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Spain's freedom of speech put to the test

Stefan Dege
February 19, 2021

The arrest of the Spanish rapper Hasel has made waves and triggered violent protests. Many in the culture scene fear for the country's freedom of speech. Are their concerns justified?

People on the street at night, wearing face masks and holding a poster that reads free  Pablo
Protests followed the arrest of Catalan rap singer Pablo HaselImage: Nacho Doce/REUTERS

The footage of Pablo Hesel's arrest made headlines around the world: fist raised, surrounded by armed police officers, the frowning rapper wishes death to the "fascist state." Protests against the arrest escalated and turned into riots. Trash cans burned, windows were smashed and fire hoses ripped out. Outraged supporterstook to the streets by the thousands to demand Hasel's release.

Rapper Pablo Hasel extends arm with fist
Rapper Pablo Hasel upon his arrestImage: Lorena Sopena/REUTERS

Protesters clashed with the police in several cities in Spain, dozens of people were injured and at least 42 were arrested, according to Europa Press news agency who quoted the authorities.

It seems the 32-year-old rapper from Spain's Catalan region has become a symbolic figure in a dispute about freedom of speech. His lyrics show that there's only a fine line between what is seen as permissible criticism and a punishable insult. "Hey, tyrant," he recently rapped a message to the reigning Spanish king. In his latest song, ″Ni Felipe VI," he pledges that "we are the rage that strives for revolution. You will not numb us."

Star on Spain's rap scene

Hasel's lyrics and tweets abound with harsh language full of rage and anger, peppered with threats of violence and black-and-white images. He attacks the monarchy and the state, and lashes out at what he regards to be evil — social inequality, capitalism, the USA. That radical approach has made him a star in the Spanish rap scene. For his supporters, Hasel is an icon in terms of freedom of expression.

Amnesty International also condemned Hasel's imprisonment, posting on Twitter: "No one should face criminal prosecution only for expressing themselves on social media or for singing something that may be distasteful or shocking." 

A similar case occurred in 2018, when the Supreme Court in Madrid sentenced the Spanish musician Josep Miquel Arenas, who goes by the stage name Valtonyc, to 3.5 years in prison without parole. He was accused of inciting violence with his provocative lyrics insulting the police, the monarchy and corrupt politicians.

The rapper fled to Brussels to escape imprisonment. Belgium has so far ignored the European arrest warrant because the country says Valtonyc is protected by freedom of expression.

Mural with a man's face and words demaning free Hasel
This mural in Granada, Spain demands Hasel's freedomImage: Fermin Rodriguez/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Sentence overshoots mark

Hasel faces a 2.5-year prison sentence for "glorifying terrorism," according to the Spanish judiciary. The sentence is based on anti-terrorism legislation passed in 2015 — despite international criticism — under conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

It is a "muzzle law," says Carlos Collado Seidel, former secretary general of the German PEN Center, pointing out that it originally targeted ETA terrorism. However, the Basque underground organization, which originated as a resistance movement against the Franco dictatorship, officially disbanded in 2018. "The sentence against Hasel is clearly excessive," he says.

a woman and two men with posters in front of the courthouse
'Rebellion is a right': Fans in front of the courthouse Image: pciture-alliance/AP Photo/P. White

Walther L. Bernecker, a renowned professor of foreign studies at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, also considers the reaction of the Spanish authorities to be excessive: "So what about insult to the majesty in a democratic-parliamentary state?" he argues. "If Hasel calls the royal family a mafia-like gang after daily Spanish media reports on corruption cases in the royal family: Where do you draw the line?"

The debate on Spain's monarchy is heated, Bernecker says, adding that it remains to be seen whether the former king, Juan Carlos, will one day have to defend himself in court because of the accusations.

However, neither Collado Seidel nor Bernecker see a serious threat to freedom of expression in Spain.

Böhmermann case in Germany

Bernecker points out that Germany recently changed its antiquated "lese majeste" law, which criminalized insults against foreign heads of state. 

It was removed from the penal code as a result of the Böhmermann casein Germany, where a controversial poem by Jan Böhmermann about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sparked a diplomatic crisis between Germany and Turkey in 2016 and led to an investigation against the German comedian.

Is Spain following Germany's lead? The Spanish government has vowed to do so, but it comes too late for Pablo Hasel.

Meanwhile, about 200 Spanish artists and intellectuals are backing the convicted rapper, including renowned filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, actor Javier Bardem and singer Joan Manuel Serrat. They signed an appeal in which they accuse the Spanish state of following the example of countries like Turkey or Morocco: "If we allow Pablo to be arrested, it could be any one of us tomorrow."