Muzzle Law

No Joy for the Silent

  • There have been important results a year after we stood up to the Muzzle Law and the fine which Spanish Government the gave us under its terms. In the first case connected with journalism, the Muzzle Law has taken a step backwards. Those of us who have decided not to remain silent when confronted with human rights violations have a grin on our faces, having won another reason to carry on providing information and influencing.

Axier Lopez @axierL
2017ko martxoaren 21a
Photo: Dani Blanco

Si te mandan una carta, y no va perfumada, es del Gobierno Civil” ('If they send you an unperfumed letter, it's from the Spanish government's delegation'). If the music group Kojon Prieto y los Huajalotes were still singing in the 21st century, I am sure they would make mention of Carlos Urquijo. Over the last four years, the Spanish Government's representative in the Basque Autonomous Community has fined hundreds of Basque citizens, organizations and town councils. In fact, at ARGIA we were very surprised to hear that we would have to pay 601 Euros for having done our work. Even more seeing that he had used the Muzzle Law, only supported by the PP, to fine us. And further still when we saw that this was not only happening in the southern Basque Country, journalists and media throughout the Spanish State also having received such welcome news.

A small, independent Basque language publication was the first thing in the sights of the Spanish Government's state-of-emergency law. It happened on March 3rd last year, a week before the 13th anniversary of the closure of Euskaldunon Egunkaria (the only Basque language newspaper at that time). The same old explanations. It used to be “being controlled by ETA”; now it is a Tweet “when there are threats from ETA and the Ospa and Alde Hemendik movements to police officers' and their families' physical safety. Now at Iberdrola, when he was a minister Angel Acebes stated that he "defended Basque and citizens' rights"; "It is a complete joke to say that there is a problem about freedom of expression in Spain and the right to demonstrate" is what Mariano Rajoy has now said in the Spanish parliament. Apparently, we Basque journalists still do not understand what the important people in Madrid are doing.

The solidarity and protection given by the Basque media have not changed over the years. We journalists are privileged in that attacks against us are more widely reported on that attacks on other citizens in general. But making it a collective problem has been the key. Stating from the very first moment that ARGIA was not going to pay the unfair fine and that we were ready to disobey the Muzzle Law accelerated the collective response. The response from the Basque media and journalists was incredibly influential, and the news reached the international press in just a few hours. And that is how ARGIA's 601 Euro fine became news thousands of kilometres away in The New York Times and Al Jazeera. From then on the news spread ceaselessly: Mexico, the French State, Russia, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Australia… Part of our own story has been hearing the name ARGIA in the Spanish parliament, as mentioned by Onintza Enbeita, and being invited to take part in Jordi Evole's Salvados television programme. The producers withdrew the invitation at the last moment.

There were also people who decided to remain silent. Not many, but they were big players. While The Guardian was reporting on a Basque receiving punishment, the best-selling newspapers here did not even mention the matter. And the interview which El País never published, in which the Madrid journalist's first question was whether I was connected with the Basque Left in any way. Two sad examples. And the same thing happened when we won the case.

The first complaint was made by our friends at Eleak/Libre, and after the push given by the Hekimen media, the Basque Autonomous Community’s Journalists’ Association opened the way, which was followed by most of the journalists’ associations in the Spanish state supporting us, along with the European Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and the 100 NGOs in the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, who spoke out against the fine and the Muzzle Law.

 

Photo: Dani Blanco

 

We went to where laws are made with a proposal not to obey them. The madness at our head offices in Lasarte-Oria is an example. Like ex-politicians put into a daze by revolving doors, our modest scale meant that we had a job to get heard. As well as the General Assembly of Gipuzkoa and the Parliament of Navarre agreeing with our proposal not to obey the Muzzle Law, the Parliament of Euskadi – which is guarded by the police – accepted our proposal almost unanimously.

Unfortunately, time ended up confirming the position of the only people who voted against ARGIA's proposal. "You are breaking laws in a senseless way", said Carmelo Barrio as he stared at EAJ and PS representatives: "You are not going to carry out what you have passed today". Since then, the Basque Autonomous Police have confirmed his words 2,857 times, as has interior minister Beltran de Heredia once: "We are here to obey the law" were her simple words.

We did not go to class on the day our politics teacher explained that "What is said in parliament often stays there". And we simply believed that citizens, stakeholders in society, political parties and a parliamentary majority would be enough to change the police force's attitude.

A precedent to what?

Since fining us, the government has paid no heed to statements made by journalists' associations and important international civil rights associations. The Spanish ombudsman – Soledad Becerril – was not helped by being a member of the governing PP, and Rajoy refused to listen to her request to quash the fine. But then, all of a sudden, six days before the trial, they decided to turn back. Javier de Andres, Urquijo's successor, explained that there were administrative problems with the fine. In order not to address the issue in itself, he used the customary legal excuse. Nobody questions the fact that the decision has more to do with the current political situation than with justice being done or with protecting rights. They do not want to see the Muzzle Law and the right to record the police in the courts at the moment, and, according to some wicked tongues, our case was no help to the continuation of sweet talks between PSOE, EAJ and PP.

We know that this is not a legal precedent because they have avoided the real issue. They have not desisted with regard to punishments with the same lack of explanation or even less explanation.

Apart from legal attempts to stop the Muzzle Law, this year-long story also has a political side to it. Which, if so wished, could become a precedent. As a result of not remaining silent, using arguments which can win and being stimulated into action by being a small organisation, thanks to the encouragement of independent media and citizens' movements. We wanted to show that it is still worth protesting nowadays, standing up against self-censorship, we journalists not rejecting our own rights. Reporting on work carried out in public by public employees can in no way be a crime. And, even under the terms of the Muzzle Law, we have shown that the right lines can be drawn.

We think depending on the earth we tread on. The ARGIA community, which grows from day to day, is a fine place to jump off from, and to go anywhere.

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