What happens to a “small fish”?

In the beginning of the year, the Spanish ‘mouth curve law’ proved once again to be an effective weapon for censorship of artists by trying to restrict their freedom of expression.

By Ashante J. Ford & Olivia E. Yderholm 

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Verdi street at 3 p.m. showing the yellow ribbons on every tree. by Olivia Yderholm

The sun is high in the blue-sky, along Verdi street in the heart of Barcelona, Catalan flags and yellow ribbons pave the way for a symbiosis of a proud nation. Some people want independence, others demand the release of political prisoners. All of it is interpreted as radical living while proud people in Barcelona stand in their truth.

The arrest of musician Pablo Hasel, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla, in February 2021 has reignited the debate over freedom of expression, democracy, and artistic freedom in Spain. People are questioning how a spanish musician can be arrested for insulting police and monarchy in his lyrics, when they should be protected by the right to express oneself freely.

“Being an artist in Spain is complicated, since we inherit a culture that comes from many years of fascism and its cultural purge. The case of Pablo Hasel is the tip of the Iceberg, of a censorious attitude towards political realities that they prefer to ignore,” street artist Joel Arroyo explains. 

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Joel Arroyos’ art by Ashante Ford

Small fish goes to prison
Artists in Spain are among the most vulnerable in the world if they practice political art explains freelance journalist Lea Bander who elaborates, how this occurs when a ‘small fish’ is placed in the spotlight:

“The government uses the small fish like Pablo Hasel to set an example of ‘what happens’ when you speak out against the government – so, think about that before you talk or create,” Lea Beliaeva adds.

According to The State Of Artistic Freedom 2020 report conducted by Freemuse, artists in at least 8 countries were attacked, detained and imprisoned as a result of misuses of antiterror measures. This is an alarming trend which indicates that some governments, in their efforts to assure national security, tend to unlawfully derogate human rights of their citizens. 31% of all cases were registered in Spain, which makes Spain the country in the world where most artists are detained for political reasons. But where is the line drawn concerning basic human rights?

Many Spanish laws have been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations and the Council of Europe. The critics say that laws are applied far too restrictively, imposing criminal penalties on legitimate criticism of the state. 

According to Lea Beliaeva the consequence of these austerity measures can negatively affects citizens who now, no longer date to exercise their fundamental rights:

“It’s the fear that many people have here. It’s the fear that I don’t want to infiltrate my brain as a writer. If we live in a democracy, as the government says we do, it should not be a problem to express yourself. It should not be a worry, but it still is for many” Lea Beliaeva explains. 

The words of Article 20 in the Spanish Constitution state: 

“The right to freely express your thoughts, ideas or attitudes through any media. The right to create and disseminate art, literature, science and technology.” 

According to Freedom House, Spanish citizens are free to express their views. But criticism is about the general discussion and critique of Spanish Criminal Law being a threat to freedom of speech and creative expression, which there have been many austerity measures in recent years. 

Lea Bander on her local cafe in Barcelona, by Olivia Yderholm

State security against freedom of expression
Since a law change in 2015, Spain has banned statements that glorify terrorism or humiliate the victims of terrorism. It bans speech not only for glorifying violence, but also for insulting the monarchy.

“It is often assumed that there is a trade-off between civil rights and national safety although the association is theoretically ambiguous”, this is stated in the report “Does Freedom of Expression Cause Less Terrorism?” by Christian Bjørnskov, professor of economics, Aarhus University, which also claims: 

“Many politicians, although only relatively few in Denmark, claim that freedom of expression must be restricted in order to avoid terrorism. The Spanish legislation, and also the Spanish courts, is thus in line with similar legislation in countries like Russia and several other dictatorships”.

To tackle the reality, artist Joel Arroyo explains how they use art to take the lead in a new movement:

Our weapon for this is culture and that’s why they try to belittle it, when they don’t directly judge the artist to discredit him in front of the public. If it is not legislated to provide facilities for creatives, and guarantee their freedom of expression, it will be irretrievably lost,” Joel Arroyo explains.”

According to Amnesty International around 70 people have been convicted under this law in 2018 and 2019. 

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Many places in Barcelona are covered with messages like ‘Libres’ meaning ‘Free or Unforced’
Verdi street at 3 p.m. by Olivia Yderholm

Painting their reality
Lea Beliaeva explains how the creative generation has emerged that must once again protest to preserve their rights: 

After the dictatorship, art has for a very long time been censored because of the political culture of the country. What that means is that in recent years, a movement of political art really got started when it became more accepted and normal to express yourself creatively and critically of the state.”

Recently a big creative power in Catalonia has been rising. People want to go their own ways and do their own things, instead of choosing the standard path. When they create art, whatever they create, they want to express what comes from the inside of them, Lea Bander explains, and adds: 

And of course if you talk freely about things, the job is fewer and the salary is lower. But then it’s like, what is your purpose, is your purpose to get a nice job or is our purpose to tell the truth of what is going on? Obviously the last”. 

For this, Barcelona has become the epicenter of street art where graffiti artists gathered in favor of freedom of expression, Joel Arroyo explains:

“I think we have a great artistic capital in this country. But of course it is difficult to live on your creative work, since art is not valued, and people are often surprised that someone lives from this work. But the youth do not feel institutionally represented, so we try to open a gap in the system to occupy a place in it”. 

But even though the right to freedom of expression is a right that the citizen is obliged to have, the question is whether artists should be punishable for certain creations? Where does the line go between artistic freedom and direct vandalism?

In the early hours of 28 April 2021, unidentified individuals wrote a message on the city hall and the pavement outside the newspaper El Mirall in Barcelona. Orange paint with the creators views, with the message: “dirty with lies”. 

Politicians from different political groups in the Santa Coloma City Council condemned the message which was categorized as vandalism. Does this indicate that there is a gap between artists who express their message through art and people who cause vandalism with no clear meaning?

Artists shows solidarity with Hasel by creating a series of artwork, source  

Art does not represent reality as it is
Much of this discussion is not about whether one agrees with the message or not, but it is about the fact that the general freedom of expression becomes more and more limited in Spain. 

In court in Madrid where Pablo Hasel was sentenced one judge voted against the verdict with the statement:

Partly, art does not represent reality as it is, but rather reality seen through the artist. And even if one does not like the message, it should be protected by the right to express oneself freely”.