Freedom of Expression, Democratic Strength

Carme Arenas

Silence won’t protect you
Audre Lorde

One of the first symptoms of a weak political power is a systematic attack on the right to freedom of expression. It’s an inversely proportionate formula: less freedom, more weakness, because we only attack those whose opinions differ from ours when we don’t have the arguments to respond to them or the capacity to debate them. Advanced societies know that censorship is never the solution, and that repressing the view of the majority also tends to come at a high cost, like a weak democracy, the perversion of institutions, constant protest or direct repression. All of this has deep repercussions.

Over the past few years, the Spanish state has been manoeuvring to strip away our individual and collective liberties, and we’re currently facing a limitless degradation of democratic principles. Many of our human rights organizations already warned of the short-term consequences of the so-called “gag law” passed in 2015, which automatically made things that until then had only been contraventions into criminal offenses. The reform of the penal code has resulted in a profound change in the punitive model, and in an alarming growth in repression and social control, aimed principally at the impoverished classes and social protests. It has had devastating effects, especially in the field of artistic creation: we now see two- or three-year sentences being doled out for the lyrics of a song, for the words of a fictional character, for a comment or a joke on social media, for a parody… Suddenly, an extremely thin-skinned sector has appeared that is allowed to say whatever it wants without consequence, but that accepts no criticism and uses the justice system (which should protect us all) to fight a supposed enemy they could face with just debate.

October 1st particularly set off this tendency, which many of the organizations that consider the right to freedom of expression fundamental had already denounced before international institutions. When a state promotes the criminalization of a part of society it considers contrary to its interests, when it uses a judicial system it has shaped through laws to do its bidding, when it reaches the absurd extreme of shutting down Twitter accounts or websites simply because they don’t fall in line with its position, all of us are affected. Everyone who wants to exercise their inalienable right is being gagged. This deterioration needs to be stopped, because when everything is confused and language itself is perverted, we drift away from democracy. I would say that we all want to live in an advanced society, but there can be no advanced society without freedom, and there is no freedom without respect for human rights.

Carme Arenas
President of PEN Catalonia