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Punk bands, filmmakers fear more muzzling by Spain’s controversial gag law

Critics of Citizen Safety Law and penal reform say Popular Party government punishing opinions as crimes

MADRID — On May 19 César Montaña Lehmann, the lead singer of the Spanish rap-rock band Def Con Dos, was arrested by military police and accused of inciting terrorism. According to police sources, various tweets led to his arrest.

On January 2014, Lehmann, aka César Strawberry, posted a dig against the newly created right-wing party Vox and its leader, José Antonio Ortega Lara, a former prison officer who was kidnapped by the armed Basque separatist group ETA in the mid-1990s and held captive for more than a year. “Ortega Lara should be kidnapped now,” Montaña tweeted, assailing Ortega Lara for his opposition to abortion and the autonomous regions system.

In another tweet he criticized the leading Popular Party candidate for mayor of Madrid while invoking the resurgence of an armed leftist group dormant since 2007, posting, "Esperanza Aguirre’s unashamed fascism even makes me long for GRAPO.”

César Montaña Lehmann, front left, of the band Def Con Dos was arrested for posting tweets that disparaged political leaders.
GDA / AP Images

But Lehmann’s case is just one in a torrent of recent conflicts between Spain’s local and national authorities and its cultural community. Protests have been sparked around the country by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party’s overhaul of the penal code in March and passage of a security law that will broadly restrict public gatherings and impose heavy fines on those who disobey.

U.N experts have criticized the penal reform for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorist offenses and what constitutes incitement, glorification and justification — the provisions under which Lehmann was arrested.

He was released four hours after his arrest and issued a statement in which he expressed his astonishment. “I understand and regret that certain tweets upset certain people,” the singer stated by way of apology. “But there’s no way I could have predicted that the state would respond by restricting the freedom of a political dissident who voiced satirical thoughts. I’ve always believed that in democracy, thinking isn’t a crime.”

However the legal situation for outspoken critics like Lehmann and others could worsen when the controversial ley mordaza, or “gag law,” goes into effect July 1.

Officially known as the Citizen Safety Law, it was approved on March 26 exclusively through the votes of the Popular Party and will make many forms of public gathering and demonstration illegal. It bars protesters from assembling outside Congress, requires permission from the local council before any public gathering may be held and imposes steep fines for anyone caught breaking the rules.

Organizers of unauthorized rallies could be slapped with a 600,000 euro fine, and protesters and journalists can face fines of up to 30,000 euros for unauthorized use of photos of police. This last charge, the Committee to Protect Journalists warns, appears to have been designed to prevent journalists and citizens from documenting police abuses.

The new security law is widely considered an attempt to limit political protests, and the arts and media communities are increasingly finding themselves caught in what they see as a censorship storm.

In April, the municipal government canceled a concert by thrash-hardcore band Soziedad Alkoholika in Madrid after a military police report predicted public disturbances “endangering people and property.”

“This is an arbitrary decision. Our concerts comply with the rules. What they want is to silence us. It’s an offense against freedom of expression,” the band’s frontman, Juan Manuel Aceña, told Al Jazeera.

“We have the tendency to create a ruckus because we’re Basque,” he said, explaining why a public disturbance was anticipated. “But in 25 years in this game, we’ve never deliberately caused a disturbance. The state is slandering and criminalizing us. In the past, they’ve tried to stop us exercising our right to play live, taking us to the Audiencia Nacional, to a tribunal created to handle crimes linked to terrorism. The judge acquitted us, and the Supreme Court of Justice upheld the verdict.”

Censorship of Basque musicians is not uncommon in Spain. Pressure groups like the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, a human rights group that advocates for victims of ETA attacks and receives grants from several government ministries, use lawsuits and threats of uncontrollable demonstrations to force venue operators to cancel shows.

“There’s a lot of censorship of Basque groups, and the far right that governs Spain believes that everything that’s debatable should really be criminalized,” Aceña said. 

Asked to comment on his accusations, the municipal government endorsed the police report. “All the information of the case is in the police report,” said Rebeca Gil, a spokeswoman for the City Council. She deemed the case no longer relevant because “it happened rather a long time ago.” 

“Abiding by the [police reports] is a common tactic when the word ‘censorship’ flies during election time,” said Cristina Fallarás, a Spanish journalist and political commentator. “And censorship has become a common practice, so is hardly noticeable anymore.”

‘In Spain we are in a delicate moment in which citizens’ civil rights are at stake. Whenever the powers that be feel threatened, they proceed to restrict freedom.’

Gonzalo Boye

human rights attorney

On May 24, local elections took place across Spain, and regional elections were held in 13 of the 17 autonomous communities. However, many candidates — not only members of Popular Party but also the leading opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party — appeared unwilling to address the issue of Spanish censorship, a subject that has raised eyebrows in the international media.

Human rights experts and civil society have expressed concern.

Maina Kiai, a U.N. special expert on the right to peaceful assembly, insists that the Citizen Safety Law “unnecessarily and disproportionately” restricts basic freedoms such as the collective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion.

“In Spain we are in a delicate moment in which citizens’ civil rights are at stake,” said Gonzalo Boye, human rights attorney at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. “Whenever the powers that be feel threatened, they proceed to restrict freedom. There’s the feeling in the spheres of power that this law must be defended and targeted towards crimes of opinion, just like in totalitarian regimes.”

In a country that has experienced significant popular outbursts since the street demonstrations that swept Spain in the summer of 2011, a law that puts a sock in all manner of protests has been widely rejected by Spaniards. A poll carried out by Metroscopia in December 2014 showed that 82 percent of respondents wanted it repealed or significantly changed.

For Boye, the government’s fear of organized protest has directly influenced the latest censorship moves. “Spanish law represses demonstrations, the right to record the images and sounds of discriminatory police actions, to criticize certain people, voice opinions or express views about aspects of the various religions,” he said. “There’s even legal mollycoddling of the head of state when it comes to talking about him and his family.”

“Haute Couture 04 Transport,” by Ines Doujak, part of the controversial exhibition “The Beast and the Sovereign” at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, March 21, 2015. The show was canceled, then restored, but the show’s curators were fired, and the museum’s director resigned.
Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images

Images of King Juan Carlos I unleashed strife at Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art in March when a show titled “The Beast and the Sovereign” was canceled by museum director Bartomeu Marí, who deemed one of the pieces in the show “inappropriate.” The offending sculpture — “Haute Couture 04 Transport,” by Ines Doujak — depicts the king being sodomized by a figure inspired by working-class feminist Bolivian leader Domitila Barrios, who is in turn being taken from behind by a German shepherd, all atop Nazi helmets.

After the exhibition was restored and opened several days later, its curators, Valentí Roma and Paul B. Preciado, were fired. Shortly afterward, Marí resigned.

Roma and Preciado declined to comment for this article, and the museum management abides by its official statement released at the time, in which it claimed to have “lost trust” in the artistic directors and regretted “that the disagreement between professionals has transcended the sphere of constructive dialog that should govern the relationship among the directors of a public institution and has generated unwelcome controversy.”

The unwelcome controversy at the museum, art critic Mercè Ibarz believes, has had a chilling effect. “Even after the controversy, nobody talks about the exhibition,” she wrote in El País. “Not the critics, not the artists, not the gallery owners, not the many curators … not even the media breathe a word of it … Thought is not a crime!”

Controversy also surrounded the award-winning documentary “Ciutat Morta” (“Dead City”), which followed a group of young people arrested in February 2006 after a local police officer was critically wounded in Barcelona during the eviction of a squat party. The event led to arrests and prison sentences of up to five years. One of the young convicts, Patricia Heras, committed suicide while on conditional release in 2011. The whole group claimed innocence and reported abuse by the police.

Catalan Public Television initially refused to screen the documentary but later reversed its decision in the face of protests. The documentary aired on Jan. 17, 2015, received top ratings and eventually won a Barcelona City Hall prize for best audiovisual production.

After accepting the award, directors Xapo Ortega and Xavier Artigas refused to shake the mayor’s hand. Artigas recently claimed the gesture, which received widespread attention, cost him his job as an audiovisual freelancer for the public Institute of Culture. “I've suffered a personal vendetta that has political motives,” he said.

The institute asserts that his dismissal was part of normal staff turnover. The councilor for culture, Jaume Ciurana, said he decided to exclude Artigas from its payroll after reviewing a list of his audiovisual projects for the institute.

Artigas insists his dismissal was purely political, due to the documentary’s criticism of the local government. “The City Hall’s attitude is that they own everything,” he said. “They confuse institutions with their own, hiring and firing as they please, and if they think we’re showing disrespect, this is their revenge.”

Most recently, controversy over censorship and media reached RTVE, the national public radio and TV channel.

A report by RTVE’s board, published June 3, condemned “the ever greater omission, censorship or distortion of information and the unequal assessment and informative treatment of news, according to whether it is favorable or unfavorable to the thesis of the government and of the [Popular Party].”

The controversy over the relationship between government and public channels has affected private media. On June 7, Rajoy strongly criticized television companies Mediaset and Atresmedia, accusing them of “being contradictory” in their coverage of the leftist Podemos movement and government corruption cases such as the tax fraud and money-laundering charges against former treasurer and senator Luis Bárcenas.

Media commentators around Spain read it as a warning ahead of Spain’s general election.

“Corruption cases have had a strong negative impact in public opinion, and Rajoy knows it,” said Fallarás. “The pretense of neutrality is over in media. The government knows that media coverage is vital for the forthcoming November elections.”

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