Insulting the Crown vs basic rights
BarcelonaSection 2 of Spain’s 1995 Criminal Code, passed during the last Felipe González administration, deals with crimes against the Crown. Specifically, Article 491.1 states that insulting or slandering members of the royal family carries a fine equivalent to four to twenty months. This offence, which has been repeatedly contested by progressive jurists —and European justice has already put into question in a ruling— is what Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional Prosecutor is currently investigating, following public statements by Catalan VP Pere Aragonès, Galicia’s BNG leader Ana Pontón and Teresa Rodríguez, the leader of Adelante Andalucía.
Pere Aragonès is also ERC’s national coordinator and in his case the court is looking, among others, into a statement he made on 18 July when he said that “the Spanish royals are a criminal gang” apropos the scandals that the Spanish royal family has been hit by in recent years, first with Iñaki Urdangarin and the Nóos case (1) and now with former king Juan Carlos. The legal action was brought down a few days ago by Concordia Real Española (2), a private society specifically created to defend the Crown from criticism of any sort, where Spain’s usual ultra-conservative elements feature prominently.
The most reasonable course of action would be for the Prosecutor not to press any charges and acknowledge that the freedom of expression is a basic right that allows one to criticise the Crown. However, the existing precedents leave little room for optimism. Let’s not forget that, thanks to those same articles of the Criminal Code, singers have been convicted and satirical magazines like El Jueves have seen issues seized by a court of law. At present Spanish law allows making a person or a group of people untouchable, a practice from the Middle Ages that is completely out of place in today’s Europe. In contrast, political leaders who have been elected by hundreds of thousands of voters have no right to cast any public criticism against the monarchy without fear of being investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office. What kind of democracy is this?
Fortunately, European justice has taken steps to rectify the situation, ruling against Spain’s Supreme Court in cases like the public burning of photographs of the king, when the European Court of Human Rights established that freedom of expression must prevail. Indeed, Aragonès, Pontón and Rodríguez are European citizens, too. And, as such, they can appeal to Europe’s justice, if their rights are trampled on in Spain.
Ultimately, this episode is evidence to the extreme vulnerability of Spain’s monarchy today, an institution that is suspect, discredited and prefers to use a court of law to defend itself so as not to be held to account. It’s no coincidence that the case against former king Juan Carlos started in Switzerland. Incidentally, none of this would amount to anything substantial if the PSOE had agreed to amend the relevant articles of the Criminal Code (together with those that impose penalties for insulting Spain or disrespecting someone’s religious beliefs), bringing it in line with European law, like Pedro Sánchez used to argue for before becoming prime minister. It’s not just that those articles are ancient and obsolete: they are undemocratic.
(1) Iñaki Urdangarin is the Spanish king’s brother in law. He is currently in jail after being convicted of financial crimes.
(2) Concordia Real Española roughly translates as Royal Spanish Concord.