Ideas

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The freedom of expression in the age of terror

A woman holds a banner picturing a puppeteer and reading 'They kill me' during a rally in support of two Spanish puppeters, accused of glorifying terrorism, in Granada, southern Spain, Feb. 13.

MIGUEL ANGEL MOLINA/EPA

MADRID

A foreigner visiting Spain early last month would have found shocking news on the front page of nearly every newspaper: Two puppeteers had been arrested while performing in Madrid on charges of glorifying terrorism.

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Those dramatic headlines stood in stark contrast with the harmless appearance of the accused: a pair of typical-looking street performers maneuvering marionettes in a small and cheap-looking theater. The puppet play, as it turned out, wasn’t suitable for kids and probably shouldn’t have been held in a city-owned theater. What a few years ago would have ended with just a complaint and maybe a letter to the editor, however, resulted in legal action that sent the puppeteers behind bars for a few days.

It was also during this tense month that the spokeswoman for left-wing city government of Madrid, Rita Maestre, testified in court about her role in a university protest five years ago. Maestre was 21 years old when she and a group of fellow students burst into the chapel at the Complutense University of Madrid. After lifting up her shirt and flashing her bra, she shouted slogans against the Catholic Church for meddling in the country’s public institutions.

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Justice in Spain is a little like an elephant — slow-moving with a long memory. In the five years since her university days as an activist, Maestre has became the one of the faces of Podemos, the new leftist party in Spanish politics, which took its name from a political slogan familiar to Americans, “We can.”

Days after Maestre’s court appearance, Dolors Miquel, a Catalan poet renowned for her transgressive spirit, delivered a singular version of the Lord’s Prayer during a ceremony before the Barcelona City Council. Her prayer, in praise of the vagina (she called it a “prayer to maternity”), prompted a horrified representative of the ruling conservative Popular Party to leave the hall in protest. She has been threatened with legal action for “attacking religious sentiment.”

These are not isolated cases — for some time now, there has been a troubling trend in Spain to prosecute anything considered offensive to institutions and beliefs. It’s understandable that in some European countries like ours, where terrorism ravaged everyday life for so many years, that there is a willingness to shield victims of aggression and show them the compassion that was once denied. But this noble sentiment isn’t what’s driving all the offended parties to complain so loudly.

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Stories about the freedom of speech and its limits create such a media circus that some may conclude Spain is at the edge of a precipice, just about to leap into a deep ravine of immorality. Conservative TV personalities relentlessly dissect each alleged attack against the Catholic Church in a drumbeat of coverage that provokes a state of unrest and fear in their viewers.

But all this smoke obscures the fire — the real sins that are rocking the foundations of Spanish democracy. Those are found in other courtrooms and have nothing to do with belief and everything to do with greed.

At the same time that the puppeteers and Maestre dominated talk among the political chattering classes, there were four other trials happening in Spain. In Palma de Mallorca, the son-in-law of the Spain’s emeritus king, Juan Carlos, Iñaki Urdangarín, clumsily answered charges of embezzlement, money laundering, and tax fraud, among other crimes. His wife, Cristina, is a defendant in the trial, accused of being an accomplice.

In Valencia, the Popular Party’s leadership faces accusations of money laundering and illicit funding. In the Spanish national court, the former president of Catalonia and one of the leaders of its independence movement, Jordi Pujol, faced charges of tax evasion. And in the capital of Madrid, the Popular Party itself faces allegations of irregular financing.

An astonished citizenry has watched the unending trickle of corruption cases that have stained, by extension, all the political parties that have shared power in Spain in the decades since the end of the dictatorship.

The slew of accusations against elected officials has alarmed rank and file conservative politicians. So they try to divert attention toward hot-button issues with deep emotional resonance in the country: religion and terrorism. Each issue is powerfully linked to old traumas that the country hasn’t entirely overcome — the civil war and the decades-long fight against the Basque terrorist group ETA.

Of course, the real victim today is the freedom of expression. That’s because the ultimate goal of those who attempt to curtail that right is to make citizens think that every time their beliefs are called into question they have the right to put the offending party on trial.

That’s doom for those of us who write, those of us who practice irony or sarcasm, and aspire to provoke a feeling of healthy discomfort in our readers or viewers. We’re not here to coddle the public with our words but to awaken it. Indeed, every great work of criticism has been born out of the tension between the transgressor and the establishment.

The battle lines in this fight are not as obvious and clean as one might suspect. The archbishop of Madrid, for example, forgave Rita Maestre’s act, dismissing it as a juvenile peccadillo, yet it is conservatives in government who keep demanding jail.

The sad reality is that between the possibility of punishment in a courtroom and the harsh judgment of the masses, it is us, the writers, artists, intellectuals, puppeteers — who find ourselves a little helpless. That is the sign of our times. Institutions, interest groups, political parties, the faithful . . . they have the strength to shelter their own, but we have only our names as our shields, and we face the danger alone.

Editor’s Note: This article has been translated from Spanish. Lea este artículo en español .

Elvira Lindo is a Spanish journalist and writer.
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