Spain: 40K sanctions within first year of 'gag laws'

by Yolanda Quintada

Spain’s new security laws are violating journalists’ right to do their jobs, according to a new defence committee that is monitoring and contesting the legal reforms.

Ley Mordaza Protests_900X600 Protest against the 'gag laws' in Spain, Madrid, 20 December 2014. (Photo courtesy of the Platform for the Defence of Free Expression)

The Platform for the Defence of Free Expression (PDLI -“Plataforma en Defensa de la Libertad de Información”) is a new Spanish civil society group uniting journalists, lawyers, media houses, social movements and consumer advocates. It was founded in November 2014, arising out of their collective concern over threats to freedom of information and expression in Spain.

The economic and political crisis has inspired new forms of protest, supported in large part by freedom of information and greatly enabled by the Internet. The authorities have reacted with great force in attempting to squash their development, through initiatives that amount to violations of these vulnerable rights.

Recent abuses clearly highlight the precariousness of these essential rights in Spain. There have been legal reforms penalising the rights to protest and to disseminate information, such as the Organic Law Project on the Protection of Citizen Security, and impeding the normal function of the Internet, such as the changed Intellectual Property Law. There are rules which block access to justice, including court fees, or which neutralise the right to public information, as occurred with the poorly-named Transparency Law.

Moreover, there are practices which, through political power, seek control of the media. An example is the discretionary contracting of institutional advertising to ensure the survival of favoured media over those less favoured by the government.

Among its activities, the PDLI has given special emphasis to monitoring and disseminating information on attacks on freedom of expression against media workers and outlets, as well as against activists, social movements and citizens in general.

As part of its work, the PDLI has developed and launched, a collaborative online tool for the collection of data on legal threats to freedom of expression. The group has also sponsored campaigns in reaction to proposed laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression and information. It will launch training programs for journalists, activists and social movements on how to “safely” exercise both these rights.

Ley Mordaza Protests_placard 'Ley Mordaza' protest placard, which reads, 'Gag law, SHAMELESS DICTATORSHIP'. (Photo courtesy of the Platform for the Defence of Free Expression)

Triste cumpleaños: Spanish 'gag laws' turn one

July 1st marked the one-year anniversary of the implementation of the rules known collectively as 'Gag Law' - 'Ley Mordaza' - in Spain, i.e. the Law on Protection of Citizen Security and the double reform of the Criminal Code.

This combination of legal reforms represents a major threat to the freedom of information and expression of journalists and social movements. The PDLI has been calling attention to this since the parliamentary process began. This opinion is shared by experts of the United Nations, NGOs such as Amnesty International, groups of lawyers, and almost the entirety of the opposition parties in Spain.

From these ‘gag laws’, the one that has had the most direct impact on journalism has been the Law on Protection of Citizen Security: At least four media professionals have been sanctioned so far, with fines of more than 600 euros each, whilst they were covering newsworthy events for their outlets.

Overall, 40,000 sanctions were imposed within seven months of this law's application, according to statistics from the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In that time frame, 6,217 sanctions were processed for disrespecting the police, this being the second biggest cause for penalties. It entailed an average of 29.4 sanctions per day.

Moreover, 18 sanctions were imposed for the use of photos of police officers or of objects than can identify a member of the security forces; 71 were imposed for obstructing the authorities in complying with administrative resolutions; and 3,700 for disobedience or resistance to authorities or for refusal to show an ID document.

The main risk of this law (apart from its ambiguous reading, which allows for arbitrary interpretations) is that the sanctions are applied through administrative procedures, with no judicial intervention that can deliberate over a possible conflict of overlapping rights.

One of the most controversial articles is the one that considers as a serious offence “the non-authorised use of images or personal or professional data of authorities or members of the Spanish Forces and Security Bodies that can put the security of the officers or their families at risk”.  Fines can amount to as much as 30,000 euros.

The first case that surfaced among media professionals was the one related to Axier López, photographer and correspondent for the magazine Argia. He was fined with 601 euros for tweeting photographs of the detention of an activist in Eibar.

Almost at the same time, it became known that the photographer Miguel Ángel Valdivielso from El Diario de Burgos was also fined for “disobedience, resistance to authority,  [and] rejection to provide identification”. He had refused to delete photographs of a work accident that resulted in the death of a 24-year-old employee.

In mid-May, Mercè Alcocer, court reporter for Catalunya Ràdio, received a notification also for a fine of 601 euros. This was related to an alleged act of disobedience towards the authorities as she covered the declarations of the former president of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, and his wife, at the Spanish National High Court on 20 February.

Ley Mordaza Protest_Congress Protest against the 'Ley Mordaza' in front of Congress. (Photo courtesy of the Platform for the Defence of Free Expression)

"The courts and streets [are] the main battlefields"

The PDLI has reported to the Ombudsman of Spain the fines that were being imposed on journalists who were carrying out their duty to inform. This has lead the institution to address the Ministry of Internal Affairs, demanding explanations for these events.

The latest journalist to be fined has been Esther Yáñez, reporter from Diario Vice of Canal #0, allegedly for refusing to show her ID to the police, which she has denied. All of them have decided not to pay the fines that have been imposed and appeal against them, with the support of their media. In the event that their allegations are not considered they would have to resort to the courts, in a contested administrative procedure, which is normally a long and costly process.

The PDLI has passed on statistics related to the 'gag laws' to the Parliamentary Groups of the Congress, urging them to scrap the laws. But considering the electoral results in Spain from 26 June, it must be stated that there is not a sufficient parliamentary majority to derogate the three legislative reforms that comprise the ‘gag laws’. There is not an overall majority, and the Spanish People’s Party (Partido Popular, the parliamentary group with the most representatives) would have to reach agreements.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the Law on Protection of Citizen Security may be modified as far as the sanctions to journalists are concerned. For this purpose, and to “dissuade” the authorities from implementing the laws, attention regarding these matters must be necessarily kept on the related political and social agendas.

The PDLI considers that this situation turns the courts and the streets into the main battlefields against the 'gag laws'. In this scenario, the main actions intended by the PDLI, to be kick-started in the second semester of the year  - e.g. legal training, giving visibility to instances of abuse via - will be key elements.

Yolanda Quintada is the Executive Co-ordinator and General Secretary of the PDLI.

E-mail: / Twitter: @PDLI_