Spain's 'Gag Law' Comes into Effect Amid Fierce Opposition

Spain's 'gag law'
Demonstrators with their mouths taped sit outside the Spanish parliament during a protest against Spanish government's new security law in central Madrid, Spain, early July 1, 2015. Spanish government's new security law, which toughens fines for unauthorised street protests, comes into effect July 1. Critics consider it a violation of the right to protest and a limit to free expression and have labelled it "Ley Mordaza" REUTERS/Juan Medina

Spain's controversial public security law, dubbed the "gag law" by its opponents due to the restrictions it places on the right to protest, came into effect Wednesday despite widespread protests across the country.

Thousands of protesters marched in more than 30 cities across Spain yesterday on the eve of the new law, which will see demonstrators individually face up to €600,000 (approximately $663,000) in fines for unauthorized protests near key infrastructure, including transportation hubs or nuclear power plants.

It also bans unauthorized gatherings around parliament and fines of up to €30,000 ($33,000) for public disorder offenses, including neighbourhood demonstrations against evictions, reports Spanish news site The Local.

The law also allows authorities to fine journalists or media organisations who distribute unauthorised images of police and disrespecting a police officer could also be punishable by a fine of €600 ($660.) Amnesty International says that police officers will be given "broad discretion without procedural safeguards to fine people".

The law was passed in March by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party after years of anti-austerity demonstrations prompted by Spain's financial crisis which began in 2008. The majority of these protests have been peaceful.

The legislation will also enable authorities to deport migrants arriving at Spain's north African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla - the only two land borders with Africa.

On Tuesday, Greenpeace demonstrators unfurled a giant banner from a crane with "Protesting is a Right" written on it, over Spain's parliament building, where protests are now banned under the new law.

The law has also drawn criticism from the Madrid Press Association, who say that it will make the practice of journalism "less free", as well as from Spain's main police union, which said in a statement: "It's not the best timing, since we're living in clear times of social, political and economic change, made harder when a planned law hasn't gathered the necessary political or social consensus."

The leading opposition Socialist Party has also said it will rescind the law if it wins the general elections later this year.

Amnesty International's deputy director for Europe, Gauri van Gulik, told Newsweek earlier this year that "a lot of normal people are afraid to do what they want to do and what they have a right to do... I am deeply concerned that this will have a chilling, stifling effect on demonstrations, especially spontaneous ones."

"In one fell swoop, Spain is stifling freedom of expression and freedom of assembly," van Gulik added.

However, the Spanish government has repeatedly defended the law. Jorge Fernández Díaz, Spain's interior minister, said earlier this week that the law should "only worry the violent ones", and Rajoy has said in the past that the law is not a restriction on fundamental rights, but in fact one that intends to "improve the free exercise of these fundamental rights".