Has freedom of speech gone to the dogs?

LAST UPDATED: 6 Aug, 2007 @ 10:32
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Carlos Pranger analyses the sinister implications after the judiciary started legal proceedings against a newspaper and a magazine for their satirical swipes at Spain’s Royal Family

OUR hot, peaceful Spanish summer has recently been shaken by two judicial proceedings that can only be described as extraordinary. Firstly the seizure, instigated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and ordered by a judge, of issue 1,573 of the satirical magazine El Jueves. Its cover depicted a cartoon of Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia in an explicit sexual posture talking about PM Zapatero’s initiative of giving 2,500 euros to any child born in Spain since July 2007.

Secondly, two cartoonists from the Mallorca newspaper Deia, Josetxu Rodríguez y Javier Ripa, were called to declare in court. They are both accused of an offence against the Crown for their photo-montage cover of supplement Caduca Hoy. It showed King Juan Carlos I, apparently suffering from the effects of too much alcohol, hunting a drunken bear in Russia.

The controversy in Spain has been enormous and it has brought into discussion two subjects, the limits of freedom of speech and the role of the Monarchy in a democratic and secular country.

Since the transition to democracy El Jueves, as a satirical magazine, has been very critical of our capitalist system and the politicians that govern it; the weekly is an illustration of Orwell’s remark, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Since the Enlightenment, the struggle for freedom of speech has been crucial for obtaining the basic principles of liberty, self-government, the search for truth and the promotion of tolerance.

The controversial covers – especially that of El Jueves – are examples of vulgarity, nobody should end up in prison because of their bad taste. It is indefensible that penal law can punish the satire of public figures. However, the idea behind the cartoon is good; maybe it could have been developed in a more intelligent way, not using sexual connotations, as El Jueves often tends to do. El Jueves

The cartoon criticises Zapatero’s populist measure of giving 2,500 euros for every child born in Spain since July 2007, when there is a lack of basic services such as nursery schools or laws for combining family life with a professional career – especially in the case of women. The judge’s proceedings are in accordance to laws 490.3 and 491 of the Spanish penal code, which were made expressly to protect the Royal Family, who have a right to have their honour much like everyone else. However, a cartoonist or an editor should not be judged by criminal laws with sentences from six months to two years in prison.

On the other hand, I am quite sure the editors of El Jueves, an astute publication with a long tradition, were quite aware of the scandal that the cartoons would generate. In the end, by giving the bad taste publicity, the judicial proceeding has had a contrary effect to its intention of protecting rights; it has created a great marketing campaign for el Jueves, thanks to new technologies and the internet.

Besides the question of the freedom of speech, these court cases have brought up the question of the Monarchy and its function in a democratic and secular state. The cartoons are a criticism of our system and of the privileged who are in a position of power. The Royal Family is part of this group as it receives five million euros from the state every year. We must not forget that the notion of monarchy – supposedly composed of superior human beings – was originally a divine right conferred by God, or that is what was said to justify such power and privilege. But today, God is losing his influence.Deia

Spain is not a monarchic country; it is ‘Juan Carlista.’ Since the transition to democracy, the King and his family have been respected by Spanish society. Juan Carlos I, who was supposed to have been the depositary of Franco’s legacy, worked very hard for the country to become a modern democracy after 40 years of dictatorship.

A strict conformity to the law seems unwise and we can wrongly fall into the dichotomy: excess or impunity. Not so long ago, cartoons of the prophet Mohamed created a lot of polemic around the world, Spain included and a great majority defended freedom of speech. Can the case of El Jueves or Deia be considered in similar terms? Where are all the champions and defenders of freedom now? Besides the role of the Royal Family in Spanish society, which will have to be dealt with one day, the most important issue is the limits of freedom of speech in a democracy in which people should also have their honour and privacy protected. It is a matter of balance. The cartoons can be considered an insult to intelligence, but the seizure of a magazine is an attack on democracy. The great danger of all this could be future self-censorship, which would be the wrong path for Spain to follow. It would seem to be a step backwards towards the past.

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