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13th March 2018, 00:01:35 UTC

An exponential increase in the number of people falling foul of a draconian law banning the “glorification of terrorism” or “humiliating victims of terrorism” is part of a sustained attack on freedom of expression in Spain, a new report from Amnesty International has found. Tweet…if you dare: How counter-terrorism laws restrict freedom of expression in Spain reveals that scores of ordinary social media users as well as musicians, journalists and even puppeteers have been prosecuted on grounds of national security. This has had a profoundly chilling effect, creating an environment in which people are increasingly afraid to express alternative views, or make controversial jokes.

“Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain. People should not face criminal prosecution simply for saying, tweeting or singing something that might be distasteful or shocking. Spain’s broad and vaguely-worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland.

Under Article 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code those deemed to have “glorified terrorism” or “humiliated the victims of terrorism or their relatives” – no matter how vague these terms are – face fines, bans from jobs in the public sector and even prison sentences. The number of people charged under this Article increased from three in 2011 to 39 in 2017 and nearly 70 people were convicted in the last two years alone.

Since 2014, four coordinated police operations – dubbed the “Spider Operations” – led to scores of people arrested for posting messages on social media platforms, in particular Twitter and Facebook. Lawyer Arkaitz Terrón says he was “treated like a terrorist” for nine tweets including a joke about the assassination by ETA of Franco-era prime minister, Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973. He was charged with “glorifying terrorism” but later acquitted. Another man, J.C.V., who was given a one year suspended sentence for 13 Tweets, told Amnesty International that “[t]he objective is to create a climate of self-censorship in the population. And they succeeded with me.”

Cassandra Vera, a 22-year old student, received a one year suspended  jail sentence in 2017 for “humiliating” the victims of terrorism by also making jokes on Twitter about Luis Carrero Blanco, who was killed 44 years ago by an ETA bomb that lifted his car 20 metres into the sky. “Not only did ETA have a policy about official cars, they also had a space programme,” she joked. The sentence resulted in the loss of her university scholarship and disqualified her from employment in the public sector for seven years.

Among those who came to Cassandra’s defence was Luis Carrero Blanco’s niece who said she was “fearful of a society where freedom of expression, however regrettable it may be, could lead to imprisonment”. While her statement was submitted as part of Cassandra’s defence, it had no impact on the case because the law applies regardless of the actual views of victims of terrorism or their relatives. In a positive development, earlier this month, Spain’s Supreme Court overturned Cassandra’s conviction.

Whilst the threat of terror is very real and protecting national security can in certain instances be legitimate grounds for restricting freedom of expression, Spain’s broad and vague law against “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating” its victims is stifling artistic expression. In December twelve rappers from the collective “La Insurgencia” were fined, sentenced to more than two years in prison each, and banned from working in the public sector for lyrics deemed to “glorify” the armed group GRAPO. They are appealing the sentence but they are just some of many artists who have been prosecuted under the law.

Even journalists attempting to document the crackdown under Article 578 have fallen foul of its provisions with one filmmaker being prosecuted for a film he made in which he interviewed several people who had themselves been prosecuted on charges of “glorifying terrorism”.

While Article 578 was broadened in 2015 in response to the Paris attacks and the perceived threat of international terrorism, the vast majority of the cases brought under the law relate to disbanded or inactive domestic armed groups, namely ETA and GRAPO. An EU Directive on combating terrorism, which problematically includes “glorification” as an example of expression that may be criminalised, is due to be implemented across Europe by September 2018. The lesson from Spain must be that vaguely defined offences such as “glorification of terrorism” and “humiliation” of its victims seriously endanger the right to freedom of expression.

“Spain is emblematic of a disturbing trend which has seen states across Europe unduly restricting expression on the pretext of national security and stripping away rights under the guise of defending them.  Rapping is not a crime, tweeting a joke is not terrorism and holding a puppet show should not land you in jail. Governments should uphold the rights of victims of terrorism, rather than stifling free speech in their name. Spain’s draconian law must be repealed and all charges brought against anyone solely for peacefully expressing themselves must be dropped,” said Colm O’Gorman.

Notes for editors:

In March, a proposal to amend Article 578 is expected to be tabled in Parliament. Laws similar to Spain’s have been proposed in Belgium and the Netherlands. For Amnesty International’s 2017 report Dangerously disproportionate: The ever-expanding national security state in Europe visit https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/01/eu-orwellian-counter-terrorism-laws-stripping-rights-under-guise-of-defending-them/

On 20 October 2011, ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty) declared a permanent ceasefire, which was followed by its disarmament in 2017. GRAPO (First of October Anti-Fascist Resistance Groups) has been inactive since 2007.