Perhaps it was the 45,000 demonstrations Amnesty International have reported took place during 2012 in Spain which has caused the government to feel that the time has come to deal with the revolting peasants. When people are out of work, under pressure to keep a roof over their head and feed their children, yet are faced daily, with the very public daliances and corruption of the rich and powerful, who seem incapable of keeping their behaviour private, silence tends to give way to revolt. Not an unreasonable response you may say but sadly the Spanish government does not agree. In fact, they have brought in draconian measures to keep the Spanish public silent. The new law called the Public Security Law, commonly dubbed the Ley Mordaza (the gagging law) has been compared to the lack of public freedoms under the dictatorship of General Franco and some elements, quite frankly, are a bit ridiculous.
Only a few years ago, on a weekend, literally hundreds of young Spaniards would gather in my town on the main beach road for a Botellon. To other Europeans this conjures up fears of mass vandalism, damage to property and of course a fair few punch ups. Not at all, this was a very polite affair where the hatches of your Ford Fiestas, VW Golf etc were opened to reveal a full bar facility including ice bucket and glasses. The youngsters would gather on mass, play some music, nothing rowdy just enough to let the girls have a dance round their handbags on the pavement, and open up their boot bar. On several occasions while out for a walk or at a nearby bar I have been offered a drink by a friendly, very sober young Spaniard just keen to share his night out. My friend a local tapas bar owner would happily sell them cigarettes and when asked, which was infrequent, let the ladies use his loo to touch up their make and make themselves more confortable, but thanks to the new laws the Botellon no longer exists. Anyone caught trying to bring back those happy nights will be fined 600€ and if the kids don’t pay, the parents will be held responsible. Party poopers I hear you say.
Likewise, you cannot get up at a public meeting, whether it be a speech, sports event or religious ceremony and prevaricate. What would a town council planning meeting be without the obligatory agitator? During how many speeches is there no verbal response at all from the public, and how many cricket matches have been cheered up by a bare backside running across the pitch only to be rugby tackled by a police officer, who then uses his helmet to cover up the naughty bits. Well all that witty banter has been resigned to the dungeon in Spain, as you now stand to be fined between 600€ and 30,000€ for disrupting a public event.
As for making your unhappiness with the new law known, forget it, the fine for organising or taking part in an unauthorised protest can result in a fine of 30,000€ – 600,000€. Likewise, using Twitter, Facebook or any other form of social media to insight people to protest will also be punishable by a fine.
Where these new laws become worrying is how they relate to the police. You can now be fined for taking an unauthorised photograph of a police officer and more worryingly “showing a lack of respect” to those in uniform or failing to assist security forces in the prevention of a public disturbance. These misdeneanours, could result in a fine of 500€ to 30,000€.
Quite how you quantify disrespecting a person in uniform I am not sure. For instance, will the Chipendales still be allowed to wear police and firemen uniforms on stage when touring Spain? Sorry ladies, I don’t know, but I was always taught that you have to earn respect, it is not a god given right but perhaps my parents were wrong on that. While I joke about this point, it is the fundamental flaw in these new laws. It is what the legal eagles call “undefined legal concepts”. These are concepts which require a subjective assessment or non objective measurement. This affects crimes where a decision has to be taken on whether “reasonable” force was applied or whether an act or spoken words constituted “an affront to national dignity”. What affronts you, may not affront me. Likewise, what I consider to be reasonable force may not be what you consider reasonable. These concepts need to exist in law because it is not always possible to quantify or specify everything in a detailed way but they are intended to be used with considerable caution when applied to the rights and liberties of the general public.
More worryingly, these concepts often have to be assessed in difficult situations, on the spur of the moment, when faced with a particular event. Is the layman qualified to make judgement as to whether something said by a protester, is an affront to national dignity, or a legitimate expression of his freedom of speech? The fear is that these laws facilitate abuses of power and open up legal loopholes.
Another problem with this law relates to the creation of new administrative infractions which often carry disproportionate fines. A fine of up to 30,000€ for an individual, may be seen as disproportionate when levied against a person spontaneously protesting about their eviction from their home for instance. A bit of angst woud be expected by most reasonable people at a time like this, when someone is losing everything, possibly thorugh no fault of their own.
The government brought in these reforms despite the disapproval of all 14 opposition parties. They brought them in by using their majority and claim to be doing this based on the criteria established by criminal law experts who advise that their discipline be used as a final answer to social problems often called the “principle of last resort” but we all know that when you have reasoned with the child, talked to the child, shouted at the child and finally smacked the child, you have in fact lost the battle. Many people feel that the Spanish government has twisted this principle and is following it in a slightly warped way. The most fundamental flaw is, that these administrative fractions are meant to be imposed by a judge in a court. A person who has years of legal experience and has built up a sense of judgement from that experience. To use the same system where they will be applied by lay people, by administrators or police officers, leaves the accused with few means to defend himself. The individual is therefore left with the choice of paying the fine more or less “on the spot” or having to go to court and risk the cost of the whole process.
Furthermore, a registry is to be set up where your sins will be kept in a personal file. The excuse being that they can follow recidivist acts and that will help them to work out if there is a pattern emerging which might affect the public´s safety. What a load of wallop, all it will do is give the government the ability to pinpoint members of the public who are not prepared to knuckle down and keep quiet. In my view, when you start to keep files of this kind in a democracy, you are only one step away, from failing to be a democracy.