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Spain's freedom of speech repression is no joke

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For the most part, social media users are free to express their opinions online. In Spain, however, that’s not the case.

Cassandra Vera, a 21-year-old student from the city of Murcia in the south-east of Spain, has been sentenced to a year in prison, and disqualified from public functions for seven years, after making jokes on Twitter that “glorified terrorism”.

Between 2013 and 2016, Vera published 13 tweets that commented on terrorist group ETA’s assassination of former Spanish dictator Luis Carrero Blanco, which happened in 1973.

Ruling on her crime, judges in the National Audience, Spain’s top criminal court, stated that Vera’s tweets: “Constitute contempt, dishonour, disrepute, mockery and affront to the people who have suffered the blow of terrorism.”

Though the victims of terrorism do, as noted by the judges, deserve “respect and consideration”, the prison sentence has caused outcry in Spain. These kinds of jokes have been repeated publicly since the day of the attack. Luis Carrero Blanco’s granddaughter herself has even written that though the jokes were in bad taste, she is “scared of a society in which freedom of expression … can lead to jail sentences”.

The judges were following the law but their interpretation is questionable. The European Parliament has made it crystal clear that for there to be an offence of glorification or justification of terrorism, it has to be understood “as a way to gather support for terrorist causes or to seriously intimidate the population”. It should, according to the parliament, only be punished “when it causes a danger that terrorist acts may be committed”.

A Spanish Civil Guard who investigated the case declared that he had no idea if Vera’s profile had the potential to lead to such repercussions.

A Spanish wave of repression?

Vera’s is not alone in her tweet conviction. At least 70 more people have been accused of the same crime. Rapper César Strawberry has been sentenced to prison, too, and a group of puppeteers were given custody without bail for making jokes about ETA, though they were later absolved.

Nor is Vera’s conviction an isolated issue. It is another act in a trend of repression that has been building since the conservative Popular Party (PP) won the 2011 parliamentary election.

Reacting to the Indignados anti-austerity protests of that year, the PP has since put a lot of effort into suppressing any kind of resistance of this sort – even being accused of creating a political police to do so.

In 2013, the government started preparing a controversial “protection of citizen security” law to support their actions. Commonly known as the “gag law”, the now enacted legislation gives Spanish police the right to fine citizens for what they consider to be an interference to their job or contempt of authority.

Since it was passed, Spanish society, with a mix of fury, impotence and incredulity, has witnessed people being fined after posting, for instance, a complaint about their local authority on Facebook. Another was fined for carrying a bag with the acronym “ACAB” and the slogan “All Cats Are Beautiful”, with a cat’s face; the police read the acronym as “All Cops Are Bastards”.

But Vera’s conviction has been the last straw, prompting calls from new left-wing political party Podemos for the suppression of the law. The Socialists have agreed that it needs revision.

Backwards and forwards

The inanity and lack of clear reasons the prosecutors have for considering tweets “a real threat” or a cause of “social alarm” as stated in the law is worrying in itself, but the matter goes deeper, and has many – including Amnesty International – worrying about the future of freedom of speech in the country.

Spain is fighting back but the people are facing tough opposition from a government which is intent on anything it considers to be the wrong type of “speech”. In this sense, Vera has been a warning, but she has become a symbol of the resistance, too, with countless people showing their support online by using the hashtag #YoSoyCassandra (“I am Cassandra”). Political parties, such as the traditional Spanish left-wing coalition IU, and Podemos, have also retweeted the jokes as a reaction to what is widely considered a disproportional and unfair sentence. But the law still stands.

Since the Indignados demonstrations, Spain has become home to new movements of resistance, as the public sphere is co-opted to give everyone a voice. And yet the use of the glorification of terrorism law gives the impression that Spain is walking backwards towards its pre-constitutional history. It is not quite there yet, but for a country that has been a world leader on many other social liberties – progressive abortion law and same-sex marriage rights, to name two – it is hard not to feel, as the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said, that “Spain hurts”.

The ConversationFederico López-Terra received funding (PhD scholarship 2008-2011) from the Spanish National Research Council.

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