Spain, Freedom of Expression and the Real Threats Against Democracy | Opinion

Following the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél, the world witnessed a substantial campaign of disinformation aimed at discrediting Spain's democracy.

During a visit to Russia by the European Union's Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the block's stance on his regime's treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny by bringing up Spain's "hypocrisy" regarding the rapper's plight.

Quick off the mark, Venezuelan tyrant Nicolás Maduro cynically expressed his "concern" at Spain's supposed disregard for the freedom of expression.

The independentist Catalan government and its well-oiled propaganda machinery jumped on the bandwagon with a series of misleading statements and half-truths aimed at questioning Spain's democracy.

This broad narrative presents Hasél's arrest as an attack on free speech and artistic creation, which is where half-truths commenced.

Hasél's criminal record begins with a 2014 conviction on charges of glorifying terrorism. His actions included specifically encouraging Basque terrorist group ETA to "blow up" Socialist politician Patxi López's car. Hasél also lamented that Catalan terrorists had failed to assassinate journalist Federico Jiménez Losantos when Terra Lliure (a Catalan separatist terrorist organization active between 1978 and 1995) had him kidnapped and shot.

Shortly after, the rapper sent death threats to former Socialist mayor of Lérida Angel Ros, who did not press charges. In 2016, Hasél physically assaulted a journalist from Catalan TV network TV3 and he was sentenced to pay 12,000 euros in compensation to the victim. In 2017, he assaulted a witness during the course of a trial.

The latter two cases included suspended prison sentences, the second of which was confirmed last month. Claiming that Pablo Hasél was sent to prison "for exercising his right to freedom of expression" is a blatant manipulation of the truth.

These misrepresentations are invariably linked to the tired canards of Catalan nationalism, which range from presenting former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont as someone who's been "forced into exile" to repeating the baseless mantra that there are "political prisoners" in Spain.

All of these claims have been repeatedly debunked: Puigdemont fled Spain to escape his arrest and trial on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. The politicians imprisoned (during what even Amnesty International recognized as a "fair trial") were sentenced for a variety of charges, including sedition, abuse of office and misuse of public funds.

In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights noted that the actions of Spain's constitutional institutions were "necessary in the context of a democratic society's preservation of public safety, law and order, and for the protection of the civil rights and liberties of all citizens."

In June 2019, the ECHR ruled that complaints made by former Catalan officials were "manifestly ill-founded," and that their illegal approval of so-called transitional laws effectively suspended the political rights of the opposition, preventing non-nationalist parties in the Catalan chamber "from carrying out their duty of representation."

Ultimately, the Kremlin, Venezuela and Catalan nationalism's campaigns of disinformation against Spain are largely aimed at the European Union: They are trying to camouflage their own breaches of political and human rights by claiming that EU member states, such as Spain, do exactly that.

This is in stark contrast with objective reality.

Following the consolidation of democracy in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights upheld 167 cases against Spain: these pale into insignificance when compared with the 340 cases of Germany, 547 of the United Kingdom, 1,013 of France or 2,396 of Italy in the same period, to name a few comparable nations with rarely questioned human rights records.

Spain's democratic credentials were confirmed by indicators such as those utilized by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Spain is one of the world's 22 full democracies and is one of only a handful of nations to have maintained this status every year from 2006—hardly a threat for the EU.

Spanish flag
The Spanish flag waves in the wind. Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The biggest threats to rule of law, peacekeeping and individual freedoms in Spain and Europe stem precisely from violent expressions of exclusionary nationalism and populism. We have seen them in action in the streets of Catalonia in recent days. These are often romanticized by juvenile commentators who know very little about the supremacist and authoritarian undertones of the Catalan independence establishment, with its stifling control of education, media, the public budget and even the streets.

In recent weeks, we witnessed how protesters attempted to burn a police van in Barcelona with two local policemen trapped inside. The nationalist elite ruling Catalonia for almost four decades seems either incapable or unwilling to maintain public order, with their government coalition dependent on the votes of the antisystem CUP, the political faction behind Arran, one of the violent groups leading the ongoing protests and lootings.

Many of the protester's features are shared with the mobs that assaulted the Capitol in Washington on January 6: law-abiding Catalans have to put up with the Orwellian situation that sees their regional government harangue the mobs into violent action before sending their autonomous police to confront the monster they themselves created.

This is a strategy of intimidation that yields dividends for the Catalan independence movement: increased chaos and instability serve the dual purpose of further alienating non-nationalist Catalans, who are once again excluded from the public space, while exerting political pressure to fuel the false sense of victimhood that many naïve commentators readily lap up.

Over the past few months, academics from Catalan universities have compiled an audio-visual repository to illustrate the oppressive nature of Catalan nationalism, its suffocating and authoritarian grip on power and its constant breach of individual, linguistic, ideological and educational rights, among others.

The regional government of Catalonia, often in collaboration with regimes such as Russia or Venezuela, has built a carefully crafted propaganda network across academic and journalistic circles, channeling public funds to create artificial "research clusters" via institutions such as Diplocat, ANC, Òmnium Cultural and others.

Their main purpose is to erode Spain's image abroad to gain an unlikely international recognition for their false claims of oppression–an oppression that they readily exert over non-nationalist Catalans themselves.

The type of simplistic, and ultimately false, account represented by ideological narratives such as the one concerning Hasél's arrest responds to a coalescence of anti-European, anti-democratic interests spearheaded by populist and nationalistic movements which seek to undermine the foundations of democracy for both Spain and the European Union.

Dr. Carlos Conde Solares is chair of Spain's Foro de Profesores and a senior lecturer in Spanish History at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.