Spain: A Birds Eye View of Surveillance & Censorship Challenges Ahead

Spain: A Birds Eye View of Surveillance & Censorship Challenges Ahead

Authors: Clàudia Prat & Sandra Ordonez

One week after we celebrated the academy Award nomination for Laura Poitras and Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden, a major storm began in Catalonia. The documentary “Dead City” was broadcasted on Catalan television, sparking an emotional, nationwide debate about police brutality and overreach, torture and government corruption. This comes at the heels of the Ley Mordaza, a law which attempts to stomp out social movements and their coverage by making things such as demonstrations illegal.

This same week we, the authors of this post, were preparing a talk for Techno-Activism 3rd Monday in New York, focusing on the current state of censorship and surveillance in Spain. We were alarmed at the increasing surveillance and targeting of social activists in the past decade we were documenting. This lead to extensive talks about the Spanish Civil War and the Franco era, and the impact its fascist past may still be having on the Iberian country.

The following is a collection of recent events that help contextualize the censorship and surveillance issues Spain is currently experiencing.


Current Challenges in Spain @ a Glance

  • Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the EU at 26%, and a 50% unemployment in Spanish youth. Valencia is the region most hit by the economic downturn, and holds the country’s record for home repossession.
  • Spain’s new public security law, Ley Mordaza (Gag law), has been described as an attempt to stomp out social movements and their coverage. For example, non-sanctioned demonstrations are considered illegal as is their coverage. In addition, it is now legal for police to have blacklists for alternative press, activists and protesters, and perform external bodily searches at their discretion.
  • The Catalan region has their own PRISM-like surveillance program called CESICAT. In addition, in 2014, various “anarchists” were arrested for, among other things, using encrypted email RiseUp. This is troubling since generally strategies are first tested in the Catalan area and then implemented in the rest of Spain.
  • The country has suffered an array of dramatic political scandals of corruption and deception in recent years. This includes discovering that during the Franco era thousands of children from the underclass were stolen by hospital care-takers, many who were Catholic clergy, to be given to adoptive parents seen as more “proper.”
  • Hundreds of family have been evicted from their homes, causing social unrest and sparking strong social movements. For example, the Occupy Movement in Spain, known as the Indignados Movement, witnessed half of the nation’s population occupying public squares.

Ley Mordaza

Spain’s proposed new public security law, known as the Ley Mordaza (Gag Law), passed the lower house of the Spanish parliament in December 2014, and is set to be approved by the Senate in February 2015. Many describe the law as an attempt to stomp out social movements and their coverage. Concerned parties also report that it will give overwhelming power to law enforcement.

In addition, according to Amnesty International spokesperson Maria Serrano, the law deprives migrants of the right to asylum and their guarantee to a right to counsel and effective remedy. El Pais reports that 82% of citizens wanted to change or kill the bill.

Most troubling for many, is the the power it gives to law authorities who: can prohibit any protest if it is deemed that public order will be disputed; have blacklists for alternative press, activists, and protesters; perform external bodily searches at their discretion; perform random identity checks, which may believe will impact immigrants and minorities the most;

In addition, the following actions will be heavily fined up to 30,000 Euros.

  • Recording, photographing or publishing pictures or videos of the police;
  • Demonstrations not formalized by the state;
  • Protesting outside of government buildings;
  • Refusal to identify yourself to a law enforcement officers;
  • Carrying out meetings or assemblies in public spaces;
  • Impeding or stopping an eviction;
  • Disobedience or resistance to authority or its servants in the performance of their duties;
  • Altering public order in a hoodie or any other element that obfuscates your identity;
  • Offending or insulting Spain, the autonomous communities, the local authorities or their institutions, symbols, anthems and emblems; Demonstrating in places deemed as critical infrastructure such as airports or nuclear plants;
  • Celebratory public events that break the prohibition or suspension ordered by authorities.

Dead City: A Documentary that Has Caused Public Outcry throughout Spain for the Torture, Police Corruption and Civil Rights Violations Experienced by Four “Squatters”

The award-winning film, Dead City, is proof that filmmaking is one of our best allies to fight surveillance, censorship and police brutality. It documents the horrible chain of events that began on February 4, 2006, which has caused intense public outcry. For months, various entities tried to keep the film off the air. However, because of its popularity, it was finally broadcasted on January 18, 2015 on Catalan public TV.

[vimeo 86709558 w=500 h=281]

Dead City (Trailer) from 3boxmedia on Vimeo.

In a twist of fate, on the same day of broadcast a judge censured 5 minutes of the film. In response, social networks began to buzz and the 5 minutes went viral. At 10:25pm audiences of all ages sat in front of their TV as though it was an important soccer match, and thus achieving a record number of spectators.

What Happened on February 4, 2006?

On February 4, 2006, over 800 people gathered in a “squatted” building in Barcelona’s city center. The police started a baton charge outside the building with the hopes of eventually evicting the squatters. In response, individuals from the top levels of the building began throwing objects. This included a flower pot that hit a police officer and put him in a coma eventually leaving him in a vegetative state. While various witnesses saw the flowerpot being thrown from the top of the building, the police arrested nine people that were on the street level. For 4 of those 9 people, what followed was a case filled with irregularities, corruption, and torture, and eventually lead to a guilty charge of murder despite strong challenging evidence.

It didn’t go without notice that the four prosecuted were from marginalized communities: three had a Latin American background, and the one female, Patricia Heras, was part of the LGBTQ community. In a tragic turn of events, the constant torture they experienced, caused Patricia to commit suicide while in prison. Additionally, in an unrelated racially charged case, several of the arresting officers were later found guilty of torturing a man from Trinidad & Tobago.

View the film here 

The case became known as the 4F case and was barely covered by the Catalan or the Spanish press. Only journalist Jesús Rodriguez from the alternative newspaper La Directa, kept an active investigation, and eventually joined the documentary’s filmmakers at Metromuster. The torture experienced by the detained, however, did get the attention of Amnesty International.

Metromuster logo
Metromuster´s logo

Squatters and Activists in Spain: From Dirty Menace to Saviors of the Homeless

The film has also served to shed a light on the police’s profiling of “squatters,” which is tainted with racism, xenophobia, and homophobia.

The squatter movement began nearly 30 years ago in Barcelona, and its ideas and organizing have fueled popular networks like  the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages – a movement that has been well received by hundreds of families that have been evicted since 2008 because of bad mortgages and a worse economy.

For Spanish law enforcement and a percentage of the general public, the term “squatters” is used for anyone that looks a certain way, regardless of their lifestyle. As such social activists, protesters and others were placed under the same label. This is significant since “squatters” were seen as unacceptable, dirty, and an element that needed to be put under control. The 4F kids were arrested because they dressed a certain way. Ironically, Patricia Heras was a goth and was outraged that she was mistaken for a squatter, jokingly stating that she was more glamourous. When the 4F arrested it was not uncommon to hear people state, “ thats what you get for dressing that way.”

This view, however, has begun to change as more people benefit from social activism initiatives – and that number is quite large. Of all the countries in the EU, Spain has the highest unemployment rate at 26%, and a 50% unemployment in Spanish youth. In addition, the country has suffered an array of dramatic political corruption scandals. This includes making public that during the Franco era, which technically ended in 1975, thousands of children were stolen by hospital care-takers, many of which were Catholic clergy, and given to more “respectable” and “proper” adoptive parents.


The Occupy Movement of Spain: Branding Protesters as Violent Terrorists.

The Occupy Movement in Spain, known as the Indignados Movement, witnessed half of the nation’s population occupying public squares. Yet and still, the mainstream media began branding protesters as “the violent ones” even though it was later revealed that many of the violent incidents were purposely sparked by undercover police, and the media never bothered to verify those rumors. 

The Catalan Police seized this moment to conduct a witch hunt of protesters. In a gesture of “surveillance innovation,” they built a website in 2012 asking citizens to collaborate in finding protesters whose pictures were upload to the site.


The Catalan PRISM

Most alarming, in 2013 it was revealed that in 2009 the Catalan government had created their own PRSIM-like surveillance program called CESICAT. Thanks to documents leaked by Anonymous, we discovered that the program was being used to track journalists, activists, and lawyers. While CESICAT has not been really covered by the Spanish press, in 2014 the Center of Data Protection of the same Catalan government fined CESICAT for gathering unpermitted data of photojournalist Jordi Borràs, who denounced the case.

Security is Not a Crime Unless you are an “Anarchist”

In December 2014, 11 people were arrested and their electronics seized in different social centers and squats in Catalonia. It was known as “Operation Pandora” and brought hundreds of policemen to the oldest squat in Barcelona. The use of, or rather encrypted communications, was cited as one of the reasons the arrest happened. However, the police claimed they were terrorists, even though it is still not precise what kind of “terrorist” attack they had allegedly perpetrated. Today 7 of those 11 arrested people are still kept in Madrid prisons under secrecy order. Notably, the police branded these people as “anarchist” indepedent of whether they identified as such.

Decline of a free Press

In March of 2014, Spanish police attacked and injured seven journalists who were attempting to cover a violent arrest during a demonstration in Madrid. Throughout the year, other journalists have reported being prevented by law enforcement from taking photographs and gathering information during protests, and experiencing verbal and physical abuse.

Earlier this month, journalists at Spain’s state broadcaster RTVE started a sit-in to protest the arrival of the new heads of news, Jose Antonio Alvarez Gudin, who was previously at the right-wing daily newspaper La Razon. The journalists believe that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is trying to tighten its control of the network ahead of 2015 legislative and local elections. Two of the country’s biggest unions, Commissioners Obrerars and the General Workers Union, have publicly stated that they feared the government was trying exercise greater control in an attempt to manipulate the news.

The 2013 Freedom House report noted increased self-censoring in the Spanish journalism world and a drop in quality reporting. The same report cites a 2013 survey of 1,700 Spanish journalists where 80% of respondents said they had been pressured into changing or removing content.

*** Update. All the detainees of Operation Pandora were released the 30th January 2015.