On 14th March 2020, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced to the nation in a televised address the exceptional measures to be put in place to deal with the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In order to fight the sharp rise in infections, the government closed all restaurants, bars, hotels, schools and universities nationwide, and other non-essential retail outlets. People are only allowed to leave their homes to go to work, buy food and medicine, see a doctor, go to the bank, or because they need to care for children or the elderly.
As a result of the state of emergency, certain rights cannot be practised in this period, e.g. group gatherings are prohibited.
The last few months have been rather tumultuous in Spanish politics. It took two general elections and months of negotiations to form a government. During January 2020, Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing coalition was sworn in as the new government.
According to analysts, Sánchez will face a tough time in reforming controversial laws as he has only a fragile majority.
However, according to El Pais, reforming the controversial so-called “Gag Law” which poses a threat to peaceful assembly and expression, as previously reported on the Monitor, will be possible (see more under expression). At this stage it is unknown how political standpoints may evolve after the lockdown and what the government's stance on the so-called “Gag Law” will be.
Prior to the state of emergency several protests took place (as discussed below).
Catalan independence protests continue
On 12th November 2019 French police used batons and pepper spray to disperse pro-Catalan independence protesters who were blocking the motorway between France and Spain. The protest was organised by Tsunami Democràtic, a pro-independence group. As previously reported on the Monitor, protests erupted in October in reaction to Spain’s top court sentencing nine Catalan separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition in connection with the breakaway attempt of October 2017.
On 29th February 2020, over a hundred thousand pro-Catalan independence protesters gathered about 30km outside the Spanish border. The demonstrators gathered to support the exiled former Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont.
Farmers protest loss of earnings
During February 2020 thousands of farmers across Spain protested against the loss of income they are currently experiencing due to the low sale price of produce. This is due to the impact of Britain's exit from the European Union (EU), a decrease in agricultural subsidies and US tariffs, amongst other factors. In Valencia hundreds of farmers blocked the roads to the city centre with their tractors. Protests also took place in the province of Córdoba, where 5,000 vehicles blocked the freeway to Málaga.
According to media reports, police shut down the group of farmers who were blocking the highway.
Calls to repeal the so- called Gag Law
In a statement, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the newly elected left party to repeal the Criminal code.
The so called “Gag law” has been used by the previous government to restrict the right to protest and the media’s coverage of protests. Fines for 4 million euros have been imposed under this law since 2015 on citizens, including reporters and photographers.
“RSF has condemned the ‘Gag Law’ ever since it was submitted to parliament by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government. We will continue to denounce it until it is repealed, because it violates the freedom to inform, and we call on this government not to introduce similar provisions in a new law,” - Alfonso Armada, RSF Spain’s president.
There is a clear intention on the part of the new government to reform the Criminal Code and to repeal the parts that are used to undermine freedom of expression. As previously reported by the Monitor, based on these paragraphs of the criminal code, numerous criminal cases were opened against behaviours such as "whistling the anthem of Spain in a football stadium, criticising the monarchy, sending messages, using the image of Christ and publishing it on social networks".
Recently, for example, a court in Madrid heard a complaint presented by the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers against Netflix for broadcasting a film that portrays Jesus Christ as inept and homosexual. According to the complaint, by this portrayal Netflix was committing “a crime against religious feelings, in the form of derision”, as described in article 525 of the Criminal Code. The producer, Porta dos Fundos said that freedom of expression is an “essential tool in the construction of a democratic country”.
In a separate development, Spanish actor Willy Toledo has been acquitted by a Spanish court of offending religious sentiment. As previously reported by the Monitor, the case was brought by the Spanish Association for Christian Lawyers over a 2017 Facebook post where Toledo insulted God and the Virgin Mary. Toledo posted this after the trial began in the city of Seville against three women who had paraded a large model of a vagina around the city.
Far- right party attacks the media
Following the elections, far-right party VOX is now the third largest political party in the Spanish parliament. In a statement, Reporters without Borders (RSF) said that the party continues to attack journalists. This includes:
- Preventing journalists from PRISA media group’s outlets from covering some of its press conferences
- Promoting campaigns against journalists on social media
- Harassing reporters in the field
- Prior to elections the party confirmed that it had decided not to talk to the newspapers El Diario.es, El Plural, Público, La Marea, El Español, El Mundo (except two of its journalists) and El País (in certain cases), the news websites Infolibre and CTXT, and the TV programmes “El Intermedio” (La Sexta) and “Todo es Mentira” (Cuatro) because “they are activists, not journalists.”
- Prior to elections, the party banned PRISA media group outlets (including El País and radio Cadena SER) from covering its rallies after an El País editorial described the party’s discourse as “xenophobic and intolerant.”
RSF warned the party to stop violating media freedom:
“If VOX persists in regarding journalism as its enemy, RSF will regard VOX as an opponent of press freedom. We cannot allow this political party to continue trampling on such a precious asset as the freedom to inform, and we will do everything in our power to make our concerns heard internationally and at every level necessary,” - Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.