Ask a Spaniard about politics, and, through gritted teeth, they’ll tell you “no nos podemos quejar” – “we can’t complain.” Sounds cheery, for a country with the fifth-highest rate of unemployment in the world. Far from cheerful optimism, though, this cynical answer sums the situation up beautifully. Spain is on the brink of uncertain times – much like the rest of the world – yet, for a country not long free of the bondage of dictatorship, the government silencing its critics is a clear step in the wrong direction.
What’s got you riled up then?
The Ley Mordaza, or ‘gagging law’, as it’s known, came into effect on the first this month. Brought in under the conservative Partido Popular – the ‘people’s party’ (Python fans rejoice) – it’s broad in scope, but, generally, it proscribes acts that speak out against the government.
Under the banner of the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana, or ‘Civil Safety/Security Law’, it removes various rights from the Spanish people, chief amongst which are the right of free protest (the Spanish, like their cousins to the north, love a good protest), and, in a country where corruption is rife amongst police ranks, the right to film without prior permission or ‘be disrespectful towards’ police officers.
They can’t protest?
Only when the manifestación is official. Any unofficial protest, especially started or propagated via social media, is now illegal, and the organiser faces a fine of up to €600,000 (given certain conditions). It is not just the organiser who faces prosecution; parties who share information on a potential protest are also liable. The word ‘unofficial’ is the crucial one here, as the government does have provision to allow protests to take place.
So they can protest then?
Theoretically yes. The power of this law comes, in part, from how charitable the observer is. If we generously assume that the government will only block protests likely to incite terrorism or civil unrest, perhaps the result is less controversial. If we are not steadfastly committed to freedom of expression – which, post-9/11, fewer people really are – this is not too out of the ordinary. The law might even be seen to be protecting the populace. What remains is the possibility for the government to prohibit any demonstration that does not favour it, or is likely to stir up public resentment towards it, especially in times of severe austerity and rising left-wing political forces.
Did nobody oppose it?
The irony of a law that subdues protest is that protesting against it in the first place was futile. Studies conducted before its introduction (Metroscopia for Avaaz, 2014) show as little as 7% support. When the government are so strongly opposed, their mandate ‘from the people’ clearly should be no longer. (For more discussion on this, please see my previous article on representation).
Strong stuff. So is this El Acta PATRIOT then? (Spanish speakers please excuse my crude Anglicism!)
This law, though thirteen years too late, is arguably a Spanish equivalent of the now infamous USA PATRIOT Act. The parallels are obvious: both acts reduced civil liberties and sanctioned greater controls over internet traffic in the name of ‘public safety’ – one dressed up ostentatiously as patriotism and the other as the rather more benign ‘protection of civil security’. What the Spanish law lacks is the home-soil atrocity that inspired it. It seems to have come out of the blue.
Is terrorism a concern in Spain then?
Perhaps about as much as most other countries, although, in my experience, it is not as prevalent in the news. That doesn’t necessarily make it less of a concern. The real issue, though, is the act’s vagueness. We all intuitively know what terrorism is – all of our lives it has been defined by example in the media – yet this law effectively leaves it up to the government to define what a potential terrorist act is, or, in the case of police officers, what ‘disrespect’ entails. The upshot is that legal leeway is given to those enforcing the law.
So the Spanish government is protecting its citizens in the face of growing concerns about terrorism?
You might think so. The fact that the legislation appeared without any obvious motivation is curious. It would suggest that the act isn’t facing down jihadists or ETA, despite Artículo 575.2 prohibiting ‘frequent visiting’ of websites linked with terrorism or terrorist groups. For example, under the act, peacefully blocking home evictions (an increasingly common occurrence) is now a punishable offence.
There can be no doubt that the real target of this legislation is growing public opposition to government and its austerity measures. PP are deeply unpopular at the moment, with the glaring exception of the older generations – perversely those most likely to remember the death throes of the Dictadura. Perhaps it’s true what they say about you becoming more right-wing as you get older.
I thought the days of dictatorship were over in Spain..?
Yes, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the death Francisco Franco, and of the oppressive regime that he presided over in Spain. The era, though taboo, is within living memory, and hangs over more of Spanish culture than is immediately obvious. The new legislation does smack of authoritarianism, and, though I shan’t claim that this is a slippery slope towards the executions of old, equally it would be naïve to think that more restrictive legislation could not or will not come in during the coming years.
This law, for the foreign observer, does two things.
One, it raises questions regarding how we can legitimately define terms such as ‘terrorism’ and ‘disrespect’, in Spain and worldwide, as well as what are considered reasonable steps to protect a population/the police from them. To not question these terms would be to submit to the definitions of those who have power – to trust that they will not be abused.
Two, it shows that infringements on civil liberties in the western world are a real thing, and not the invention of jaded libertarians/conspiracy theorists. It shows a Western ‘democracy’ acting against its people, against their will and their interests, and to its own ends. A ex-Spanish colleague of mine (formerly my colleague, but perhaps soon formerly Spanish) sums it up infinitely better than I could: “Tienen miedo de que pensemos, pero sobre todo de que digamos lo que pensamos.”
They are afraid of us thinking, but more afraid of us saying what we think.
Tim Woolley, Features Spanish Correspondentbookmark me