#iComment Catalonia: free speech takes a beating

by Jaz Allen- Sutton

ECPMF’s correspondent Jaz Allen Sutton is daily witnessing the violence and repression of press freedom surrounding the Catalonia independence referendum and has written this personal account...

Under Franco there was no freedom of speech. There was no media freedom and no protection of human rights. Despite the popular assumption that Spain has left its authoritarian past well behind, recent events in Catalonia suggest that Franco’s ghost still haunts the province.

iComment Catalonia Photo: Nùria Nia

Wives talk about leaving their “fascist” husbands. Kids get bullied because of a particular association between a football strip and Spain. Accusations of aiding and abetting backstabbers are thrown at old friends. Work colleagues down tools to rebuke one another for blind national allegiance. Mayors are in tears and the police are losing the confidence of those whom they are supposed to protect. Men draped in Spanish and Catalan flags brawl with each other on the street.

Catalonia's pursuit of nationhood is shaking Spain to its foundations.

Whether for or against change, Spanish citizens forget the bounds of decency at their peril. But the responsibility for Spain’s descent into internecine conflict doesn’t lie with the people. The approach of President Rajoy – the leader of the Partido Popular (PP) – to the Catalan question has left a noxious residue of anger and frustration on both sides of the debate.

His argument that the ’1 0’ first of October vote was illegal and that there will be no future referendum regardless is a dangerous step towards authoritarianism. In a true democracy any law can be changed.

The principle of self-determination is an aspect of modern international law. On this basis referendums took place in Quebec in 1995 and Scotland in 2014. It is therefore unsurprising that, with such large numbers of people in the north east of Spain self-identifying as Catalan, many assumed that calls for a referendum wouldn’t go unheard.

It wasn’t just independentistas however who wanted a vote. Many others saw a plebiscite as the best way to advance. A belief in democracy is, after all, a belief in the power of the voting booth to bring together people who hold strong, contrasting views.

But the referendum on was a failure. It was preceded by the absence of a movement for “No” and the suppression of the “Yes” campaign. The vote was declared illegal by the Spanish government and polling stations and ballot boxes were violently seized by the police. Images of police officers wading into peaceful crowds like troops of crazed Robocops has been called ’the shame of Europe’.

Violent incidents

President Rajoy’s strategy has had dangerous consequences. Anecdotal evidence suggests that differences of opinion between citizens are starting to turn violent. This isn’t surprising. History tells us that in instances where political fervour can’t be advanced in an open democratic forum violent outcomes will result.

Many Catalans over the last few days have said that the PP party of President Rajoy descends directly from General Franco. How the party responds to the crisis in Catalonia over the next few months will tell us if this is the case. Violence and the misuse of the constitution to suppress opinion isn’t democratic, nor does it even look like expedient policy. A second referendum, which is legal and competitive, is the best way to break the deadlock.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the ECPMF but a personal opinion.

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