Spanish gag law: The original sin and ongoing penance

The arrest of a famous rapper is yet another sign of increasingly shrinking spaces for free expression in Spain.

Demonstrators march holding a banner reading "you have taught us that being peaceful is useless" during a protest condemning the arrest of rap singer Pablo Hasel in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. The imprisonment of Pablo Hasel for inciting terrorism and refusing to pay a fine after having insulted the country's monarch has triggered a social debate and street protests. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Since mid-February, there have been protests in a number of Spanish cities against the jailing of Pablo Hasél, a rapper of Catalan descent. Hasél was sent to prison after being found guilty of insulting the Spanish monarchy and police, as well as “glorifying terrorism” for expressing support for now-disbanded “terrorist groups” in a series of songs and tweets. His case has become a rallying cry for the decade-long struggle against the Spanish government’s infringement on the right to free speech and freedom of expression.

Over the past 10 years, there has been significant backsliding on civil rights and democratic standards in Spain, as in other European countries. Too often, Spanish institutions have treated street protests and other forms of dissent not as an expression of a guaranteed right under international and European Union law, but as a threat to society.

In 2011, several years after the onset of the global financial downturn, Spanish people took to the streets to protest against what they saw as a massive failure of the government to handle the economic crisis. The demonstrations spread across the country and came to be known as the Indignados movement. The police responded with excessive use of force, beating protesters, pepper-spraying them and shooting rubber bullets, thus curbing the right to peaceful assembly.

The government’s repressive response was extended to the legal sphere through the adoption and implementation in 2015 of the so-called Citizen Security Law (also known as the gag law) by the conservative Partido Popular-led government. The legislation limited the right to peaceful assembly by establishing a complicated bureaucratic process for obtaining permission to hold a protest and hefty fines for violations. These range from 600 euros ($723) for failing to notify authorities about demonstrations in public areas to a staggering 30,000 euros ($36,147) for holding protests that result in “serious disturbances of public safety” near parliament and Spain’s regional government buildings.

But there are other more problematic provisions. Under this law, sharing images of police officers that can “endanger” them is also subject to fine. The law also gives police broad stop-and-search powers and allows for summary expulsions of undocumented migrants at the Spanish border in North Africa.

Changes in the penal code made also in 2015 opened the door for increased criminalisation and suppression of public expressions critical of state institutions. Magistrates seem to have heeded calls by right-wing activists and organisations to systematically punish public speech against the Spanish monarchy, police forces, and the Catholic Church.

This has led to the closure of more than 140 websites, the censorship of musicians, writers and artists, and increasing pressure on journalists to self-censor. Several individuals have been accused of “glorifying terrorism”, which is framed so broadly in the law that even ambiguous expressions of support, such as retweeting a joke about the 1973 assassination of Franco’s number two, Luis Carrero Blanco, have led to a trial. Valtònyc, another musician, who, like Hasél has been accused of supporting terrorism, is subject to a Spanish arrest warrant after fleeing to Belgium.

All these cases demonstrate that the current Spanish legislation does not respect fundamental rights. It seems Spain is sliding dangerously towards Poland and Hungary, where governments have become increasingly authoritarian and are suffocating civil society. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this situation, as Spanish authorities have used the gag law to restrict civil liberties.

Unfortunately, this trend is now spreading across Western Europe, with France recently copying many of the Spanish gag law provisions in its new security law. UN experts have warned the French government that this law is incompatible with human rights norms but to no avail. In Denmark, the government has submitted a draft law, referred to as the “Security for All Danes”, which would seriously undermine the right to freedom of assembly if passed.

This increasing securitisation and blurring of the line between what is deemed a legitimate protest and what is considered a riot, is infringing on the fundamental freedoms of European citizens. The EU’s efforts to hold governments to account through its newly established rule of law mechanism are not enough to stop this trend.

National governments must uphold their commitments to international human rights standards and their obligations under the EU law. They cannot pick and choose which of its provisions they abide by. Nor should they be allowed to create laws, which can be weaponised for use against the citizens they claim to protect.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.