By Sam Jones
Amnesty International has warned that an “exponential increase” in prosecutions under a controversial Spanish anti-terrorism law is having a chilling effect on satire and dissent and is pushing social media users, musicians and journalists towards self-censorship.
The charity is calling for the law to be repealed, arguing that recent high-profile cases brought under article 578 of Spain’s criminal code have highlighted the danger the legislation poses to freedom of speech and international human rights law.
Under the article, those found guilty of “glorifying terrorism”, justifying terrorist acts or “humiliating the victims of terrorist crimes or their relatives” can be jailed, fined and banned from holding public sector jobs.
Over the past two years, the legislation has been used with increasing frequency. In 2016, a judge eventually shelved an investigation into two puppeteers who were suspected of glorifying terrorism during a performance in Madrid.
Two musicians – César Strawberry, lead singer of the group Def Con Dos, and the rapper Valtonyc – have given prison sentences following prosecutions under article 578.
Strawberry was sentenced to a year in prison in January last year for tweeting jokes about Eta and giving the king “a cake-bomb” for his birthday, while Valtonyc recently had his three-and-a-half year prison sentence upheld after being convicted of distributing songs online that threatened a politician with violence, glorified terrorism and insulted the crown.
A film-maker and a journalist are also among those charged under the legislation.
Perhaps the most notorious case, however, is that of Cassandra Vera, a student who was given a suspended jail sentence and banned from doing a publicly-funded job for seven years for tweeting jokes about the 1973 assassination of a Spanish prime minister.
Vera’s conviction was quashed and her sentence overturned at the beginning of March after Spain’s supreme court ruled that while her behaviour may have been morally reprehensible, it had not merited the punishment imposed by a lower court.
In a report published on Tuesday – entitled Tweet … if you dare: how counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain – Amnesty detects an “exponential increase” in the use of article 578.
It says that while only three people were charged under the article in 2011, the figure rose to 39 in 2017, with almost 70 people convicted over the past two years.
The report also notes that the legislation is overwhelmingly being used in relation to the apparent glorification of domestic terrorist groups – such as the Basque separatists Eta or the far-left Grapo – rather than foreign ones.
According to Amnesty, this has led to “increasing self-censorship and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression” in Spain.
“Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain,” said Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International 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.”
Vera expressed similar views after her sentence was overturned. She pointed to the recent censorship of a work at a Madrid art fair and the seizure, on a judge’s orders, of Fariña, a book about drug-trafficking in Galicia, as proof that something was seriously wrong with free speech in Spain.
“People shouldn’t have to be afraid of expressing their opinions,” she told the Guardian. “What happened with Valtonyc and Fariña and the art exhibition showed that freedom of expression is under serious attack. I think freedom of expression has been dealt an almost fatal blow in Spain.”
Amnesty wants to see article 578 repealed, and says the situation in Spain is emblematic of “a disturbing trend” of European countries using national security arguments to limit freedom of expression and restrict rights.
“Governments should uphold the rights of victims of terrorism, rather than stifling free speech in their name,” said said Eda Seyhan, Amnesty’s campaigner on counter-terrorism.
“Spain’s draconian law must be repealed and all charges brought against anyone solely for peacefully expressing themselves must be dropped.”
Kartik Raj, western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the Spanish government needs “urgently to reform the overly broad definition of the glorification of terrorism”.
“The raft of ill conceived prosecutions of people on charges of glorifying terrorism or insulting the King, in some instances merely for having made jokes on social media, beggar belief,” he said.
Published on The Guardian on March 12, 2018