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Freedom of expression at Spain’s art fair ARCO

By censoring an installation, the state agency Ifema is attacking a pillar of democracy

A woman in front of the Santiago Sierra installation that was taken down.
A woman in front of the Santiago Sierra installation that was taken down. EFE

The frivolous, light-hearted attitude displayed by the heads of some government-dependent institutions, no doubt with the goal of pleasing their superiors, is putting democracy at risk. Execs at Ifema, the Madrid convention center that hosts the international art fair Arco, gave orders to take down an installation by Santiago Sierra depicting 24 alleged political prisoners in Spain, including Catalan Republican Left (ERC) leader Oriol Junqueras and two former heads of pro-independence civic associations. Faced with the artist’s controversial interpretation of the arrest of several leaders of the Catalan separatist movement, Ifema chose censorship as the best way to get rid of a problem.

The inability of a democracy like Spain to tolerate freedom of expression, creation and publication is an accurate gauge of its own health

A bit later, after being asked by Madrid city officials to go back on the decision, the board of Ifema instead backed its own leaders. This was not, then, a hasty decision: the leaders of this agency have decided, as one voice, to deal a blow to one of the most sacred freedoms of any democracy: freedom of speech. It is an intolerable act, because this freedom affects the health of institutions that define open societies in a world that is increasingly seduced by an authoritarian drift in countries like China, Russia or Turkey.

The act reaches right into the heart of a society that likes to think of itself as pluralistic. These times are not conducive to tolerance, to criticism, or to public debate. Polarization and sectarianism are the defining traits of a new scenario dominated by the social media and new technologies. Noise, widespread condemnation and insults are essential traits of the messages going around on the internet, and which sadly create opinions and affect relevant decisions such as who to vote for at elections. This is the era of post-truths and fake news. In view of the challenge, the worst possible news is to find out that the answer involves undermining one of the pillars of democracy. The pusillanimous behavior by Ifema chiefs reveals how delicate the situation is. Instead of reinforcing the climate of liberties that has made democracy the best political system (or the least bad, in any case), those with decision-making power are choosing censorship.

The act reaches right into the heart of a society that likes to think of itself as pluralistic

The act of censorship committed by Ifema coincides in time with another event that casts doubt on freedom of expression: the ratification by the Supreme Court of a three-and-a-half-year conviction against the rapper Valtonyc for insulting the Crown, glorifying terrorism, and issuing slanderous claims and threats through his lyrics. Another matter for concern is the judicial confiscation of a book by EL PAÍS reporter Nacho Carretero following a complaint by a former mayor. These are all different events, but together they convey a very worrisome message about the state of freedom of speech in our country, and the legal insecurity created by successive and improvised reforms of the Penal Code.

The inability of a democracy like Spain to tolerate freedom of expression, creation and publication is an accurate gauge of its own health. It is now up to the government to make a move to correct this monumental blunder.

English version by Susana Urra.

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