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Amnesty report slams Spanish government for restricting freedom of expression

In the wake of a series of high-profile cases, the NGO is calling for an end to the use of the Penal Code in cases of tweets or song lyrics

Amnistia Internacional
Protest for freedom of expression in Granada, 2016, after the arrest of two pupeteers in Madrid.

Amnesty International (AI) is unequivocal: “In Spain, freedom of expression is under attack.” The NGO has reached this conclusion in a new report that has been put together after the dozens of sentences and judicial processes underway in Spain for alleged “praise of terrorism” on social networks. “The [Spanish] government is responding with harassment to a series of expressions on the internet – from the lyrics of politically controversial songs to simple jokes – using the general categories included in counter-terrorist laws in the country that have been drafted imprecisely,” the organization states, placing this attitude within the context of a battery of limitations of rights that is currently blighting Europe.

“States are restricting a number of diverse forms of expression, including expression on the internet, using a pretext of national security,” AI continues in its report, which has been released barely three weeks after the Supreme Court sentenced rapper Valtònyc to three-and-a-half years in jail for the content of his songs. In another case, copies of Fariña, a book about drug traffickers by journalist Nacho Carretero were recently seized on a court order, while an artwork called Political prisoners in Contemporary Spain, which featured pictures of jailed Catalan independence leaders, was recently removed from the ARCO art fair in Madrid.

The Spanish government is responding with harassment to a series of expressions on the internet

Amnesty International report

The NGO describes in its latest report how Spain resorts “abusively” to provisions designed for the fight against terrorism to “criminalize” a wide range of statements made on social networks. Specifically, Amnesty takes issue with Article 578 of the Penal Code, which sets out jail terms of up to three years for anyone who glorifies terrorism or who humiliates victims. “The authorities have been using this article to repress expressions of a political nature, above all on social networks, and the artistic community in the country,” the document sets out, accusing the state of “penalizing” legitimate expressions and failing to meet international human rights laws.

“The impact of 578 is devastating for people: from hefty fines to long periods of exclusion from the public sector, and stretching to prison terms,” the report adds, before calling for the repeal of the legal precept.

The cases that prove this argument are numerous, according to AI: the accusations leveled against puppeteers, the prosecution of musician César Strawberry, and a jail sentence for Twitter user Cassandra Vera – later thrown out by the Supreme Court – are just a few examples. “These cases reflect a growing and dangerous intolerance against any kind of expression, including artistic ones, that can be considered provocative, disturbing or even offensive. But causing shock among people by saying, tweeting or singing things that are offensive is not a crime. Applying penal law to these expressions does not just stigmatize, but can also have serious consequences that are worryingly disproportionate,” the NGO argues.

The report strongly criticizes so-called “Operation Spider,” which saw Spain’s security forces carry out around 70 arrests

The report strongly criticizes so-called “Operation Spider,” which saw Spain’s security forces carry out a number of arrests between 2014 and 2016. More than 70 people were detained for “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating victims” via social networks. Among those arrested were Arkaitz Terrón, a 31-year-old Basque lawyer living in Barcelona, who was eventually acquitted by the High Court. “In my case they didn’t achieve anything,” the lawyer stated subsequently. “But their objective was not the 60 people prosecuted after Operation Spider. What they were looking for was for people to think twice before they express an opinion on the internet, above all those people who are more critical.” “His case shows the narrow limits of what is now considered acceptable expression on the internet in Spain,” AI adds in its report.

According to the data collected by Amnesty, the application of Article 578 has seen 66 people sentenced in the last two years: 35 in 2016, and 31 in 2017. The figure exceeds that of the total from the previous five years, which came in at 53. This rise, the report argues, has led to “self-censorship for fear of suffering repression,” a “fall in public debate,” and, together with the use of the so-called “Gag Law,” “a long-term threat for the strength of civil society and the ability to guarantee not just the right to freedom of expression, but also the defense of a series of fundamental human rights.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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