Angry words: rapper’s jailing exposes Spain’s free speech faultlines

Pablo Hasél had promised he wouldn’t go quietly, and he kept his word.

The Spanish rapper, whose jailing this week has sparked violent unrest and a political row within Spain’s socialist-led coalition government, barricaded himself in the university of the Catalan city of Lleida on Monday.

In one of his last tweets before police entered the campus and bundled him away to start a nine-month sentence, Hasél called on supporters to keep “denouncing those guilty of fucking up so many lives”.

His words, it seems, have struck home. In cities across the country, crowds of demonstrators have burned property and pelted police with objects every night since to vent their anger at the rapper’s “abduction”.

The case of Hasél, jailed on Tuesday for exalting terrorism in his lyrics and tweets, has also laid bare a deep divide in Spain over free speech and the country’s democratic values.

As mainly young protesters vent their rage at his sentence, the case is forcing the government to finally confront some of the country’s laws and its judiciary, which stands accused of playing an increasingly reactionary role in society and politics.

The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, acknowledged on Friday that Spanish democracy had work to do “when it comes to widening and improving the protection of freedom of expression”. But, he added: “In a full democracy, there is no place whatsoever for any kind of violence, and there are no exceptions.”

Despite the protests – in which a young woman reportedly lost an eye to a police foam bullet and the newspaper offices of El Periódico de Catalunya were attacked – many people in Spain support Hasél’s imprisonment.

They say his lyrics and tweets are an unacceptable humiliation of the victims of terrorism and incite hatred against the police and the country’s former king. In sentencing him, judges argued that the violence of his words might translate into violence on the ground, and conservatives point to the aftermath of his arrest to prove the point.

To many others, however, including people who find Hasél’s lyrics deeply crass, his jailing is the most extreme example yet of a worrying sign that Spain’s judicial system is punishing people not for what they have done, but what they have said, sung, tweeted or drawn.

Amnesty International, and Spanishcelebrities such as Javier Bardem and Pedro Almodóvar, say Hasél’s sentence – and other jailings – are having a chilling effect on freedom of speech.

A week before Hasél’s jailing, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist Podemos party and one of Spain’s four deputy prime ministers, suggested the country had not fully turned the page on the 1939 to 1975 extreme-right dictatorship: “It is obvious that Spain does not have a situation of political and democratic normality,” he said.

A saturnine figure who looks older than his 32 years, Hasél (real name Pablo Rivadulla Duro), might seem an unlikely figure to be lionised in graffiti and murals across Spain. Modelling himself on pioneers of aggressively political Spanish rap such as Kase O, he is a household name less for his art than for his well-publicised brushes with the law since 2011.

He is now serving his first custodial sentence, but he has been tried several times in the past for tweets and lyrics. He was also given a separate two-and-a-half year sentence for threatening to kill a man at a bar, and another six-month sentence for assaulting a TV journalist during a press conference in 2016.

Some of Hasél’s verbal attacks depict Spain’s former king Juan Carlos I as a “mafia boss” who has cosied up to Saudi tyrants. Diatribes against the police claim they “sow racism” and “murder with impunity”.
 Those tweets were deemed to have fallen foul of Spain’s penal code that criminalises “insulting” the crown and the police.

For this Hasél was ordered to pay a hefty fine. But it is the lyrics and tweets that approvingly allude to terrorist figures that carry the much more serious charge of “glorification of terrorism” and which eventually earned Hásel a custodial sentence.

“I don’t give a damn about the bullet in the back of your neck, pepero,” is one example of such a sentiment, scrutinised in an earlier trial. Pepero is a nickname for those who support Spain’s centre-right People’s party, several members of which were murdered by the Basque terrorist group Eta in the 1990s.

Hasél is not the only rapper whom Spain’s judges have seen fit to imprison and punish on similar charges: In 2018 the Mallorcan musician known as Valtònyc received a custodial sentence on the basis of some of his lyrics and escaped to Belgium a day before he was due to enter jail.

Other figures in the arts have also found themselves at the sharp end of the penal code in recent years, a situation that is a source of deep concern to the international arts advocacy group Freemuse.

Srirak Plipat, the director of the Denmark-based organisation, said: “I think that freedom of speech in Spain has been in decline in the past 10 years.”

This deterioration that Plipat claims has occurred may be a significant factor in understanding why the Hasél case is causing such unrest.

A decade ago, Spain was still deeply affected by the global financial crash. By 2011, youth unemployment was approaching 50%. Anti-austerity measures, and a general contempt for Spanish political culture, triggered the “15th of May” movement (15M), which launched Podemos and the career of Iglesias. Its young adherents occupied town squares all over Spain.

In 2012 Catalonia took over from Basque separatism as the new faultline in Spain’s shaky unity. The Catalan movement to secede from Spain culminated in Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum of 2017, during which people were filmed being beaten by police as they tried to vote.

During the same period, a flood of royal scandals damaged the popularity of the monarchy. The revelation that King Juan Carlos I had gone elephant-hunting with his lover in Botswana while Spain languished in austerity-era misery caused widespread outrage. The once-venerated royal was forced to abdicate in favour of his son in 2014.

Around this time, Iglesias coined the term “the caste” to describe the establishment political parties, big business interests, and the judges. The term was adopted by adherents of 15M , and the “caste”, clinging to the old certainties of monarchy and a united Spain, began to feel the heat.

Last year that pressure intensified after the bombshell allegation that Juan Carlos had taken kick-backs in Saudi Arabia totalling $100m (£70m).

According to Plipat and other free speech advocates, these crises prompted conservative politicians and judges to start using free speech laws to curb the torrent of tweeted anger.

Plipat notes that judges began to use the glorification of terrorism charge with greater frequency from 2015.

Daniel Canales, a researcher for Amnesty International’s Madrid office, also says that conservative lawmakers stiffened sentences related to exalting terrorism in that same year: “Those 2015 reforms were enacted clearly in response to all that social mobilisation and all that activism.”

The emergence of Hasél, a far-left, anti-monarchist Catalan as a nationwide symbol is not so much because of what he says or expresses, but because he represents the logical conclusion of this law and order crackdown.

With their crude references to terrorist victims, Hasél and Valtònyc can be regarded as outliers. But since 2015 much milder forms of expression have landed people in court. The judicial environment has created what Canales calls a dangerous “deterrent effect”.

Guille Martínez-Vela, the editor of the Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves, is all too familiar with the threat of being hit by the penal code. In 2017, as thousands of extra police officers were dispatched to Catalonia in the run-up to the illegal referendum, his publication joked that the riot police had snorted the region’s entire supply of cocaine.

While the supposed fondness of the police for drugs is a comic trope in Spain, Martínez-Vela was denounced by the national police and summoned to a hearing.

The police argued that the joke was whipping up anti-police hatred. Martínez-Vela said the hate speech laws were designed to protect minorities, not a powerful, state-backed collective. 
The charges were eventually dropped.

But Martínez-Vela was shaken by the experience: 
“When I’m drawing or writing a joke for the magazine now, I’m always thinking ‘how would I defend this in front of a judge?’… that’s the chilling effect: the idea that if you joke about the police, they can take you to court.”

There are plenty of other examples including in 2017, when a student, Cassandra Vera, was given a suspended jail sentence for tweeting a joke about the 1973 assassination by Eta of the last prime minister to serve under Franco, and in 2016 a band of puppeteers faced criminal charges for supposedly exalting Eta in a street production in Madrid.
 Vera’s sentence was later reversed by Spain’s supreme court, while the puppeteers were eventually absolved.

But there are signs a change could be on the way from the government, which last week announced plans to amend the law so that “verbal excesses made in the context of artistic, cultural or intellectual acts” did not result in prison sentences.

A government spokeswoman said it wanted “to provide a much more secure framework for freedom of expression”. Podemos is seeking to go further with changes which would modify or suppress the glorification of terrorism clauses altogether.

Proponents for change can even be found in the judiciary. A senior serving Spanish judge, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity said: “The mentality of some judges is very conservative, they have ideas that are not progressive about fundamental rights … and this leads to these interpretations.

“I think that, in general, other people [in the judiciary] agree that these laws should be changed. For me, the limit to freedom of expression should only be when there is a direct message to go out and hurt someone.”

There was no justification for a rap lyric ever to require a jail sentence, the judge said. “I think that is absolutely disproportionate. We are putting it at the same level as stabbing someone.”

For the judge the Hasél case raises deep questions about Spanish society and its relationship to the monarchy.

“Maybe we have very fragile institutions and there is a tendency to overprotect them. Mature societies, after all, can deal with these kinds of criticisms without having to go to courts of law.”