By William J. Furney
It seems hard to imagine that just a few short decades ago, European holiday favourite Spain was a full-on dictatorship, ruled by Francisco Franco, and the last bastion of facism in a continent that had been riddled with the problematic way of doing things.
People, in general, are not fond of authoritarianism and have an indelible human wish to express themselves, in all kinds of ways — in voting for those who represent them and make laws; in thinking and believing what they want; and in expressing their views, sometimes publicly, via social media.
In Spain this week, an artist was locked up for making his opinions known.
The enlightened world is sadly used to dark parts of the globe using dubious legislation to deal with those with a conscience who dare to stand up and speak up to power. It happens almost daily in places like China, the Middle East and Africa, where you can be disappeared or stand trial and be jailed and put to death for anything from coronavirus reporting to renouncing your religion and declaring that there, actually, is no god (there almost likely is no big-bearded man sitting on a cloud, and it’s not about spirituality but control).
We like to think that our musicians and other artists, including painters, have artistic license to pursue their passions, explore their thoughts and emotions and present them in some, enjoyable, form to the world.
Spain did not like what rapper Pablo Hasel had to say, and jailed the artist, leading to days of violence on the streets of the country that continue into this weekend and among a population of expressive people that is rightly outraged by his nine months’ incarceration.
Hasel made his views about terrorism and the Spanish royal family known on social media and in his lyrics. The now-32-year-old was was convicted of “glorifying terrorism” and slandering the Spanish police and crown, in a drawn-out case that dates back to 2014 and includes a suspended sentence if Hasel did not offend with his views again.
The Spanish royal family is only in place and enjoying their privileged position because the old king — now in exile in the Middle East, amid broiling scandals about his finances — was appointed by Franco, in 1969, and since then, it’s been one scandal after another.
Are we in Thailand, with its obscene lese majeste law that results in jail for anyone saying anything derogatory about its scandal-ridden royal family?
People, and the media, in Britain routinely lampoon and say less-than-favorable things about the police, religion and the monarchy, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s all part of a modern, mature democracy: if something can’t stand up to criticism, maybe it shouldn’t stand at all.
Another Spanish rapper, Valtonyc, was forced in similar circumstances to flee Spain in 2018, to relatively nearby Belgium, which refused to send him back to face three and a half years in jail for expressing his views in his tunes. “The judge understands that this is freedom of expression and that none of the phrases in his songs contained criminal content,” Spanish news agency EFE (my former employer, when I was Indonesia correspondent) quoted his lawyer, Gonzalo Boye, as saying at the time of the Belgian court decision, the same year.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has hinted that legislation regarding free speech is in need of reform, but he hit out at the protests rocking Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities this week that saw dozens of people arrested and widescale looting from smashed-up stores and public facilities like large rubbish and recycling containers burned.
“In a full democracy, and Spain is a full democracy, violence of any kind is unacceptable. Because that is not freedom, it is an attack on the freedom of others,” the El Pais newspaper quoted him as saying.
Spanish journalist Daniel Gascon, writing in The New York Times this week, said the judges’ decision to jail Hasel was “debatable” and that the rapper had certainly been crudely vociferous in his criticism.
“The language Hasel uses is foul: he accuses the security forces (the most common being torture) and criticises the monarchy, and his way of talking about terrorism is disgusting. But when one defends freedom of expression, it does so regardless of the merit of what is expressed,” Gascon wrote.
Certainly, Spain’s government and its judicial system is guilty — of breaching Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
There is never anything to gain in shutting people up. Freedom of speech and expression means listening to all opinions, whether you like them or not. It’s a fundamental, warts-and-all part of being human; take it away, and you’re in the kind of hellish, censoring dictatorship that the people of China suffer and where only one, official line is acceptable.
That is no way to live.