Spain: Judicial proceedings against artists and a documentary filmmaker


During the time period covered by this update, from March to May 2019, a number of lawsuits were filed against artists and their work that has been deemed offensive or hurting religious feelings. The right to freedom of expression has been undermined by targeting with judicial proceedings a theatre play, a documentary film maker and musicians.

Court sentenced a documentary filmmaker for violating right to privacy

In April 2019 the court sentenced the documentary filmmaker Clemente Bernad, to one year in prison and a fine of 2,880 Euros for "a crime of revealing secrets”.

He was prosecuted for placing a camera and a microphone in the crypt of a monument to the Fallen with the intention to record a regular mass held by the Brotherhood of Voluntary Knights of the Holy Cross. It is suspected that members of the Brotherhood who were celebrating periodic masses there were paying tribute to two generals buried in the crypt and exalting the coup d'état of 18th July 1936, an act that it is believed could constitute a violation of the "Navarre Law of recognition and moral reparation of Navarrese citizens murdered and victims of repression following the military coup of 1936".

During the trial the defense asked the judge to take into account the informative value of the place and maintained that there was no violation of any right to privacy since only masses are celebrated in the crypt and that the religious rites are not intimate.

However, in its judgement the court stated that the right to freedom of expression and information is not absolute and ruled in favour of the right to privacy of the members of the Brotherhood. The decision came despite the fact that the building is owned by the City Council of Pamplona and according to the defendant the Council allowed the recording of the documentary. The court decision can be appealed to the Navarra Court.

The filmmaker Clemente Bernad condemned the sentencing:

"They condemn me for trying to do my job as a documentary filmmaker. I have tried to do my job and the response of Justice has been to condemn me to a year in jail. I have a huge disappointment.”

Court case against musicians over lyrics of a song deemed offensive to a law enforcement body

In a separate development, in April 2019, the police association, Asociación Profesional Justicia Guardia Civil (Professional Association of Civil Guard Justice, JUCIL) announced that it would pursue criminal proceedings againstthe musicians of the Navarran punk group Josetxu Piperrak & The Riber Rock Band arguing the lyrics of their song "OVNI" ("UFO") were offensive to the law enforcement agency Civil Guards.

The lyrics of concern that make reference to the Civil Guards go: "They are from another galaxy, another civilisation; they can't be human 'cause they have no heart; they have superpowers, something supernatural; they convert a fight in a bar into terrorism".

JUCIL filed a lawsuit in March 2019 claiming that the song is “offensive and derogatory” to the Civil Guard. According to a statement by JosetxuPiperrakthe lawsuit “demanded the withdrawal of the single video from the UFO song album, the withdrawal of the sale of our album ‘Screaming Again’ in addition to not interpreting said song live and issuing a statement expressly acknowledging that the claims expressed in the subject were false.”

On 20th March 2019, in a conciliation hearing held in the court of Barañáin (Navarra) the record label El Dromedario Records (the record label for the album that contains the song “UFO”) agreed to withdraw the UFO song of Josetxu Piperrak & The Riber Rock Bandto avoid further threat of criminal proceedings against them.

The band members considered the JUCIL demands as a violation of their right to freedom of expression and refused to attend the conciliation hearing at the court on 20th March 2019, and said they would continue their musical activity. Defending their right to freedom of expression, the band said:

“We would never have imagined that the scissors of censorship could reach these limits, a symptom of a serious current situation regarding freedoms not only in the artistic field. If the joke seems bad to them, it is enough not to laugh, but getting to the point of denouncing us seems totally disproportionate.”

Court case against theatre play over claims of “offending religious feelings”

Ultraconservative Catholic groups in Spain, supported by the rising extreme right-wing parties, continue to challenge the freedom of expression of artists and activists by invoking provisions of the Criminal Code related to offending the religious feelings of members of a religious denomination through publicity (Article 525.1 of the Criminal Code). These offences are punishable by eight to twelve months’ imprisonment, and although most cases are shelved, according to Spanish rights group, Rights International Spain, their filing still has an impact as it has a deterrent effect.

In March 2019, the CSO, Spanish Christian Lawyers Association filed a lawsuit calling for the suspension of a theatre play by the theatre company Vértebro “for offending religious feelings”. The complaint related to the presentation of the play “God has a vagina”, in which rites related to Holy Week were recreated by naked actors. The Christian Lawyers Association claimed that they received calls from “people offended by what was seen in the promotional videos,” of the play. Additionally the organisation initiated a campaign to collect signatures to support their demand for the suspension of the play. Similarly, the ultra-Catholic group Become HearHe also launched a campaign against the play calling it “Pornography to make fun of Holy Week”. According to media reports, the court allowed the performance as it did not find sufficient legal grounds for its suspension.

According to reports, the number of complaints made by these groups targeting actors, playwrights, photomontages, performances, processions, carnival performances and exhibitions has increased dramatically in Spain in recent years. The Christian Lawyers Association, for example, has several open lawsuits. The CIVICUS Monitor reported in 2018 on the lawsuit filed by the Christian Lawyers Association targeting a Spanish actor and political activist Willy Toledo for insulting their religion in a 2017 Facebook post. The complaint led to the brief arrest of Willy Toledo after he failed to comply with two summonses to appear in court.