Protest and expression rights infringed upon as tensions over Catalonia remain high
As soon as the Catalan regional parliament voted to hold a public referendum on the region's independence on 1st October 2017, the central government asked the Spanish Constitutional Court to declare the Catalan referendum unconstitutional. On 8th September, the Court ruled that the referendum would be invalid and should not take place.
The Catalan government, however, disregarded the Court’s decision and went ahead with the referendum. As reported, the central government reacted by sending in police to execute the Court’s order and prevent the vote from happening. According to video footage and photos published by the media and uploaded to social networks, in many cases the police used batons and other aggressive tactics against non-threatening protesters who had peacefully gathered in and around the polling stations. Hundreds were injured while exercising their right to non-violently express their political opinion. As usually happens in such cases, a debate ensued over the numbers of people injured. Catalonia’s Health Department tweeted that 893 people required medical attention as a consequence of the police’s actions, while media aligned with anti-independence factions in Spain questioned the accuracy of these figures.
In response to the concerns of the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Nils Muiznieks, Spanish Interior Minister Juan Ignacio Zoido Álvarez stated that the police had acted in accordance with the recommendations of Spain’s Constitutional Court and in a
“proportionate and appropriate manner...Interventions were not aimed at citizens or their ideas, they were intended to prevent the holding of the referendum, the instructions transmitted by the highest court of the national territory”.
Some days later, however, the Spanish government's representative in Catalonia apologised to those injured during police interventions.
Local and international human right organisations investigated cases of alleged police brutality and provided legal aid to victims. In early October, 23 different courts in Catalonia were examining the allegations.
Mass protests have taken place in Catalonia since the day of the attempted referendum, and though they have been largely peaceful in nature, tensions in the region remain high. In recent events on 27th October, the Catalan parliament voted to declare Independence from Spain. In turn, the Spanish parliament responded by imposing direct rule over Catalonia.
The Spanish section of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently published a report on the current situation for the media in Catalonia. According to the report, escalating tensions between opposing sides on the issue of independence have pushed things to an extreme and made conditions for independent journalism very difficult. RSF reported that at several political events civilians from both political camps insulted reporters, and snatched their microphones or shut down their cameras. A growing number of journalists have reported incidents of online harassment by both pro and anti-independence activists.
Some of the anger manifested by civilians against journalists has apparently resulted from what they consider to be a blatant manipulation of information by the media. RSF, for example, noted a clear bias in news reporting from RTVE (Spanish Public Radio and Television) in favour of the central government as well as from TV3 (Catalan public television) in favor of the regional government.
In addition, RSF found that both the Catalan and the Spanish governments have tried to impose their narrative on the local, Spanish and international press, and put pressure on them though informal and formal means. For example, on 15th September a number of Catalan media outlets “were visited by the police delivering a notification of the Superior Court of Justice of Catalonia, warning the directors that their media would incur criminal liability if they spread advertising or propaganda regarding the 1st October referendum suspended by the Constitutional Court”. Although the delivery of such notifications was indeed required by law, the execution of the procedure was in many cases clearly intimidating in nature.
A record of insults against media workers that have taken place since the publication of the RSF report can be found here.