MADRID — Every Monday, the free speech activist group No Somos Delito — “We Are Not a Crime” — gathers in a graffiti-adorned building in Barrio Malasaña, Madrid’s creative district. This time, they are planning an ambitious mass protest in front of Parliament, targeting a law that would ban exactly such a demonstration.
Among other restrictions, the Spanish Citizens Security Law, also called the “ley mordaza” or “gag law,” set to take effect on July 1, would deem demonstrations in front of government buildings a “disturbance of public safety,” punishable by a fine of 30,000 euro ($33,700). Some protests would carry the maximum fine of 600,000 euro ($674,000).
“The best way to defend our right to protest is to protest,” said No Somos Delito member Alba Villanueva, 30, leaning back in her wooden chair as light from a single swaying bulb is enveloped by twilight sun streaming through the balcony windows.
“We always use positive images of happiness, about democracy, about how together we can stop this law,” she said. “We have a lot of power if we are together.”
In April, No Somos Delito received international attention for what is believed to be the world’s first hologram demonstration. A “virtual march” of thousands was projected on a screen in front of Spain’s Parliament, allowing voices of the organization to be heard without risk of arrest. Villanueva said with the threat of the impending law, the group is always trying to devise new methods of protest.
She believes this spirit of positivity in their demonstrations is crucial to gaining support, countering government attempts to instill fear in the citizens.
Experts say the new provisions are an effort by the Spanish government to diminish the number of protests. The multifaceted, 27-page Security Law dates back to 1992, but these controversial additions were introduced in 2013 by the conservative Popular Party (PP), and passed by parliament in December 2014. Until elections in May, the PP held the majority in both houses of parliament meaning that there is hope the law could be amended. But there is no guarantee and time is running out.
Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, Spain has seen a large number of demonstrations — some violent — against social and austerity issues. There were more than 36,000 protests nationwide in 2012 alone, according to Borja Bergareche, innovation director at Spanish multimedia outlet Vocento and European advisor of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The regulations are the government’s response to seeing more unrest in the country over the past several years, said Bergareche.
“[The government] thought that this was a tool for them to quell or quench the image the country was getting…by the publication of images of hostile action,” said Bergareche. “There’s a causality relationship between what has happened in the country in the past five years and this bill.”
Aside from preventing protests, the law would also prohibit the “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities and riot police, also punishable by a large fine.
According to the PP, in the 22 years since the law has been updated, scrutiny of police via technology has compromised official operations and spurred the need for a new law appropriate to the demands of the 21st century.
“The main goal is to adjust the law to the circumstances of our time,” said Iñaki Oyarzábal Secretary of Justice and Public Freedoms at the PP.
But opponents of the law say documenting authorities at protests is necessary to protect citizens.
Spanish populist party Podemos, the PP’s greatest adversary, has been vocal about its disapproval of the law.
“This law is going to sanction people who take pictures or videos of policemen,” said Lorena Ruiz-Huerta, a lawyer specializing in the “ley mordaza” and member of the Citizens Council of Podemos in Madrid.
Ruiz-Huerta said over the past few years during the height of protests, many demonstrators have been abused and arrested by police but protesters have been absolved by photographic evidence.
“It is clear the government wants to avoid this,” said Ruiz-Huerta. “They want to scare people so that they don’t take videos and try to defend themselves from the police.”
The restrictions on the dissemination of images of the police worries journalists and press freedom groups. However, in the world of media today, journalists are not the only channels for pictures and videos.
The innovation director and CPJ advisor Bergareche said citizen journalism has been a very strong force around the world in documenting important events and the activities of a citizen journalist should be protected.
“It’s necessary that the media has access to documenting police action when it crosses the line,” Bergareche said. “And this is one of the aspects the law clearly tends to curtail.”
Victor Torre de Silva, professor at Instituto de Empresa (IE) Law School in Madrid and legal adviser for the Spanish Council of State, said the reasoning behind some of these new provisions is combating bureaucracy. By making the primary penalty for breaking the “gag law” a fine, officials hope to avoid adding to the backlog of criminal cases, he said.
“The government thinks the Spanish criminal justice system is slow and stuck with papers,” said Torre de Silva. “They want to make it more agile.”
However, Torre de Silva said, this concept is not exclusive to Spain. He added that in other EU countries, minor illegal behaviors are punished outside of the criminal courts. “For example traffic limits are disciplined by police with direct action. And all of these [offenses] can be appealed to the court of justice.”
Torre de Silva said he believes the lengthy and complex law is necessary for the safety of Spanish citizens and it will “have a long life.” That said, he does not support all aspects of the new additions and “would not warranty the constitutionality of the entire law.”
“The [new] fines are quite high — some up to 600,000 euros,” said Torre de Silva. “In cases of those most serious offenses [the fines] might not be proportionate to behaviors.” The 600,000 euro maximum fine would be punishment for any spontaneous protest near utilities, transportation hubs, nuclear power plants or similar facilities.
And with the law written in fairly general language, said Torre de Silva, “It is true that [these] general words may be applied against liberty.”
For example, one article of the law prohibits the publication of photos that could put authorities photographed or filmed at risk of a failure of an operation or endanger their private information.
Yet the article does not further define what would be considered a “risk” or what would “endanger” private information. Challengers of the law worry the government and police would use these general terms in their favor.
A February press release from the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights publicly criticized the law.
“The so-called ‘gag law’ violates the very essence of the right to assembly since it penalizes a wide range of actions and behaviors that are essential for the exercise of this fundamental right,” said Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai.
“This project of reform unnecessarily and disproportionately restricts basic freedoms such as the collective exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in Spain,” added Special Rapporteur David Kaye.
Jody Pujanie, an 18-year-old student at the University of Barcelona, marched under the Catalonian Arc De Triomf a few weeks ago with hundreds of other rebelling students, chanting against the rise of college tuition. He said that the new law will not stop him from protesting for what he believes in.
“We want to change something. Everything we can,” Pujanie said breathlessly and stained in sweat. “[The government] can do what they want. We will still protest.”