Amnesty International has published a report warning of a “sustained attack” on freedom of expression in Spain, citing “an exponential increase” in prosecutions under a law banning glorification of terrorism or humiliating terrorism victims.
The report, issued Tuesday (March 13), comes after the Spanish Supreme Court upheld a three-and-a half year sentence for Jose Miguel Arenas Beltran, a rapper known as Valtonyc, for lyrics that “incited terrorism” and insulted the royal family in videos posted online. “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, in an announcement from the organization.
The report, entitled Tweet…if you dare: How counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain, cites “scores of ordinary social media users as well as musicians, journalists and even puppeteers” who have been prosecuted on grounds of national security.
“This has had a profoundly chilling effect, creating an environment in which people are increasingly afraid to express alternative views, or make controversial jokes,” the report says. Under Article 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code, those deemed to have “glorified terrorism” or “humiliated the victims of terrorism or their relatives” can be fined, prohibited from working in the public sector, and imprisoned.
The number of people charged with these offenses has increased from three in 2011 to 39 in 2017, according to AI. Seventy people were convicted in the last two years alone.
“People should not face criminal prosecution simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking,” Baltrán said via the announcement. “Spain’s broad and vaguely-worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression.”
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 the court ruled glorified the violent anti-capitalist group GRAPO. The rappers are appealing the sentence. Valtonyc, was sentenced in February by the Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court decision. Other artists have been prosecuted under the law.
“Whilst the threat of terror is very real and protecting national security can in certain instances be legitimate grounds for restricting freedom of expression, Spain’s broad and vague law against `glorifying terrorism´ and `humiliating´ its victims is stifling artistic expression,” the Amnesty report said.
Spanish citizens have also been charged under the law for posts on Facebook and Twitter. A high-profile case in 2017 centered on a joke Tweeted by a 22-year-old student about the 1973 assassination of prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco. [Carrero Blanco was killed by a car bomb which catapulted the vehicle skyward. “Not only did ETA have a policy about official cars, they also had a space program,” she wrote.] The student received a one-year suspended jail sentence, lost her university scholarship, and cannot be hired to work in the public sector for seven years.
In 2016, the creators of a satirical puppet show were arrested after a performance in Madrid.
Spain’s Article 578 was broadened in 2015 in response to terrorist attacks in Paris, citing a climate in which there is an increased threat of international attacks. But most of the charges in Spain have been made for statements or songs that mention GRAPO or the Basque separatist organization ETA, as well as, in Valtonyc’s case, references to the royal family.
Amnesty International’s report warns of a new EU Directive on combating terrorism, “which problematically includes ‘glorification’ as an example of expression that may be criminalized.” That is due to be implemented across Europe by September 2018.
“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,” says Eda Seyhan, Amnesty’s Campaigner on Counter-Terrorism.
“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.”