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The Fight for Free Speech: Civil Liberties in Spain

Graphic depicts a Spanish police officer flanked by a crowd of protesters calling for justice for Pablo Hasél

“Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you.”

That was Pablo Hasél’s last tweet before his arrest on February 12, 2021, after taking refuge in the University of Lleida to avoid a nine-month jail sentence. As police in riot gear moved in to escort him away and students surrounded him in support, Hasél raised a fist in defiance, kickstarting protests and riots across Spain that began in Catalonia but soon spread to other urban metropolises.

His crime? 64 tweets and a song released on YouTube. Or, as the Spanish government alleges, insulting the monarchy and glorifying terrorism–violations of rules enacted in 2015 that create limits to the freedom of speech. 

Hasél, born Pablo Rivadulla Duró, is by no means the perfect figure to build a movement around. He has compared Spanish judges to Nazis, celebrated Basque terrorist groups like the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and violent organizations like the First of October Anti-Fascist Resistance Groups (GRAPO), advocated for violence, writing that “Demonstrations are necessary but not enough,” and accused King Felipe VI and former King Juan Carlos of crimes such as homicide and embezzlement. But it is these very imperfections that highlight why he must remain at the center of the protests for free speech. However objectionable and even repugnant these quotes might seem to some, Spanish law must not be in the business of making moral judgments. And the Spanish government, it seems, agrees; the majority Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and their junior, more leftist coalition partner Unidas Podemos have proposed different reforms that would weaken the hold that these “gag laws” have on the Spanish public sphere. While the PSOE proposal to eliminate sentencing for these laws weakens their effect on the Spanish populace, the Spanish government must implement Unidas Podemos’ proposal to strike these laws altogether to preserve a civil society in which those like Hasél can level criticisms at their government,

Despite majority party support for reforms and continued countrywide demonstrations, the intransigent Spanish government remains split on how to best protect free speech. The Justice Ministry—a wing of the Spanish government separate from the legislature that is led by a member of the PSOE—has announced that, due to popular sentiment, it plans to reduce sentences for crimes related to the restriction of speech. Specifically, the PSOE has said it will abolish sentences for any “verbal excesses made in the context of artistic, cultural or intellectual acts.” While not naming Hasél, the timing indicates that the thousands of protestors—as well as the petition signed by 200 Spanish celebrities and artists, including director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Javier Bardem, urging the government to reconsider the imprisonment of Pablo Hasél—successfully provoked the Justice Ministry into introducing reform directed at the reduction of sentences. Qualifying the protestors’ success, however, is the reluctance of the Justice Ministry to move further; rather than push boldly for the abolition of the aforementioned crimes, Juan Carlos Campos of the PSOE and the Justice Ministry have said they must be “especially careful with the reform proposals” and have introduced only piecemeal suggestions thus far.  

In contrast to the caution emphasized by the PSOE-led Justice Ministry, Unidas Podemos has now registered its own “bill for the protection of freedom of expression” in Parliament. Unidas Podemos has said it will go further than the Justice Ministry and the PSOE, advocating for the outright repeal of laws limiting free speech—such as those criminalizing insulting the crown, offending religious groups, and glorifying terrorism—rather than simply the reduction of sentences for speech-related crimes. Arguing that these crimes are remnants of the Franco dictatorship, Unidas Podemos stated that due to this criminalization of behavior, “Spain does not have a situation of political and democratic normality.”

This language indicates a strong preference for the absolute removal of those laws that penalize free speech. Nevertheless, the PSOE and the Justice Ministry continue to equivocate, cloaking their reluctance to commit to reform in vague language, proposing a “review of crimes” and nothing more. 

While this equivocation may seem typical of a governing coalition whose leading party holds a minority of seats, the government has not gone far enough to address the fundamental issue at hand, necessitating stronger proposals like the one put forward by Unidas Podemos. Indeed, Hasél is not the only Spanish citizen to face the specter of incarceration for his speech: previously, the rapper Valtonyc had to flee to Belgium to avoid a Spanish prison sentence under similar charges, 21-year-old student Cassandra Vera was found guilty of “victim humiliation” after joking about a 1973 terrorist attack (though her charges were later reversed), and a street procession faced charges for substituting female genitalia for the Virgin Mary. Amnesty International has found that the Spanish government has convicted an estimated 70 people using the 2015 “gag law” in 2018 and 2019 alone, a startling number for those in countries where civil liberties can be taken for granted. These essential freedoms, critical to a strong civil society, have all but disappeared in Spain, as more than 140 websites have closed and artists, journalists, and musicians have had to choose between jail time and self-censorship.

As British human rights organization Article 19 has argued, those provisions that Unidas Podemos seeks to expunge are overly broad, lack a definition for “terrorism” or “glorification,” and do not distinguish between types of hate speech, leaving the possibility for those like Hasél, Valtonyc, and Vera to be found guilty. The only mechanism, then, is to rid the law of these vague restrictions and begin anew, a clean slate upon which to build a society defined by the freedoms guaranteed in customary international law. 

Spain has set a dangerous precedent, especially with the emergence of the far-right group Vox as a legitimate political party with which to be reckoned and the growing unrest in Catalonia after the arrest of nine separatist leaders. This larger trend of repression should concern the European community, according to Patrick Breyer, a German member of the European Parliament (MEP); Breyer has claimed that “Spain is going way too far, interpreting and using its anti-terror laws, and I’m afraid it might spill over.” Indeed, Breyer’s premonition remains credible, with France copying these gag laws and Denmark attempting to similarly undermine the freedom of assembly. As argued by the rapper Valtonyc in response to Hasél’s arrest, “Spain’s current government has talked about abolishing the ‘gag law,’ introduced by the previous government, which restricts freedom of expression. But they haven’t done anything about it.” 

Threatened with the possibility of unleashing a cataclysmic torrent of anti-free speech restrictions, Spain must recognize that reducing the sentences is not sufficient; if convictions still exist, then reform does not go far enough, as even an absence of jail time allows for measured punishments that still curb the exercise of free speech.

 Graphic by Sharlene Deng