Important reform of “gag law” that impedes freedom of expression stalled due to early elections

Peaceful Assembly and Expression

In February 2019, the Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called an early general elections, set for 28 April 2019, that haltеd the started parliamentary reform of the infamous “Gag Law” (Organic Law for the Protection of Citizen Security). This law restricts citizen’s human rights and has been condemned by human rights organisations for putting unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.

Only after eight months in office, the Prime Minister called for the early elections in response to the 13th February parliament vote refusing support for the 2019 state budget. As a result, the parliament was officially dissolved on 5th March. These will be the third parliamentary elections in Spain in three and a half years and will be held ahead of local, European Parliament and certain regional elections scheduled for the end of May.

The "Gag Law" was enacted by the former conservative administration and came into effect in July 2015, despite widespread rejection from opposition parties and many sections of society. As the CIVICUS Monitor has earlier reported the so-called “Gag Law” is widely regarded to be harmful to the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful assembly in Spain (as among other measures it introduced a number of restrictions and fines related to public protests and photographing police without authorisation).

The reform of the law has gained some momentum with the election of the current government in June 2018 who when in opposition repeatedly pledged that will revise the law as soon as they get into power. However, the reform efforts have since been slow and contrary to their previous pledges, as it seemed that the administration intended to leave intact many of the law’s most problematic parts.

The commission tasked with reviewing the law resumed working in mid-January 2019 and by February was reported to have revised over half of the articles.

In early February, parliamentary groups reached an agreement on how to modify the legislation. However, due to the call for the early election, these revisions could not be passed through the Congress.

To highlight the gender inequality in the country and to demonstrate against the lack of progress to address gender violence and discrimination, there have been a mass support for the marches and strike action called for the International Women’s Day, 8th March. A number of mass demonstrations took place under the slogan “We have 1,000 reasons.”

The 8th March demonstrations in 2019, repeated the 8th March 2018 successful events to support women's equality and rights, and even received greater support across the country. On 8th March 2019, there were between 350,000 and 375,000 people present in Madrid (last year the estimate was 170,000), and 220,000 in Valencia. In Barcelona, the local police estimated a total of 200,000 participants. More than 500street demonstrations have been called in Spain.

As the awareness of gender inequality is growing in Spain, so are the threats against women activists and those advocating for women’s rights. For example, the far-right party Vox that recently gained parliamentary representation in the southern region of Andalusia, is seeking to repeal Spain’s gender-anti-violence legislation, the Organic Law 1/2004, on Comprehensive Protection Measures against Gender Violence. Additionally, an ultraconservative Catholic group Hazte Oír (Make Yourself Heard) has been campaigning against gender-violence laws and what it called “feminazis”, using a bus featuring an image of Adolf Hitler on the side, wearing makeup and the symbol of feminism on his cap, above the hashtag “#StopFeminazis.” A Barcelona judge rejected a complaint filed by the prosecutor that called for the bus to be stopped; the judge ruled that even though the campaign’s messages may be considered “abhorrent and even repugnant,” they were protected by “freedom of speech.”

Additionally, since the beginning of 2019, a number of mass protests for, and at times against, Catalan independence have taken place in a climate of rising tension in the run-up to parliamentary elections and the continuing trial of 12 Catalan leadersfor their part in the failed independence attempt in 2017:

  • On 30th March 2019, according to police, five people were injured and seven arrested during clashes among members of the far-right Vox party demonstrating in Barcelona against Catalan independence and separatist activists. Around 5,000 members of Vox demonstrated to "defend to the very end a united Spain", while several groups of Catalan separatists held counter-demonstrations around the Vox rally.
  • On 16th March 2019, tens of thousands marched against the ongoing trial of 12 Catalan separatist leaders and for the right to vote for self-determination in Madrid
  • On 16th February 2019, approximately 200,000 people protested in Barcelona against the trial of the leaders of the Catalan separatist movement, calling for them to be released immediately.
  • Earlier in February, Madrid saw tens of thousands of right-wing protesters demanding that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez calls for general elections. The protesters were unsatisfied with the government’s ‘too soft’ approach to the negotiations with Catalan separatists.

Positive court developments against freedom of expression-related cases

A number of court cases related to freedom of expression reached a positive outcome at the beginning of 2019:

  • In January 2019, a court in Segovia rejected the lawsuit by a Catholic association in Segovia that tried to prevent a statue of the devil from being placed 200 meters from an aqueduct, arguing that it is an attack on religious feelings.
  • In January, 2019 a court ruled that the “Virgin of Moreneta and the Virgin of Desamparado kissing” poster does not constitute a crime, stating that in order to be punishable it is not enough to offend the religious feelings of others but it is required to do it expressing the intention to do so. The lawsuit has been filed by Vox party along with other conservative associations in 2016 for offences to religious feelings.
  • In January 2019, a court judged that a poster in a butcher shop (called “Vatican butcher”) presenting Jesus on the cross depicted in pieces, with the motto “Take and eat', this is my body”, is a legitimate exercise of the freedom of expression. The court also acquitted Galder Anton, Secretary of the comparsa Hontzak, accused of a crime against religious feelings, for the decoration.
  • In mid-January 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office asked the court to drop the case against comedian Dani Mateo who has faced hate crime charges after blowing his nose on the Spanish flag during a television sketch on satirical current affairs show El Intermedio last year. The prosecutor reportedly said that the comedian's work was merely ‘challenging’, not criminal, and that ‘he did not pursue violence or revenge’. In November 2018, the Alternative Union of Police filed a complaint against Mateo saying he “committed a crime of offense or outrage to symbols of Spain”, corresponding to Article 543 of the Criminal Code and a hate crime, corresponding to Article 510. Subsequently, a Madrid court admitted the police complaint and started an investigation against Mateo, as prosecutors charged him with a hate crime and insulting the flag. In Spain, hate crime is punishable by up to four years imprisonment.

As the CIVICUS Monitor reported in December 2018, there have been some discussions about reforming parts of Spain's Criminal Code that are regularly used to curtail freedom of expression, such as “insulting the crown” (Articles 193 and 491), “attacking state institutions” (Article 504), and “offending nationalist symbols and religious sentiment” (Article 525). Further, in November 2018, to address the "disproportionate" use of hate crimes by the judicial system and ensure civil liberties are protected, the office of the Spanish Attorney General María José Segarra has reportedly prepared binding guidelines to send to all prosecutors in Spain in early 2019. 

Police raid of media outlets threaten media independence work

In a separate development, on 11th December 2018, police seized equipment and documentation from the news agency Europa Press and from journalists working for the Diario de Mallorca newspaper. The seizure was part of an investigation into leaked information from police sources. The police reportedly acted on a court order demanding the editor to hand over any documentation concerning a large-scale corruption case on which the news agency recently reported using unnamed police sources.

In protest to the police actions against both media outlets, on 14th December 2018, more than 650 journalists from all over Spain signed and submitted a document to the General Council of the Judiciary urging them to protect press freedom in Mallorca, and journalists held a protest in front of Spain’s Supreme Court and many expressed their solidarity on Twitter under the hashtag #ElSecretoNoSeToca.