Sunday

20th Jan 2019

EU says Spanish website seizures were legal

  • Catalans are gearing up for a referendum vote. (Photo: assemblea.cat)

The European Commission has refused to defend free expression following a clamp down on pro-Catalan websites by the Spanish government.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Tuesday (26 September), the EU commission's chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, said he had nothing to say on the matter other than "our respect for the legal and constitutional order" of member states.

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Spanish authorities have been shutting down and seizing pro-referendum websites, in a move that appears to encroach upon internet freedoms and expression, in the lead up to a Catalan vote to secede from Spain.

Authorities have been ordering the administrative censorship and online blockade by forcing top-level domains to remove content that supports Catalan's secession from Spain. Such websites are being targeted after Spain's constitutional court suspended the Catalan referendum law.

On Monday, the Spanish police blocked a pro-independence civil society website, Catalan National Assembly (ANC), which was then relaunched under the .eu domain name hours later.

"In Spain, the Guardia Civil can already shut down the website of a legal private organisation without previous notification," tweeted Adria Alsina, ANC's communications director.

The EU commission's refusal to take a stand on such a matter in Spain appears to stand in sharp contrast to its outspoken defence of freedoms in countries elsewhere.

Pressed by reporters to explain the double standard, Schinas said that judges had ordered the website blockades.

"We stick by the legal order," he said.

French authorities last week had also carried out similar seizures, after forcing two websites from Indymedia, a leftist open publishing network, to remove anonymous claims of responsibility behind an arson attack on a police hangar.

Authorities say the claims constituted a "provocation to terrorism" although the same was published in more traditional news outlets without penalty.

French authorities had used 2014 anti-terrorism laws to enforce the extra-judicial censorship of the network.

Indymedia in Germany was also raided last month on the orders of the German interior ministry. Following the violence at the G20 summit in Hamburg, the raids were conducted on the basis that it was "sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country."

But Schinas' response on Spain also calls into question the EU commission's stated aims of defending internet freedoms, while posing further questions on its future plans to police online content throughout the member states.

On Wednesday, the EU commission is set to unveil a communication on what it believes to be the best approach to balance online free expression and hate speech.

Vera Jourova, the EU commissioner for justice, earlier this week said that free expression in the EU is not unlimited like in the United States.

"We esteem and highly value the freedom of expression, this is guaranteed as a fundamental right, at the same time, we have some speech, which is prohibited by the European and national laws and we have to make sure that this prohibition applies also online," she said.

Quiet showdown in Barcelona

Thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets, in protest against the Spanish government's efforts to prevent the independence referendum. Both sides know that violence would go against their cause.

Spain and Catalonia in referendum showdown

Barcelona vowed to hold a vote and Madrid vowed to prevent one on the eve of Sunday's planned independence referendum. The deadlock has prompted criticism of Rajoy.

Germany led way on EU rights protection

Germany led the way on protection of human rights this year, but Hungary, Italy, and Poland "undermined the EU's moral standing" on the world stage, a leading NGO said.

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