In a February 13, 2022 photo, demonstrators in Madrid, Spain, hold a sign saying "neither the gag law nor disguised law" in protest of proposed reforms to a Spanish security law that they say don't go far enough. (AFP/Oscar Del Pozo)

Spain is set to reform ‘gag law,’ but press freedom groups are skeptical

In May, Diego Díaz Alonso, editor of Spanish non-profit news outlet Nortes, was surprised to receive a 601 euro (US$611) fine in the mail. The letter claimed that Díaz Alonso had resisted police and obstructed emergency services as they were treating a homeless person lying unconscious in the street in Gijón, in northern Spain, the previous summer. But Díaz Alonso told CPJ he was at the scene as a journalist and did not resist or obstruct anyone. He said that his July 2021 report alleging excessive police force against the homeless is what drew the authorities’ ire–and the fine. 

“They were not happy to have me as uncomfortable witness to their unprofessional behavior,” he said in a video call with CPJ. 

The police letter claimed that Díaz Alonso had violated the Law on the Protection of Public Safety, he said. Introduced in 2015 by Spain’s conservative government, which at the time was beset with anti-austerity protests, the law gives extensive powers to police to ensure public order. Critics, including human rights groups, dubbed it the “ley mordaza” or “gag law,” claiming it would be abused by authorities to muzzle protests and sanction dissent. Plataforma por la Libertad de Información (PLI), a local independent press freedom organization, has called it a tool for “camouflaged censorship” to intimidate or retaliate against journalists reporting on police actions by fining them.

Spain’s current government is led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, which criticized the law when it was in opposition. In April, the party announced that it would amend the law. However, journalists and press freedom advocates who spoke with CPJ ahead of the current parliamentary session, which began September 6, remained skeptical whether the clauses most criticized by journalists, including those on disobeying, disrespecting, or resisting authority, would be removed. Parliament has not yet set a date for discussion of these reforms. 

“I don’t think anything will happen,” said freelance photojournalist Mireai Comas, who successfully appealed a fine under the law. “We have been trying for years to revoke the most problematic clauses of the law, but all our efforts were in vain.”

In June, the PLI, other rights groups, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Javier Bauluz—who was fined under the law in 2020—discussed the law’s reform with parliament members from several different parties. The meeting was “not positive,” said PLI secretary general Yolanda Quintana, as lawmakers have not committed to removing or reforming articles PLI says impact journalists. One reason could be the influence of powerful police trade unions, which oppose “gag law” reforms, according to news reports. 

“The law is an obstacle to journalists who independently report on police and who wouldn’t want to buy their version of events,” said Díaz Alonso, who refused to pay the fine, and filed an appeal. He said that the testimony of an emergency services worker as well as a video support his version of events, but he’s not sure these will help his case should it appear before an administrative court. “This law makes it almost impossible to stand up to the police’s version and refute the words of a policeman,” he said.

“The police’s version is the presumed truth,” Quintana told CPJ in an email, explaining why many journalists are reluctant to hire expensive attorneys to appeal the fines. “If they make their calculations, it is often better to just pay the fine,” she said. 

Although PLI has no records on the number of journalists fined under the law, Quintana believes that many covering protests have been targeted under the law’s articles on disobeying, disrespecting, or resisting authority. Between 2015 and 2020, the most recent date for which statistics were available, authorities issued some 397,083 fines under these three articles, out of a total of 1,155,727 “gag law” fines, online newspaper Público reported. PLI has called these the “most harmful articles” for press freedom because they embody “vague concepts” open to interpretation by the authorities. 

Comas told CPJ via phone that she felt “totally powerless” when she received a 601 euro (US$611) fine in January for disobeying a policeman in June 2021 in Terrassa, a city in Catalonia. She was fined after refusing to delete a photo she took of an officer participating in an eviction. Comas, who had been acquitted on accusations of assaulting authorities while reporting in a 2020 case, knew to keep her camera rolling during the incident. This footage was key to convincing an administrative court to drop the fine in February. Comas paid more double the fine (1,400 euros or US$1,394) in legal fees, which were covered by a press freedom organization, she said. 

During the administrative court hearings, Comas said she identified herself as a journalist during the incident and that her refusal to delete the photo did not violate the gag law because she never published the photo. According to a 2018 Ministry of Interior instruction, publishing a photograph that could endanger an officer’s safety is against the law, but simply taking a photograph of an officer is not. 

Comas said that freelance reporters, who don’t have the backing of news organizations, are especially vulnerable to fines, leading them to self-censor. “Reporters become scared and prefer to stay away from reporting on police. For months, I too chose not to take photos when police were present. I just did not want any more trouble,” she said.

In Bauluz’s case, he was issued two fines totaling 1,060 euros (US$1,053) for allegedly disrespecting police and failing to identify himself as reporter as he was trying to document what he described as “inhumane” conditions for migrants and refugees on the docks of Arguineguín on the island of Gran Canaria in November 2020. Police, he said, typically did not allow journalists to get close, but he arrived at the docks before they cordoned the area and began taking photographs. Soon, he said, a policeman arrived and ordered him to leave, grabbing him by the arm and accusing him of insulting him, according to footage Balauz posted on Twitter. The officer also threatened him with a fine under the gag law, he said.

Bauluz, who denies the police allegations, said he did not appeal and that the fines were seized from his bank account after he refused to pay in protest. He said the law, which he believes police use to prevent reporting on human rights, is “not democratic” because police can issue fines without having to prove the guilt of the fined. “Police says what they feel like saying, they do not need to prove anything, they can just simply issue a fine,” he said. “It treats people as if they were cars and motorbikes which do not have the right to defense,” he told CPJ.

CPJ emailed Spain’s interior ministry, which oversees the police, and a representative refused to comment on both individual journalists’ cases and the planned reform because the law is under parliamentary discussion. 

Quintana, meanwhile, emphasized that pressure, especially from international press freedom organizations, will be crucial in discussions over the reforms. “Freedom of the press is a fundamental right that can only be limited on an exceptional basis,” she said. “These clauses have been used to disproportionately and arbitrarily prevent journalists from informing the public.” 

Editor’s note: The spelling of Pulitzer has been corrected in the sixth paragraph. Javier Bauluz’s response to the fine has been corrected in the 14th paragraph.