[Marxism] [SUSPICIOUS MESSAGE] Crackdowns on Free Speech Rise Across a Europe Wary of Terror

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 25 13:11:58 MST 2016

NY Times, Feb. 25 2016
Crackdowns on Free Speech Rise Across a Europe Wary of Terror

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 
Catholic Church.

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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