The imprisonment of Pablo Hasel has, once again, exposed Spain’s shortcomings when it comes to freedom of expression. It is an appalling record to which more victims are being added, while laws of a clearly repressive nature, such as the so-called gag law, remain in force and the PSOE and Podemos’ promises of legal changes fade away with the passing of time.
In order to understand the significance of the Hasel case, as well as the hurdles to artistic expression and the growing climate of repression, we spoke to Srirak Plipat, the Executive Director of Freemuse, an international organization that campaigns for artists’ rights and publishes an annual report on the state of artistic freedom around the world.
—For readers who aren’t familiar with Freemuse, what is your task?
—We’re an independent international organization which defends the human rights of artists and artistic freedom. Every year, we monitor worldwide censorship and other attempts to curb artistic freedom, such as assaults, lawsuits, and the imprisonment of artists. Based on this data, which we regularly update, we publish an annual report on the state of artistic freedom in the world. This year we realized that, in spite of the pandemic, there has been an increase on restrictions and attacks on artists and their freedom of expression. Unfortunately, new records have been set in several categories, such as prosecutions and imprisonments. We also advocate legislative changes and work with the United Nations and national governments to help protect artists.
—What’s behind these record figures in terms of the repression of artistic freedom?
—There are several reasons. Some countries have restricted basic rights as a response to the pandemic, especially during lockdowns, while some governments have also taken the opportunity to muffle dissenting voices. There has also been a growth in populism and nationalism around the world. Such policies serve as breeding grounds for singling out, discriminating against and silencing minorities or groups which think differently on political or religious matters. Meanwhile, mechanisms of censorship and repression have continued to be applied throughout 2020, based on laws which are clearly at odds with international human rights standards. And this is happening across the world, including in Europe. For example, there are nineteen countries on the continent, thirteen of which are members of the EU, whose laws prohibit insulting or disrespecting the head of state or other national symbols. This is inconsistent with international law. In fact, the European Court of Human Rights has said that heads of state and other political officials are subject to public scrutiny and accountability.
—What else can you tell us about this year’s report?
—The facts disprove the general perception that 2020 was a good year for artists and freedom of expression. Countless concerts, plays, film premieres, exhibitions and so on have been cancelled due to the pandemic. As a result, it might look as if the scope for censorship and repression has decreased, but the data tells a different story. Last year we recorded 978 instances of violations of artistic freedom (267 more than in 2019), in a total of 89 countries, and also on the internet. And I could go on.
—The number of artists who were murdered almost doubled. We went from 9 to 17, eleven in Mexico alone. As for incarcerations, a new record figure was also set: in one year it rose from 71 to 82. In addition, a number of arrests were made. These increased from 87 to 133. However, what’s even more serious is the sharp spike in the number of prosecutions, which climbed from 27 to 107. In addition, 103 artists received threats and 97 works of art or exhibitions were defaced. Armed with the data, we can see that it was a disastrous year for art, especially for visual art. Music is usually the main victim of repression and censorship, but in 2020 the trend changed. We detected a significant increase in the persecution of minorities and graphic artists who criticized or mocked governments.
—How come Spain no longer tops the list for the imprisonment of artists?
—The main reason is the reduction of the sentences imposed on artists from the La Insurgencia rap music collective. Nevertheless, we are still concerned about the situation of Pablo Hasel and Valtònyc. Currently Sudan tops the list, with eleven artists detained, while Iran takes second place with eight. They’re followed by Burma, Belarus, Turkey and China, all with seven detainees.
—All this leads us to the eternal question: are there limits to the freedom of expression and creation?
—The freedom of expression and creation do have limits, but we must understand that the framework is international, based on human rights legislation, not national criminal laws and policies. That said, any limitation must be as clear and transparent as possible, since it’s in the realm of interpretation, in these grey areas, where the abuse occurs, as is the case with the crime of glorifying terrorism in Spain. Therefore, limits and restrictions are expected, but always in a manner that is proportionate and in accordance with international law.
—And how about hate speech?
—Legislation and mechanisms exist which make it possible to discern and identify this type of speech. The problem is that they’re used as an excuse to point out or restrict views that we disagree with. Hatred isn’t about taste or our point of view; rather, it’s about attacking and belittling races, nationalities, religions, and other elements of one’s identity. In addition, the context of the statement and the likelihood that the interlocutors will do what they express must be taken into account. In the last report, we saw how more than 10% of charges brought against artists were for alleged hate speech. The essence and the whole point of a democracy is to deal with disagreements and differences in a public debate. Only in this way can we have a mature, plural society.
—How do you see the situation of free speech in Spain?
—We’re concerned, but we also feel somewhat optimistic. At the UN Human Rights Council, Spain pledged to carry out a legal reform which ought to amend the laws that restrict the freedom of expression. This means it accepts recommendations 150.84 and 150.85 made by Belgium and Germany. It must be said that we haven’t seen any progress since then, but we welcome the fact that recently one of Spain’s coalition government partners publicly stated that it wishes to abolish crimes related to expressing one’s opinion. Therefore, we are moderately optimistic, but we wish to see concrete actions and measures.
—They’ve been promising to repeal the gag law for years.
—I know. Making these changes is quite a challenge, but let’s see how it pans out. Spain has accepted the UN’s recommendations and it’s obliged to report on any progress. Hopefully this will be enough of an incentive for Spain to make the necessary changes this time around.
—What do you think of PM Pedro Sánchez’s claim that Spain is one of only 23 full democracies, an argument he’s used to counter the protests against the imprisonment of Pablo Hasel?
—Obviously, that’s debatable. From our point of view, democracy is not just about exercising power and getting a majority of the population involved in political participation. A democracy must also include the protection of minority voices and their freedom of opinion and speech, without fear of possible retaliation. It’s hard to argue that Spain is a full democracy with cases like Valtònyc and Pablo Hasel, who are exiled and imprisoned for their song lyrics,
—What’s your view on the ongoing street protests?
—I think there is a lot of frustration and people have taken to the streets to defend freedom of expression. It’s vital for the Spanish authorities to be able to listen to their plea and understand that the law needs to be amended as soon as possible, as they vowed to do before the UN.
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