There was an air of optimistic anarchy as protestors took over Puerta del Sol in
Madrid, set up a tent village, and began to form citizen-action groups. Many of us who participated in the manifestation known as 15M, or “Los Indignados” on May 15, 2011, were amazed at the torpid response of the media as the protest became a movement and spread rapidly via social media through many parts of the world. The lack of serious press coverage for a massive global event that involved millions of people protesting simultaneously seemed suspiciously irresponsible. Many of us couldn’t help but wonder if the press were being told to downplay the story or not cover it at all.
As a result of 15M and other protest movements, a new law was introduced in 2013 and finally voted into effect by the Partido Popular, which had an absolute majority, in 2015.
This change to the Spanish Penal Code gave the police unprecedented and unchecked powers to quell protests, stifle social media organizing, and prosecute criticism, jokes and insults levelled at Spanish politicians, the police themselves, the royal family or the Catholic church. The law, which was outlined in very broad and vague terms, was wide open to highly dubious interpretations by Spanish police, security forces and the judiciary.
Officially called La Ley Organica De Seguridad Ciudadana, it is more commonly known among the Spanish public as La Ley Mordaza (the Gag Law).
One of the more notorious cases of artists prosecuted for violating La Ley Mordaza is that of rap artist Voltonyc, whose lyrics were deemed as an incitement to terrorism and who was subsequently sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
There have also been many lesser known cases involving journalists, photographers, protestors, tweeters, Facebook-posters, puppeteers, musicians, rappers, stilt-walkers and even plain citizens who looked cross-eyed at Spanish police officials being jailed or fined. The fines have proven a steady source of income for the Spanish government, which had reportedly collected nearly 270 million euros in fines incurred by La Ley Mordaza by 2018, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais.
On World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2019, a group of journalists known as the Federacion de Associaciones de Periodistas published a letter warning against the continued threat to free speech and journalism posed by La Ley Mordaza and soliciting Spain’s new government to annul it. The letter further states, “Only the reinforcement of the freedom of the press can counteract the offensive of those who want to stop journalists from exercising an independent control of power.”
Investigative journalist Eduardo Martin de Pozuelo of Barcelona’s La Vanguardia and 1985 Ortega y Gasset Journalism prize-winner for his book “10 years of the Mafia in Spain”, has written extensively about corruption in Spain.
Speaking about free speech and censorship in an exclusive interview with El Vaquero in Barcelona, Martin said he has never been censored in his work because he dealt strictly in documentable facts and not opinions. He felt he would always be able to publish somewhere if he were given his professional resources and the Internet.
Nonetheless, there were many subtle types of self-censorship a journalist might face in the realities of the job. He gave as examples such as pressure from an editor, publisher or media owner to focus more on one story than another, but regarding La Ley Mordaza (a term he declined to use), he stated his belief that “Information belongs to the citizens.”
The degree of self-censorship imposed by the gag law and its effect on Spanish culture is incalculable. Director of Amnesty International in Spain Estaban Beltran wrote regarding La Ley Mordaza, “Spain’s broad and vaguely-worded law is resulting in the silencing of free speech and the crushing of artistic expression.”
Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s campaign promises to Spain’s citizens included annulling La Ley Mordaza, which he has not yet done, despite intense pressure from activist groups. Sanchez is struggling to form a coalition among the many political parties now represented in Spain’s splintered government and may face another election before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Spanish police find the law a useful tool to stifle protests and generate income. Of course there are other influential factors besides the elected government which include the EU, the monarchy and the ultra-powerful Spanish Catholic church.
Among the groups which have spearheaded prosecution for insults to the Catholic Church is Los Abogados Cristianos (Christian Lawyers), a group of 80 lawyers whose mission statement reads “Among our ends one finds the legal defense of religious freedom, life, family and of all citizens who see their rights and freedoms injured because of their faith.” Their website also includes a handy form for denouncing blasphemy, sacrilege and perceived religious insults.
A. Heimer can be reached at [email protected]