The Struggle for Free Speech in Spain

Published on 25 February 2021 at 14:04

Last week, Spanish rapper Pablo Hasél was sentenced to nine months in prison after being convicted of “glorifying violence” and insulting Spanish royalty over past Tweets and through content in his lyrics. This has sparked days of unrest across the country which, at the time of publication, are still ongoing. Activists have condemned the rappers’ conviction and sentence as an attack on freedom of expression.


Hasél’s music often features political content in favour of Catalonian independence and has previously praised armed terror groups. In addition, Hasél has targeted the Spanish government, police and royal family for criticism. He has previously been arrested and bailed for praising “Camarada Arenas”, who was a member of the now-defunct terror group GRAPO, in his lyrics.


In addition to his lyrics, Spanish authorities charged Hasél for content on his Twitter feed in which he praised GRAPO and other terror groups. In particular, he was convicted of “glorifying terrorism” over his tweet praising a GRAPO militant who was shot dead in a shootout with police in 1982.


After defying the court’s order to serve his sentence, Hasél barricaded himself in a university premises.  Riot police broke through the barricade and arrested Hasél as he and his supporters shouted slogans condemning the sentence. A week after this episode, protests are still continuing across Spain. In addition to calling for Hasél’s release, activists have called for laws to be amended so that freedom of expression is granted greater protection.


This is not the first time Spanish authorities have arrested and convicted citizens over matters related to speech. Mass protests were held in Catalonia in 2017 demanding that a referendum on Catalonian independence be held that year. Despite the Spanish court system’s rejection of this demand and its attempts to prevent its occurrence, organisers proceeded with the referendum anyway. This resulted in a vote in favour of independence (albeit with a low turnout).


In addition to shutting down polling stations and confiscating ballot boxes containing up to 770,000 ballots, Spanish police raided several buildings and arrested fourteen senior Catalan officials involved in organising the referendum. Even prior to the referendum, over 700 mayors of Catalonian cities were summoned for questioning by Spanish authorities over their support of the vote.


The Spanish government continued its harsh response to the referendum well into 2019 when it sentenced nine organisers of the referendum to between nine and thirteen years in prison on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. This sparked days of protests and street battles between activists and riot police in cities across Catalonia.


This latest incident highlighting concerns over freedom of expression in Spain underscore the challenges the country has had in its transition to democracy following the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.  While free elections and peaceful transfers of power have taken place since the 1980s, numerous incidents in recent years, including the Spanish authorities’ crackdown on Catalonia’s independence referendum and Pablo Hasél’s conviction have highlighted Spain’s shortcomings on protecting freedom of expression.


Indeed, the law under which Hasél has been convicted was not conceived during Franco’s reign, but in 2015 during the term of the conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy’s ‘People’s Party’. The current government has pledged to reform the country’s penal code to facilitate greater freedom of expression. However, this initiative remains in its early stages, and it is unclear whether Spanish lawmakers are interested in protecting freedom of expression. What is clear for the moment is that Hasél’s conviction is not likely to be overturned and that, having been detained, the rapper looks set to serve his full term in prison.

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