A hologram of protesters is projected outside parliament in Madrid on April 10 in opposition to Spain's restrictive 'gag law,' which bans rallies near government buildings and threatens fines for photographing police. (Reuters/Susana Vera)
A hologram of protesters is projected outside parliament in Madrid on April 10 in opposition to Spain's restrictive 'gag law,' which bans rallies near government buildings and threatens fines for photographing police. (Reuters/Susana Vera)

Why Spain’s new gag law is threat to free flow of information

On July 1 a public security law is due to come into force in Spain amid an increasingly vocal chorus of concern among the media and press freedom groups. The bill–dubbed the “ley mordaza,” or “gag law,” by opposition groups–would define protests in front of parliament and other government buildings as a “disturbance of public safety,” and ban the “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities or riot police. The punishment for either offense will be a €30,000 ($33,000) fine.

Protests have been a frequent feature in Spain in the past five years amid social unrest at austerity measures and budgetary cuts. While the level of street agitation has declined recently, figures published by the government showed the number of demonstrations reached an historic high of 36,000 during the first year President Mariano Rajoy and his conservative Partido Popular party were in office in 2012, according to local media.

The point of the public security law appears to be an attempt by the ruling party, which controls both houses of Parliament, “to maintain its hold on power by discouraging the anti-austerity protests that have snowballed into widespread support for the populist Podemos party,” a New York Times editorial argued last week. This year, Spain has no less than five elections, including local and regional ones this month and national parliamentary elections at the end of the year.

With the election year adding urgency to the need to address concerns about the gag law and other press freedom issues, a group of organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and led by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), undertook a fact-finding mission to Spain in December 2014. Mission delegates held more than 35 meetings over four days with members of the media and civil society, and government actors in Madrid and Barcelona. Participating alongside CPJ were representatives from Access Info Europe, the European Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and the Open Society Foundation.

The mission looked into the public security law and other concerns, such as threats to the independence of Spain’s public broadcaster, a transparency law that Coalición Pro Acceso, a network of civil society groups, has described as flawed, and a trend reported by local media of public officials holding “question-less” press conferences. In response to the last concern, the Spanish Federation of Press Associations launched a campaign in 2011 under the logo #sinpreguntasnohaycobertura (Without Questions No Coverage.”)

Participating organizations shared the concern about the “censorial spirit” perceived in the security bill which, according to news reports, was adopted in March with the sole support of the ruling party. According to its provisions, people who gather in spontaneous protests near utilities, transportation hubs, nuclear power plants or similar facilities would face–as the Times described it–a “jaw-dropping” fine of up to €600,000.

Local and international press groups are particularly concerned by the law’s ban on the unauthorized use of images of law enforcement authorities or police–a measure seemingly aimed at photographers, camera crews or ordinary citizens with cameras documenting police action during protests. Such “use” would draw a €30,000 fine. According to the IPI mission report published last month, the vague wording of the law (see article 36/23) “potentially offers security forces carte blanche to prevent journalists from carrying out their work.”

The bill has received intense domestic criticism. On April 30, the Madrid Press Association expressed its concern in a statement, released before World Press Freedom Day on May 3, about the setback in press freedom issues after “the approval of the so-called ‘gag law,’ which weakens said rights by imposing sanctions on the taking of photographs or the recording of security forces and agents while exercising their public duties.”

A more imaginative protest against the gag law took place on April 10, when opposition group No Somos Delito (We Are Not a Crime) projected a hologram of protesting marchers filing in front of the parliament building in the center of Madrid. The virtual demonstration was covered worldwide as the “world’s first hologram protest,” according to the UK’s Independent.

Nothing can prevent the law from coming into force in July. But several opposition parties have already said they will try to overrule it in the next parliament.

The fact-finding mission in December “confirmed that freedom of expression and the press enjoy widespread protection in Spain.” The mission report added: “While media freedom in Spain remains robust and certainly comparable to its European neighbors, at such a critical moment for the Spanish public there is a need to ensure maximum access to the free flow of information.”

The full report is available here in English and Spanish.