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Catalonia's alarming free expression climate

Journalists work in the press workroom as now deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont addresses the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Spain, 10 October 2017
Journalists work in the press workroom as now deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont addresses the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Spain, 10 October 2017

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 23 November 2017.

PEN International is extremely concerned about increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and opinion in Catalonia during and following the referendum on independence of 1 October 2017. As the upcoming regional election on 21 December draws near, the organisation is particularly alarmed by reports of unprecedented levels of harassment and violence against journalists.

"For any election to be free and fair, it is vital and self-evident that journalists should be able to work without harassment, intimidation, and undue interference, so that they can operate freely, talk to anyone they want, and write what they wish. The media has a legitimate role in a democracy: as a watchdog, as a platform for campaigns, as an open forum for debate, and as a public educator, so that people can participate fully and meaningfully in the elections. The way the Spanish Government has reacted to the crisis so far is a cause of great concern, and it is contrary to the kind of message Spain - like the European Union - conveys to other countries with bitterly contested and partisan elections. Democracy begins at home," said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee.

Following the credible and well-documented reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies on voting day 0 which require thorough and impartial investigation by an independent expert body - PEN International is further highlighting a rapidly worsening climate for press freedom. The rising polarisation of the debate around Catalonian independence is having a direct impact on media freedom, characterised by a lack of balanced reporting on both sides of the debate, including in public service broadcasting. Examples of the deteriorating climate for freedom of expression include:

- Cases of journalists being subjected to harassment on social media, and in some cases physical violence. Both those in favour and against Catalan independence are reported to have been involved, with public and private actors said to be implicated in these acts;
- The judicial authorities pursuing 'insult' charges against the editor of the satirical El Jueves magazine as well as radio comedian Eduard Biosca for jokes they made about Spanish police officers;
- Teachers from three schools in La Seu d'Urgell are under investigation for alledgedly promoting hate speech, following classroom debates about the referendum and the crackdown by Spanish police; and,
- A teacher was reportedly briefly arrested and remains under investigation for alleged incitement of hatred for having criticised the police violence on social media.

PEN International has already expressed concern about the use of judicial measures to clamp down on democratic debate in Catalonia and the use, in some cases, of pre-trial detention for criminal charges for non-violent expression of dissenting political opinion. Among others, this includes high-profile cases such as the indictement of senior secessionist civil society leaders Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart for rebellion and sedition, as well as similar charges against high-profile political leaders and cases against scores of local politicians on charges including criminal disobedience, prevarication and misuse of public funds.

"A democratic election is not possible when governments inhibit or chill freedom of expression during the electoral campaign," said Marjan Strojan, chair of PEN International's Witers for Peace Committee. He added that "The Spanish authorities must show restraint and accept that also separatist speech can contribute to pluralism and must be tolerated in a democratic society, as long as it does not incite violence."

PEN International underscores the importance of unhindered freedom of expression and a free press as cornerstones of a democratic society. In the context of the coming election campaign starting on 6 December 2017, we call upon the Spanish and Catalan authorities to:

  • Take all necessary measures to ensure a free and fair election, including with regard to the media in particular:
  • - Ensure that journalists can perform their job without undue interference; and,
  • - Guarantee access to media and ensure unbiased coverage and equal treatment of all political parties by public service media;
  • Abstain from using the judiciary as a tool for supressing freedom of opinion, expression and debate; and,
  • Take all necessary measures to engender a climate conducive to allowing the Catalan people to peacefully express their political opinions, including on self-determination.

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