Freedom of expression in Spain is threatened by restrictive criminal, civil and administrative laws that hamper the free work of journalists and the free circulation of expression. State institutions, such as the Royal Family, and public officials, as well as the police and powerful individuals often make use of such laws to quash public interest news or restrain the circulation of critical information or jokes about them.
The Spanish jurisprudence often fails to reflect international freedom of expression standards, which has led to indiscriminate convictions of artists and criminalisation of satirical expression, such as in the cases of Pablo Hasél or Cesar Strawberry.
Protests in Catalonia, that took a violent turn, set a dangerous precedent in regard to the use of excessive police force against protesters and journalists covering socio-political upheavals. This has been exacerbated by the introduction of the 2015 ‘Ley Mordaza’, which limits the right to peaceful assembly by setting rigorous rules on organising protests and introducing fines on media for distributing unauthorised images of police officers.
All these elements contribute to a dark climate for free expression in the country.
On this page, you can find ARTICLE 19 Europe’s work documenting and analysing these challenges and advocating for robust protection of free expression in Spain.
Laws criminalising free expression
Spain’s Penal Code includes overly broad and vague provisions that restrict the right to free speech and do not comply with international freedom of expression standards. Offences of glorification of terrorism, ‘hate speech,’ defamation and insult of State institutionse can lead to severe criminal penalties and are often used to censor the free speech critical voices and artists.
In 2020, the Spanish government announced that it would amend expression related provisions of the Penal Code: the bill to decriminalise insult to the Crown and “outrage against the State” has been addressed in May 2022 by Parliament.
ARTICLE 19 Europe observes with great concern how the Penal Code has been repeatedly misused to target journalistic and artistic expression that authorities arbitrarily find offensive or inappropriate. We call on the Spanish government to align the Spanish Penal Code with international freedom of expression standards. The amendments should see to it that defamation is fully decriminalised, the definition of terrorism is precise, provisions on gloryfying terrorism are narrowed down, and restrictive offences of insult are repelaed while ‘hate crimes’ offences are reviewed.
Spain: Briefing on the Penal Code and threats to freedom of expression
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Measures against ‘hate speech’ were conceived to ensure the protection of historically discriminated groups in society. However, in Spain criminal provisions against ‘hate speech’ are misused and may lead to censorship and criminalisation of legitimate speech. Article 510 of the Penal Code does not sufficiently distinguish between the different degrees of ‘hate speech’ and imposes criminal penalties that do not follow the requirements set by the UN Rabat Plan of Action in relation to “intent” and “likelihood” of violence to assess the adequate response to hate speech.
ARTICLE 19 Europe hosted a dialogue with Spanish judges of the Supreme and Constitutional Courts of Spain to encourage compliance of domestic interpretation of hate crimes with the European Court of Human Rights’ jurisprudence and international standards on freedom of expression. In addition, in our analysis of the Guidelines to interpret hate speech offences in the Criminal Code by the Public Prosecutor OfficeCircular – we underscore that some of the interpretative criteria provided to prosecutors go against international freedom of expression standards and remind Spanish authorities that criminal law should be applied as a last resort and only in exceptional circumstances.
The use of criminal law to regulate hate speech may pave the way to overbroad and unnecessary restriction of freedom of speech. In light of the growing need for clear guidance, our Hate Speech toolkit discusses different types of ‘hate speech’ and suggests avenues to effectively counter it while respecting freedom of expression.
Consult our reports and analyses
SLAPPs and legal threats against journalists
In Spain, journalists and media outlets are regularly subject to legal threats for exposing corruption, for covering protests or for jokes and satirical content. Powerful individuals take advantage of existing criminal and civil laws on protection of reputation and one’s own image, on insult and on revelation of secret information, to threaten journalists, exhaust them psychologically and financially, as well as to discredit their work.
Our report on SLAPPs against journalists in Spain, examines the provisions that enable the misuse of current Spanish laws to file abusive lawsuits, analyses trends across case studies and calls for procedural safeguards that are essential to combat SLAPPs in Spain.
This report is part of a project in which ARTICLE 19 Europe analyses patterns in SLAPP cases in key European countries and suggests solutions to stop abuse of such laws. Key findings and recommendations informed a comprehensive regional report which is available here.
Statements about SLAPP cases against journalists
Spain: Energy company launches €17.6 million lawsuit against newspaper
ARTICLE 19 Europe contributed to raise these concerns at national and international level, highlighting critical commitments to uphold Spain’s international human rights obligations.
In our advocacy in the context of a political change, we promoted our analysis to different parties and government entities. We underscored the urgent need for a swift and robust reform of key provisions in the Penal Code commonly misused to restrict freedom of expression in the country.
The core components of our analysis were also reflected in a set of recommendations submitted by states to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Spain’s human rights track record, and presented throughout the UPR cycle.