The New Gatekeepers

Anti-terrorism and hate-speech law catches musicians and students instead

March 15, 2018

One of the risks when governments try to curb what they see as offensive speech is that other kinds of speech are caught in the same net. One of the most recent examples comes from Spain, where a vague anti-terrorism law has been used to charge and even imprison musicians and other artists.

In a new report on the phenomenon, entitled “Tweet… If You Dare,” Amnesty International looks at the rise in prosecutions under Article 578 of the country’s criminal code, which prohibits “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating the victims of terrorism.” The law has been around since 2000, but was amended in 2015 and since then prosecutions and convictions have risen sharply. In the report, Amnesty International says:

Freedom of expression in Spain is under attack. The government is targeting a whole range of online speech–from politically controversial song lyrics to simple jokes–under the catch-all categories of “glorifying terrorism” and “humiliating the victims of terrorism.” Social media users, journalists, lawyers, and musicians have been prosecuted [and] the result is increasing self-censorship and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression in Spain.

Among those who have been hit by the law are a musician who tweeted a joke about sending the king a cake-bomb for his birthday and was sentenced to a year in prison, and a rapper who was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail for writing songs that the government said glorified terrorism and insulted the crown. A filmmaker and a journalist have also been charged under the anti-terrorism law, and a student who tweeted jokes about the assassination of the Spanish prime minister in 1973 was also sentenced to a year in prison, although her sentence was suspended after a public outcry.

Some free-speech advocates are afraid that new laws either in force or being considered in Germany, France and even the United Kingdom could accelerate this problem. In all three countries, legislators say they are concerned about hate speech, online harassment, and fake news, but the definition of those problems is so vague there is a risk that other kinds of speech could also be criminalized—especially when enforcement of those rules gets outsourced to platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Read more from The New Gatekeepers blog.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.