[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Crackdowns on Free Speech Rise Across a Europe Wary of Terror
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Thu Feb 25 13:11:58 MST 2016
NY Times, Feb. 25 2016
Crackdowns on Free Speech Rise Across a Europe Wary of Terror
By RAPHAEL MINDER
MADRID — A puppet show at an open square in Madrid during Carnival
festivities this month featured a policeman who tried to entrap a witch.
The puppet officer held up a little sign to falsely accuse her, using a
play on words that combined Al Qaeda and ETA, the Basque separatist group.
Angry parents complained, and the real police stepped in. They arrested
two puppeteers, who could now face as much as seven years in prison on
charges of glorifying terrorism and promoting hatred.
Paradoxically, the puppeteers say in their defense, the police proved
their point: that Spain’s antiterrorism laws are being misapplied, used
for witch hunts.
Far from an isolated episode, the arrests on Feb. 5 are part of a
lengthening string of prosecutions, including two against a rap musician
and a poet, that have fueled a debate over whether freedom of protest
and speech are under threat in Spain and elsewhere in Europe because of
fears of terrorism.
Some European countries, with painful historical chapters of fascism and
leftist extremism, have long placed stricter limits on political and
hate speech than has the United States. For instance, denying the
Holocaust can be prosecuted in Germany as well as France.
But some civil liberties groups and legal experts are growing
increasingly alarmed at the broad ways such laws are being adapted as
the specter of Islamic extremism becomes Europe’s new preoccupation.
Once such prohibitions become law, even if in response to real security
concerns, there is no telling how the statutes could be applied in the
future, they say.
The Spanish puppeteers are a case in point. They are being prosecuted
under a law on the books in Spain for more than a decade and originally
aimed at ETA. Responsible for the deaths of more than 800 Spaniards, the
Basque separatist group declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2011.
Last year, however, the conservative government of Prime Minister
Mariano Rajoy overhauled and strengthened the law, aiming this time at
Islamic terrorism. Among other things, the changes raised the maximum
prison sentence for first-time offenders to three years from two to
virtually guarantee jail time.
Those steps coincided with the Rajoy government’s introduction of what
has become known as a “gag law,” harshly penalizing unauthorized public
demonstrations, which has drawn strong criticism at home and abroad.
“This is the latest very serious attack on freedom of expression,” said
Joaquim Bosch, a spokesman for Judges for Democracy, an association of
about 600 judges that focuses on human rights. “During the Franco
dictatorship, troublesome artists went to prison, but not in democratic
Even at the height of ETA’s violent campaign, Mr. Bosch noted, the law
forbidding the glorification of terrorism was used “about two or three
times a year.”
Last year, however, judges from Spain’s national court ruled on 25 such
cases, absolving the defendants in only six of them. “The politicization
of terrorism has been used as a smoke screen to deviate attention from
social and corruption problems,” Mr. Bosch said.
The widening application of antiterrorism laws related to speech extends
beyond Spain, however, as countries across Europe struggle to balance
civil liberties and security in the aftermath of two major terrorist
attacks in Paris last year.
Even before those attacks, in November 2014, France reinforced a law
similar to that in Spain, which punishes statements praising or inciting
terrorism, as worries increased about homegrown radicalization and the
influence of extremist groups online.
French lawmakers toughened the penalties — to up to five years in prison
and a maximum fine of 75,000 euros (about $82,000), or up to seven years
and a $110,000 fine if the statements were made online.
Since the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January
2015, the French authorities have aggressively moved to enforce the law
and have drawn criticism for rushing to convict people who made
provocative statements, sometimes while drunk, that had little to do
with actual extremism or terrorism.
In one of the most prominent cases, the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala
was convicted and received a two-month suspended prison sentence for a
Facebook post that suggested sympathy with one of the gunmen in the
Charlie Hebdo attack.
In the view of the Association of Victims of Terrorism, one of the
groups in Spain now pressing charges against the puppeteers, their show
amounted to an act of “praise and recognition for terrorist
organizations that have caused so much pain and suffering within our
Spain’s interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, also defended the use
of the law to arrest the puppeteers at a time when “international
terrorism is threatening our country.”
He condemned the show for including other anti-establishment scenes of
violence, including the hanging of a judge and the rape of a nun. “To
pretend that this is satire or dark humor seems to me an absurdity,” Mr.
Fernández Díaz said.
But since the arrest of the puppeteers, Raúl García Pérez and Alfonso
Lázaro de la Fuente, street protests have been held in their defense
around the country.
The civic associations that organized a demonstration in Granada, where
the puppet company was founded, said that “reality supersedes fiction”
when artists go to prison for staging a spectacle based on the
three-century-old British tradition of Punch and Judy shows, in which
puppets were sometimes beaten to death.
Far from promoting terrorism, the Madrid show was intended to condemn
“the criminalization of social protest,” the associations said.
According to Eric Sanz de Bremond, a lawyer for the puppeteers, the sign
during the show was “used as false incriminating evidence, to prove a
crime and never to praise terrorism.” A miniature anarchist notebook
that was confiscated by the police was also only a stage prop, he said.
“This is a pure work of fiction and satire,” he said, noting that the
puppet show had premiered in Granada “without any incident” in late January.
Inconsistent application, in fact, is one of the dangers of such
statutes, said José Ignacio Torreblanca, a professor of political
science at the National University of Distance Education.
“I think such laws take us on a dangerous slope toward arbitrariness in
a democracy,” he said. “The problem with such a law is that it got
drafted in a vague way and there is so little jurisprudence that its
application becomes a lottery, dependent on whoever is the judge in the
Ambiguity about where exactly the legal line sits can have its own
chilling effect in stifling speech, encouraging self-censorship.
“We have passed such laws without first having a proper debate about
where free speech should end,” he said, “so that most Spaniards aren’t
now aware of the limits that have been placed and how that can play out
in the courts.”
The boundary between terrorism and culture, and the limits of public
protest, are being tested in other cases, as well.
César Montaña Lehmann, a Spanish singer known as César Strawberry who
leads a rap metal band called Def Con Dos, is awaiting trial on
accusations of posting offensive messages on Twitter praising terrorism.
A public prosecutor wants him sentenced to 20 months in prison.
Aitor Cuervo Taboada, a self-defined revolutionary poet, is set to
appear in court on Thursday, facing a possible 18-month sentence for
publishing writings that the public prosecution says glorify terrorism
by praising ETA and offending its victims.
Even before formally taking office last June, Guillermo Zapata was
forced to step down as Madrid’s designated councilor for culture for
past posts on Twitter in which he offended Jews and a victim of an ETA
This month, a judge started proceedings to try Mr. Zapata for his “cruel
humor” comment about the terrorism victim.
Last week, Rita Maestre, the spokeswoman for Madrid’s City Hall,
appeared in court after being charged with offending religious feelings
during a protest held in a university chapel five years ago.
Alongside other protesters, Ms. Maestre, who was a student at the time,
lifted her top to reveal her bra, while shouting insults against the
Facing a possible one-year prison sentence, Ms. Maestre told the court
that it made no sense for a public university in a secular country to
maintain a chapel. She expressed regret for causing offense, but
insisted that “protests, as long as they are pacific, are legitimate.”
As for the puppeteers, they have not given interviews since spending
five days in prison this month.
In a joint statement, however, they insisted the play was not intended
to offend but to “tell a story of fiction that unfortunately has many
similarities with the reality that we have had to live these days.”
Freedom of speech “isn’t the right to say just what one wants to hear,”
the puppeteers argued. “Whoever understands it that way in reality
doesn’t believe in it.”
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from
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