Gag law lands first strike on free expression in Spain
April 20, Madrid: Since Spain's Public Security Law, known as the “gag law”, took effect on June 30 last year, the number of court cases challenging the measure's constitutionality or asserting that certain provisions violate fundamental human rights has proliferated.
But despite disapproval of the law by a majority of the Spanish public and by the political opposition in unison, authorities didn't wait long before launching proceedings against journalists based on some of the most controversial provisions.
In March, Axier López became the first journalist fined by Spain's central government (in the case, by the central government's local representative office in Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country) for taking photographs of a police officer.
López was fined €601 for a tweet in which, according to officials, he “published without authorisation … images of a police operation carried out in Eibar on the same morning. Through these images it is possible to identify the officers taking part in the operation, with the risk that for the officers can result from their public identification.”
The incident goes back to March 3, 2016, when the journalist photographed the arrest of a young girl accused of blocking a highway as part of a protest in 2007.
In a telephone interview with the International Press Institute (IPI), López said he had refused to pay the fine, explaining: “It is an unjust fine, just as the [Public Security] law is unjust.”
He added: “The worst part about this law is that it leads journalists, or people, to think twice about whether they can talk about something they have witnessed, especially when we are talking about a police operation in the light of day.”
“And,” he continued, “I think that reporting on that is an exercise in transparency”.
Criticism of 'gag law' continues at home and abroad
Critics of the Public Security Law, including IPI, have frequently cited a potential chilling effect that could lead to self-censorship. In their report “The State of Press Freedom in Spain: 2015”, IPI and four other international press freedom organisations criticised the vague and imprecise language in Article 36.23, the basis for the fine against Axier López, which foresees monetary punishments of up to €30,000 for:
23. The unauthorised use of images or personal or professional data of officers or members of security forces or bodies that could endanger the personal or family security of said officers, or protected installations or the risk of success of an operation, without prejudice to the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said the case of Axier López confirmed fears that the Public Security Law would be used against journalists attempting to do their jobs.
“In this instance, the grounds for the fine seem extremely spurious, given that the officers' faces aren't even visible,” Griffen observed. “But more broadly speaking, the application of the Public Security Law against journalists threatens to weaken the media's watchdog role over the actions of public bodies, including the police, as innumerable national and international observers have pointed out.”
The Madrid-based Platform for the Defence of Free Expression (PDLI), a broad-based coalition of media houses, journalists, lawyers, consumer activists, and academics, condemned the fine in a statement last week.
“While until now one could photograph police officers without any type of prior authorisation, so long as the images were taken during a public act, or in places open to the public, according to Article 8 of the Law on Civil Protection of the Right to Honour, Personal and Family Privacy, and Personal Image, the current law creates a situation of legal uncertainty,” observed Carlos Sánchez Almeida, PDLI's legal director.
The online news site for which Axier López works, Argia.eus, has already filed an appeal against the fine and is waiting to see whether a judge will grant a hearing “even though the fine is, strictly speaking, legal”, as López admits.
“But one thing is whether it is legal and another is whether it is fair.”
The Oslo Times