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Spain Struggles To Balance National Security With Free Speech


In Spain, you can get arrested for what you write on social media. It's one of a number of anti-terrorism laws that have netted thousands of suspects. But defenders of civil liberties say the law infringes on free speech. Lauren Frayer reports from Madrid.


ANA MARIA PASTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Every year Spain's Congress observes a moment of silence for victims of terrorism. There have been many here. The Basque separatist group ETA killed more than 800 people over four decades. Madrid also suffered Europe's worst act of Islamist terror - the 2004 al-Qaida-linked train bombings that killed nearly 200 people.


PASTOR: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Terrorism remains the main threat to citizen's freedom," the president of Spain's Congress, Ana Maria Pastor, said at the memorial last month. Across Europe, there's a debate underway about free speech and security. There have been cases where terrorists posted extremist material on social media but weren't arrested until after they carried out attacks.

After the recent killings in London, Britain's prime minister said some human rights laws might have to be changed to prevent terrorism. Spain already takes a tougher line on terrorism and Internet privacy. Police here arrest hundreds of suspects a year based on their social media postings.


FRAYER: In a rehearsal space in downtown Madrid, the leader of the Spanish punk band Def Con Dos shows me around.

CESAR MONTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Cesar Montana, who goes by the stage name Cesar Strawberry, is a 53-year-old punk-rock rapper who was arrested last year because of his tweets. On Twitter, he joked about attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA and said he wanted to send the Spanish king a cake bomb for his birthday.

MONTANA: (Through interpreter) Five police officers surrounded me on the street and said, you are under arrest for glorifying terrorism on Twitter. I laughed, and one of the officers even laughed too.

FRAYER: Cesar was sentenced to a year in prison, though it was commuted. He never served time. He's since become a free speech advocate in Spain and recently denounced Spanish anti-terrorism laws in testimony before the European Parliament.

MONTANA: (Through interpreter) This is an extremely dangerous moment. They've extended the concept of terrorism, so they can cast a really wide net. I worry about the next generation and how the war on terror will chip away at their rights.

FRAYER: At a protest in front of Madrid's police headquarters, Amnesty International Spain director Esteban Beltran denounces what he calls these ambiguous security laws.

ESTEBAN BELTRAN: People can be jailed for three years - condemned to three years in jail - just writing something Twitter. And, really, Amnesty is very concerned that this is really affecting freedom of expression in Spain.

FRAYER: But such laws may also be part of the reason why Spain has not suffered a terror attack since the Madrid train bombings in 2004. On the sidelines of a terrorism conference in Madrid, the country's top terrorism expert, Fernando Reinares, says Spain errs on the side of limiting free speech in order to fight terrorism because, otherwise, he says...

FERNANDO REINARES: While you are investigating these people, they are planning an attack, which actually takes place. And then you have to face your population saying, yes, we knew about this individual, but we didn't arrest them on time.

FRAYER: The Spanish police and Spanish judiciary, Reinares says, are convinced they should act on time. About 200 ISIS suspects have been arrested in Spain in the past two years - many of them on the charge of glorifying terrorism on social media. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.


Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.