Government “gag law” attempts to suffocate protest culture

Story by Karolina Chorvath

MADRID–In a graffiti-adorned building in the Malasaña quarter of Madrid, a group of activists gathered as they do every Monday, to plan a large-scale protest against the Spanish Citizens Security Law in front of Parliament that, for the time-being, they still have a right to do.

But not for long.

Members of No Somos Delito, or "We Are Not a Crime," gather at the Patio Maravillas, an occupied space which has served as a community area and meeting point for activist groups since 2007. The group, which is responsible for the famed hologram protest earlier this year, is planning different ways of assembly to protest against the gag law, which takes effect on July 1.  Photo by Maria Amasanti

Members of No Somos Delito, or “We Are Not a Crime,” gather at the Patio Maravillas, an occupied space which has served as a community area and meeting point for activist groups since 2007. The group, which is responsible for the famed hologram protest earlier this year, is planning different ways of assembly to protest against the gag law, which takes effect on July 1.
Photo by Maria Amasanti

Among other restrictions, the Spanish Citizens Security Law, also called the “ley mordaza” or “gag law,” set to take effect on July 1, would label protests or demonstrations in front of government buildings a “disturbance of public safety” punishable by a fine of 30,000 euro, or about $33,663.

The law dates back to 1992 but these controversial additions were introduced in 2013 by the conservative Popular Party, or the PP, and passed by the Spanish Parliament in December 2014. Until elections in May, the PP held the majority in both houses of Parliament – meaning there is hope the law could be amended. But there is no guarantee.

Meanwhile, the law is ostensibly an effort made by the Spanish government to diminish the number of protests and photos of police during these events, experts say.

Activists such as Alba Villanueva, 30, have formed the group No Somos Delito or “We Are Not a Crime,” to combat this law that they believe squashes their freedom of expression.

“The best way to defend our right to protest, is to protest,” said Villanueva. In April, No Somos Delito received international attention for the world’s first hologram demonstration. A “virtual march” of thousands of protesters against the “gag law” was projected on a screen in front of Spain’s parliament. “We always use positive images of happiness, about democracy, about how together we can stop this law. We have a lot of power if we are together,” said Villanueva.

Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, Spain has seen a great deal of demonstrations against social and austerity issues, some violent. Although protests have recently declined, according to Borja Bergareche, innovation director at Spanish multimedia outlet Vocento and European advisor to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were more than 36,000 demonstrations held across the country in 2012, the first year in office for PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

According to the Popular Party, it has been 22 years since the law has been updated. And during this time, police have faced increasing pressures from exposure related to new technologies, which has spurred the necessity to approve a new law appropriate to the demands of the 21st century. “The main goal is to adjust the law to the circumstances of our time,” said Julio Vidoretta from the PP Department of Communication.

Aside from the restrictions on protests in front of public buildings such as government legislative buildings, utilities, transportation hubs and nuclear power plants – occurrences of which could result in a fine as high as €600,000, or about $673,0000 –  the law would also prohibit the “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities and riot police. The use of those would result in a punishment of 30,000 euros, or about $34,000.

According to Victor Torre de Silva, professor at Instituto de Empresa (IE) Law School in Madrid, legal adviser for the Spanish Council of State and expert in administrative law, the reasoning for some of these new provisions is that “The government thinks the Spanish criminal justice system is slow and stuck with papers,” said Torre de Silva. “They want to make it more agile.” The government’s approach to simplifying the system means that some offenses previously punished by the criminal court will now be punished by municipalities in the form of tickets or fine.

Thousands of holographic protesters marched past the Spanish parliament in Madrid on April 10, 2015. It marked the first time a protest has ever been held using holograms.
Courtesy of No Somos Delito

This concept is not exclusive to Spain. Torre de Silva said in other countries in the European Union, other minor illegal behaviors are punished outside of the criminal courts. “For example traffic limits are disciplined by police with direct action. And all of these [offenses] can be appealed to the court of justice.”

Torre de Silva said he believes the overall multi-faceted, 27-page law is necessary to the safety of Spanish citizens and it will “have a long life.” That said, he does not support all aspects of the new additions and “would not [guarantee] the constitutionality of the entire law.”

“The [new] fines are quite high – some up to 600,000 euros,” said Torre de Silva. “In cases of those most serious offenses [the fines] might not be proportionate to behaviors.”

Torre de Silva said some issues with the new restrictions could come with the inevitable overuse of general phrasing when writing this sort of regulation. He said the judiciary courts can appeal the law and the constitutional courts will decide whether or not it follows the Constitution as it is presently. However, he said, right now, “It is true that [these] general words may be applied against liberty.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organization that seeks to protect press freedom worldwide, as well as other organizations, have criticized the law not only on its general phrasing but on the basis that it violates human rights.

According to a press release from the Higher Commissioner of Human Rights, in February a group of U.N. experts known as special rapporteurs, each specializing in specific freedoms, publicly criticized the law.

“The so-called ‘gag law’ violates the very essence of the right to assembly since it penalizes a wide range of actions and behaviors that are essential for the exercise of this fundamental right,” said Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai.

“This project of reform unnecessarily and disproportionately restricts basic freedoms such as the collective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Spain,” Special Rapporteur David Kaye added.

Belgian journalist, professor and CPJ European Correspondent Jean-Paul Marthoz, who has also been a longtime press freedom and human rights activist, is one among many who says the law undermines principles of freedom. “The gag law is a crude violation of freedom of expression,” says Marthoz. “Here you’re really crossing a red line. How can Spain really be critical against [other countries such as] Venezuela?… Today they’re basically doing the same thing.”

Spanish populist party Podemos, the PP party’s greatest adversary, has been vocal about its disapproval of the law. Lorena Ruiz-Huerta, the political party’s second in command to the community of Madrid and expert on the law, said, “This law is going to sanction people who take pictures or videos of policemen.”

Ruiz-Huerta said over the past few years during the height of protests, many demonstrators have been abused and arrested by police but have been absolved. “This was because of videos the citizens and the media have taken of the demonstrations and it is clear the government wants to avoid this to happen,” said Ruiz-Huerta. “They want to scare people so that they don’t take videos and try to defend themselves from the police.”

The restrictions on the dissemination of images of the police worries journalists and press freedom groups. However, in the world of media today, journalists are not the only channels for pictures and videos.

Students protest the rise of college tuition at a protest in Barcelona on May 14, 2015. This sort of civil disobedience has the potential to be banned under a new law, which is set to take effect on July 1st of this year. Photo by Maria Amasanti

Students rally against the rise of college tuition at a protest in Barcelona on May 14, 2015. This sort of civil disobedience has the potential to be banned under the new law.
Photo by Maria Amasanti

“You have a blurred definition between who is a journalist and who is not,” said Marthoz. “Part of the truth comes from the citizens.”

Bergareche said citizen journalism has been a very strong force around the world in documenting important events and the activities of a citizen journalist should be protected.

“Any bill that will curtail documenting actions that deserve to be documented such as police action at times such as social protest, they are concerning and they are indicators worldwide that governments will try to use these bills as a potential sensorial tool,” said Bergareche. “It’s necessary that the media has access to documenting police action when police action crosses the line and this is one of the aspects the law clearly intends to curtail.”

Bergareche said these regulations are the government’s response to seeing more unrest in the country over the past several years. “Hence they thought that this was a tool for them to quell or quench the image the country was getting and the world was getting by the publication of images of hostile action,” said Bergareche. “There’s a causality relationship between what has happened in the country in the past five years and this bill.”

Jody Pujanie, 18, a student at the University of Barcelona, marched under the Catalonian Arc De Triomf a few weeks ago chanting against the rise of college tuition. He said that the new law will not stop him from protesting for what he believes in.

“We want to change something. Everything we can,” Pujanie said breathlessly. “They [the government] can do what they want. We will still protest.”

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