Spain's terrorism law is 'outlawing political satire' - new report

The Spanish authorities are using counter-terror laws to crack down on online creativity in a chilling attack on freedom of expression, a new report from Amnesty International has warned today.

The 16-page report, Tweet…if you dare: How counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain, reveals that social media users - including musicians and journalists - have been prosecuted on grounds of national security.

Convictions under laws banning the “glorification of terrorism” or “humiliating victims of terrorism” has created an environment where people are increasingly afraid to express alternative views, or make controversial jokes.

Last December, 12 rappers from the collective La Insurgencia were fined, sentenced to more than two years in prison each and banned from working in the public sector, for lyrics that were deemed to “glorify” the armed group GRAPO. They are appealing the sentence, but they are just some of the many artists who have been prosecuted under the law.

Esteban Beltrán, Amnesty Spain’s Director, said:

“Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain.

“People should not face criminal prosecution simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking. Spain’s broad and vaguely-worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression.”

‘Treated like a terrorist’ for tweets

Under Article 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code, those deemed to have “glorified terrorism” or “humiliated the victims of terrorism or their relatives” – no matter how vague these terms are – face fines, bans from jobs in the public sector and even prison sentences.

The number of people charged under Article 578 increased from three in 2011 to 39 in 2017. In the last two years alone, a total of 66 people were convicted under the law. Since 2014, four coordinated police operations - dubbed the ‘Spider Operations’ - led to scores of people arrested for posting messages on social media platforms, primarily on Twitter and Facebook.

Lawyer Arkaitz Terrón says he was “treated like a terrorist” for nine tweets, including a joke about the ETA assassination of prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. He was charged with “glorifying terrorism” but later acquitted.

Cassandra Vera, a 22-year-old student, received a one-year suspended jail sentence last year for “humiliating” the victims of terrorism, also in relation to Twitter jokes about the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco. The sentence resulted in the loss of her university scholarship, and she was disqualified from employment in the public sector for seven years.

Among those who came to Ms Vera’s defence was Blanco’s niece, who said she was “fearful of a society where freedom of expression, however regrettable it may be, could lead to imprisonment”. While her statement was submitted as part of Ms Vera’s defence, it had no impact on the case because the law applies regardless of the actual views of the victims of terrorism or their relatives. Earlier this month, in a positive development, Spain’s Supreme Court overturned Ms Vera’s conviction.

Another man, named only as J.C.V., was given a one-year suspended sentence for 13 tweets and told Amnesty that the “objective is to create a climate of self-censorship in the population. And they succeeded with me.”

Stifling artistic expression

Whilst the threat of terrorism is very real and protecting national security can, in certain instances, be legitimate grounds for restricting freedom of expression said Amnesty, Spain’s broad and vague law against “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating” its victims is stifling artistic expression.

Even journalists attempting to document the crackdown under Article 578 have fallen foul of the law, with one filmmaker being prosecuted for a film he made when he interviewed several people who had been prosecuted on charges of “glorifying terrorism”.

Eda Seyhan, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Counter-Terrorism, said:

“Spain is emblematic of a disturbing trend which has seen states across Europe unduly restricting expression on the pretext of national security, and stripping away rights under the guise of defending them.

“Rapping is not a crime, tweeting a joke is not terrorism and holding a puppet show should not land you in jail. Governments should uphold the rights of victims of terrorism, rather than stifling free speech in their name.

“Spain’s draconian law must be repealed and all charges brought against anyone solely for peacefully expressing themselves must be dropped.”

Article 578 was broadened in 2015 in response to the Paris terror attacks and the perceived threat of international terrorism, though the vast majority of cases brought under the law relate to disbanded or inactive Spamish armed groups, namely ETA and GRAPO. Later this month, a proposal to amend Article 578 is expected to be tabled in the Spanish parliament.

An EU Directive on combating terrorism, which problematically includes “glorification” as an example of expression that may be criminalised, is due to be implemented across Europe by September this year. Amnesty is insisting that the lesson from Spain must be that vaguely-defined offences such as “glorification of terrorism” and “humiliation” of its victims seriously endanger the right to freedom of expression.

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