being dismissed.

Lydia Vicente Márquez, the executive director of Rights International Spain, an organisation that conducted an extensive campaign against this law, told the CIVICUS Monitor that there does not seem to be strong political will to change the law:

“There is no majority in Congress and the parliamentary group of Partido Popular together with Ciudadanos are managing with their votes to indefinitely extend the term of amendments to the bills. In practice, the reform process is stalled”.

In addition, the reforms passed by Congress did not address Article 30.3 of the law, which allows for people to be fined up to 600,000 EUR for tweets indicating that a particular person is a “leader” of an unauthorised protest.


Read Amnesty International’s report: Tweet … if you dare: how counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain

Article by CIVICUS Monitor

Feature image by AFT via The Local