The law on public security — dubbed the “ley mordaza” or “gag law” — would define public protest by actual persons in front of Parliament and other government buildings as a “disturbance of public safety” punishable by a fine of 30,000 euros. People who join in spontaneous protests near utilities, transportation hubs, nuclear power plants or similar facilities would risk a jaw-dropping fine of €600,000. The “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement authorities or police — presumably aimed at photojournalists or ordinary citizens with cameras taking pictures of cops or soldiers — would also draw a €30,000 fine, making it hard to document abuses.
The law was introduced in 2013 by the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative party enjoys a majority in both houses of Parliament. The lower house approved the law in December, and, despite pleas from rights groups and the United Nations, the Senate approved it last month.
The law’s main purpose, it appears, is to help the ruling party maintain its hold on power by discouraging the anti-austerity protests that have snowballed into widespread support for the populist Podemos party. Podemos looks set to make major gains in elections this year.
The European Commission should act swiftly to condemn the new law. Maina Kiai, the special rapporteur at the United Nations on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, has urged Spanish lawmakers to reject the measure, arguing: “The rights to peaceful protest and to collectively express an opinion are fundamental to the existence of a free and democratic society.” Spain’s new gag law disturbingly harkens back to the dark days of the Franco regime. It has no place in a democratic nation, where Spaniards, as citizens of the European Union, have more than a virtual right to peaceful, collective protest.