Spain Follows In Footsteps of Nations Curbing Rights to Protest

Dubbed the “Kick in the Teeth Law” by the some -- the law fines Spaniards roughly $816,000 for conducting an unauthorized protest.
By @katierucke |
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    A May 2012 protest in Valencia, Spain. (Photo/Chris Brown via Flickr)

    A May 2012 protest in Valencia, Spain. (Photo/Chris Brown via Flickr)

    Last week the conservative Spanish government continued a global trend of new laws restricting citizens to voice their discontent by passing a measure that can heavily fine anti-government protesters.

    The law, known as the Citizens’ Security Law — dubbed the “Kick in the Teeth Law” by some — fines Spaniards roughly $816,000 for conducting an unauthorized protest. Any protester carrying a sign with “offensive” slogans against the government, or wearing a mask, can be fined more than $40,700 additionally.

    Protests have emerged in recent years as Spaniards expressed their disapproval for huge cuts made to the country’s education and health systems, among others.

    Despite an unemployment rate of 26 percent, rising poverty, and changes in labor laws that make firing an employee easier, the protests have largely remained peaceful, especially compared to those held in other European Union countries such as Greece, where riots have besieged the country following austerity measures put in place by its government.

    Although leftist and civil-rights activists have had their differences in opinion regarding how Spain should handle its economic crisis, both groups agree this recent bill disregards the rules for having a successful and functional democracy, and point out that the country has only been free from the fascist dictatorship of Franco since the late 1970s.

    “The government knows that citizens are going to continue to protest on our streets, and what they want is to instill fear and paralysis,” said Socialist Party lawmaker Antonio Hernando.

    United Left Party legislator Gaspar Llamazares agreed and said he wondered if the law violated the country’s constitution.

    “This law … attempts to criminalize the act of protest,” he said, adding, “the government is trying to turn its political opponents into delinquents.”

    Under the new law, drinking alcohol in public squares and causing a disturbance will also result in a fine of more than $40,700 — a rule that is especially irritating to younger Spaniards who often congregate in public squares across the country on weekends.

    However, Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz defended the bill, and said lawmakers passed it because “we want to guarantee a freer and more peaceful coexistence for all Spaniards … eradicating violence.”

    Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party (PP), which has an absolute majority in parliament, added the bill guarantees freedom and a majority of citizens will likely end up supporting the legislation.

    But even some conservatives oppose the law.

    “This security law … will add the stigma of authoritarianism to the political failure of the PP,” said Jose Antonio Zarzalejos, a well-known Spanish conservative columnist.


    Japan may follow Spanish path, as others already have

    Although Spain is just one of the latest countries to pass legislation that inhibits civilians’ ability to protest, the European nation is far from the only country to do so.

    According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in October, while “protests” are not protected under any international treaty, human-rights agreements have protected civilians’ right to protest for years, which includes freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association, and trade-union rights.

    In recent years, many governments across the globe — including Israel, Canada, Argentina, Egypt, Hungary, Kenya, South Africa, the UK and the U.S. — have begun to “impose abusive restrictions, both legal and practical, that curb the effective enjoyment of these fundamental human rights,” the ACLU report said.

    For example, over the weekend The Japan Times reported that a new bill would define any demonstration against the Japanese government as “an act of terrorism.” In a blog post, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba defended the bill and said just because some civilians disagree with a government policy, they don’t automatically have the right to hold a demonstration.

    “If you want to realize your ideas and principles, you should follow the democratic principles, by gaining as much support as you can,” Ishiba said. “I think the strategy of merely shouting one’s opinions at the top of one’s lungs is not so fundamentally different from an act of terrorism.”

    Talking about the roughly 1,000 people who gathered outside of the prime minister’s office the previous week, Ishiba said that in a democracy, the loudest, most-threatening voices shouldn’t be allowed to sway the government’s decisions and that the Japanese government “will never accept it.”

    Representatives from the country’s Democratic Party, such as Akihiro Ohata, openly disagreed with Ishiba’s comments and argued that the secretary general should “change his mindset” since, “It is guaranteed under the Constitution to stage demonstrations.”

    Mizuho Fukushima, deputy chief of the Social Democratic Party, agreed with Ohata and said, “I cannot trust the ruling party, whose member makes such a comment, even if it says it will respect the right to know.”

    Ishiba later retracted his initial statement that demonstrations are not part of a democracy, and said that although noisy, he will welcome protests “as long as they follow democratic rules.”

    Since Article 21 of Japan’s Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, which includes public demonstrations, it is not believed Ishiba’s bill will pass. But even if the bill is blocked by the current administration, the threat against public demonstrations lingers and may become a reality in the future.


    No one is immune

    According to the ACLU report, public protests have been an important part of history and “have formed an essential element of vibrant democratic societies.” But as government officials feverishly work to keep citizens from rising up and throwing coups, many world leaders have begun to place restrictions on what counts as a valid protest, or one that deserves lawful protection at least.

    In Spain, the government said “only peaceful assemblies are protected.” But according to international human rights law, a government is not allowed to use unreasonable force even if a protest is characterized as non-peaceful, since the assembly may have begun in a peaceful manner.

    When government officials work to suppress the people from assembling, they often use forceful “discriminatory” tactics, resulting in injuries, deaths, the criminalization of social leaders, or the all around suppression of democratic rights and processes.

    Though the U.S. has not passed a law against protests that is quite as severe or inclusive as other industrialized governments, the House passed at least two laws last week that follow in some countries draconian footsteps.

    One of those bills, known as the Federal Land Jobs and Energy Security Act, would charge a $5,000 fee in order to file an official protest gathering against a proposed drilling project, sparking outrage from environmentalists and First Amendment advocates alike.

    The legislation would allow oil and gas companies to drill on public lands, and also allow for the commercial leasing of land for the development of oil shale in Western states — specifically Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and would open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, where a contentious battle has been waged by environmentalists for decades on whether to drill.

    Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, proposed an amendment to the bill, hoping to clarify that the $5,000 protest fee was not in violation of First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble, but that addendum was defeated.

    The bill has not been approved by the Senate, and the Obama administration has threatened to veto the legislation, since “H.R. 1965 would reverse Administration oil and gas leasing reforms that have established orderly, open, efficient, and environmentally sound processes for energy development on public lands.”

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