Spain versus Twitter

Dubious policing awards and ‘Operation Spider’: Is the Generalissimo’s ghost haunting austerity-stricken Spain?

The Spanish interior minister has bestowed the country's top policing medal on the Virgin Mary, writes Fernandez [Reuters]

Last week, Spain’s Guardia Civil – the Civil Guard or gendarmerie – detained 21 social media users for allegedly “glorifying terrorism” on Twitter and Facebook. Fifteen of them were apprehended in the northern Spanish regions of Navarre and the Basque Country, an area that has long harboured separatist aspirations. Two were minors.

If convicted, the tweeters and Facebookers will face up to two years in prison. Among the alleged glorifications of terrorism, apparently, was a tweeted map of the Basque Country, emblazoned with the Basque word for independence.

Given the nutty news content that has become the norm in this country as of late, many Spaniards perhaps did not bat an eye. First there were the headlines surrounding the proposed Citizens’ Security Law, which prescribes fines of up to 600,000 euros ($835,500) for unauthorised street protests – and up to 1,000 euros ($1,400) for losing one’s identity document more than three times in five years.

Then there was the news that the Spanish interior minister had taken it upon himself to bestow the country’s top policing medal on the Virgin Mary. In addition to generally being reserved for human recipients, the award is intended to honour policemen who have been killed or wounded in the line of duty. (The ministry of the interior has now been dubbed the “monastery of the interior” by certain media, and a petition has surfaced at requesting a similar medal for Spiderman.)

But the Virgin, it seems, has done a less than stellar job of policing Twitter in recent weeks – hence the necessity of the anti-terror intervention by the Guardia Civil. The social media sweep has incidentally been christened “Operation Spider”.

Crime and punishment, or lack thereof

Let’s take a look at the content of some of the other terror-tweets and Facebook statuses aside from the aforementioned map.

In a Facebook post, one of the persons later detained complained that, although the Spanish state had condemned the Basque armed separatist group ETA as “evil terrorists” based on the assassinations and killings it perpetrated, “the banks are killing people every day and nothing happens; [rather], the state protects and defends them”.

This, of course, would appear to be a relatively sober analysis of the contemporary situation in austerity-stricken Spain, where, in 2012, banks were overseeing approximately 500 home evictions per day, prompting a surge in suicides. It’s not clear when drawing attention to state hypocrisy became a crime.

This oppression is clearly visible in the haphazard crackdown on persons who tweet Basque Country maps or quotes from the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci – as reportedly happened last year. Predictably, no such punitive measures are undertaken against social media users who glorify rightwing and state terror.

But there I go glorifying terrorism.

To be sure, some of the social media dispatches in question are in poor taste, and include offensive references to innocent victims of ETA operations. However, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out in the past, there is a context that explains the existence of such groups and their supporters: “ETA came out of repression and persecution, not out of nothing.”

Indeed, the organisation’s origins lie in the dictatorship of the late Francisco Franco, who is credited with the killing of an estimated 113,000 people during and after the Spanish civil war. Franco nurtured a special hatred for the Basque region, and much of the repression during his rule was carried out by none other than the Guardia Civil – the same entity that is now helping to criminalise 140-character texts on Twitter. One of the targeted tweets involved a photograph of the 1973 bombing assassination of Franco’s appointed successor Luis Carrero Blanco, with the caption “I WANT TO FLYYYYYYYYY AND FLYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.”

As the newspaper El Mundo put it, the aim of Operation Spider is “to demonstrate that this sort of attitude will not go unpunished”.

Unfortunately for Spain’s alleged crime-fighters, the issue of impunity opens up a major can of worms. Thanks to a post-Franco amnesty law, there has not been an iota of justice enacted by the Spanish system on behalf of the victims of Francoist crimes. This means that the two years of prison time potentially facing deviant tweeters is a full two years more than the amount of prison time faced by, for example, torture-happy police inspectors.

When Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon attempted in the last decade to challenge this impunity, he was suspended from his post. Ana Messuti, an Argentine international criminal lawyer who has been instrumental in a campaign to put Franco officials on trial in Argentina, declared in a 2012 op-ed for Al Jazeera that Spanish authorities had doubly violated international law “by failing to comply with their obligation to prosecute and sanction crimes against humanity committed in their own territory, and by prosecuting instead that particular Judge who tried to act in accordance with such obligations”.

Selective memory

According to Messuti, memory is the “only ally in the combat against impunity”. But, as she notes, “memory is in the brain of a man or woman, and the brain is in a body, and a body is bound to die”.

One of countless testaments to this simple process of biocerebral destruction is my father’s relative Adela Centurion, who died over a decade ago at the age of 92. Following the Spanish civil war, she had spent six years in prison for having prepared and delivered food to her two brothers, guerrillas in the anti-Franco resistance in Andalusia. The brothers were executed. You could say that when Adela and her memory died, they were executed again.

Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wrote in 2011 that Spain “has lacked the catharsis that can come with a full reckoning with the past”. Prospects for such a reckoning have dwindled even further with the ascension to power of the rightwing Popular Party (PP), about which Freedland reported pre-ascension: “Several times I was told that too many luminaries of the PP have family ties with the Franco regime: They are the sons and daughters of those who served the caudillo.”

The problem with refusing to confront the past is not just that human suffering goes unacknowledged and uncompensated – it’s also that you end up with elements of history repeating themselves. This is not to say that Spain is suddenly going to find itself in front of a fascist firing squad but rather that government oppression will continue to occur under the guise of protecting citizens from terrorism and violence.

Rightwing impunity?

This oppression is clearly visible in the haphazard crackdown on persons who tweet Basque Country maps or quotes from the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci – as reportedly happened last year. Predictably, no such punitive measures are undertaken against social media users who glorify rightwing and state terror.

As has been pointed out in the satirical magazine El Jueves – which is no doubt having a field day under the current regime – Spanish journalist Hermann Tertsch once composed a tweet insisting that “democracy would have applauded” the execution by Franco of Catalonian politician and lawyer Lluis Companys. Far from a marginalised and irrelevant individual, Tertsch happens to be the former sub-director of one of Spain’s most prominent newspapers, and presently boasts 57,000 followers on Twitter.

Nor have any crackdowns apparently been deemed necessary against rightwing student groups that attack meetings of victims of the dictatorship, “throwing notebooks, umbrellas, chairs [and] tables”.

El Jueves contends that the Spanish government “is interested in keeping the ghost of ETA alive and well… If people have their heads between their legs, they won’t be able to see how empty their pockets are”.

As for other sorts of ghosts, the same article recalls a tweet by Angel Lara, a member of the New Generations – the youth organisation of the PP – expressing a desire for Franco’s return “even though he’ll die when he sees what Spain has become”.

Luckily for Lara and like-minded tweeters, it doesn’t look like the Generalissimo’s ghost will be dying any time soon. Maybe it’ll even get its own policing medal.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.