Surveillance, arrests and fear-mongering: The crackdown on Catalonia

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia recounts the wholesale government assault on civil freedoms in Catalonia, sparked by the independence campaign.

December 15, 2017
21 min read

Catalans woke up on the day after the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in august 17 just to be surprised by another wave of attacks, coming from two of Spain’s largest daily newspapers and other Spanish media outlets.

In two hard-hitting editorials in El País and El Mundo dedicated themselves to pointing out the perpetrators, aside from ISIS, of the terrorist attacks that killed 14 people in Barcelona and in the city of Cambrils: The Catalan independence movement.

According to El País, “An attack of this magnitude has to be a knockdown that that brings Catalan political forces back to reality – forces such as the Government, the Parliament, and the movements for independence which have made the secessionist chimera the sole focus of the Catalan political agenda in recent years. It is time to end this ‘democratic’ nonsense, the flagrant violation of laws, the games of deception, the political opportunism. It is time that our rulers, all our rulers, work for the benefit of the true and main interests of citizens.’

In other words, it is time for Catalans to abandon their games and accept Spanish dominance. We must pay particular attention to the “democratic nonsense” mentioned by the editorial. In some Spanish circles, giving to the people the opportunity to vote is pretty much the same as to impose the will of a minority over a majority. El Mundo newspaper, on the other hand, was perhaps milder, confining itself to stating that ‘These events must make the Catalan authorities reflect on a immigrant reception policy in which sometimes electoral interests, linked to independence, have dominance over national security.

According to the Spanish media, the government seems incapable of dealing with more than one issue at a time. Perhaps they are right. Recall that after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, in 2004,  then prime-minister Juan Maria Aznar accused the Basque separatist movement ETA of being behind the attacks. Aznar’s senseless accusation further undermined the Partido Popular’s waning credibility, ending in a historical defeat in the elections that same week.

Maybe central government finds it is difficult to pay attention to both an democratic vote and to potential terrorist threats. The newspapers are clearly sending the message that either we can have democracy or we can have security – but we cannot have both.

The La Gaceta newspaper was another news outlet plunging into anti-Catalan sensationalism with a Twitter post affirming that Younes Abouyaaquob, one of the perpetrators of the attack in Barcelona, ‘was a volunteer for the referendum on independence on 1st October‘. The popular organisation Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), one of the main drivers of the region’s independence process, promptly disputed the information.  La Gaceta did not give up and rapidly ‘corrected’ the disclosed tweet. Instead of stating that Abouyaaquob was a volunteer for the referendum, he was only “a would-be volunteer “- equally false information and an incredibly  unethical exercise in futurology.

A referendum on independence took place on 1st October – with the support of the majority of Catalan MPs. The referendum was unilateral, despite all efforts made by Catalan authorities to their Spanish counterparts that refused even to discuss a bilateral process deeming it illegal and unconstitutional. Over 70% of the Catalonians supported the vote and staged enormous demonstrations over the years, pushing the legislative and executive branches of the Catalan government to finally act.

Catalan media, as well as many users of social media, responded with expected revolt. Quite common comments were that the responsibility for anti-terrorist security was of the Spanish police forces and of the Spanish secret service that should share the information collected with the Catalan police services (and vice versa). In other words, there’s a shared responsibility and a tremendous breach of trust.

The Catalan edition of the Spanish newspaper El Periódico, in a footnote, decided that it won’t be left behind, stating that ‘the sovereignty process has a direct influence on security in the face of terror by stopping the effectiveness of the joint police struggle.’ Such a statement could be used to criticize the lack of dialogue between sovereign EU states; there is little effective means of exchanging sensitive information. But others have suggested other forces are at play. Journalist Guillem Martí has denounced the ‘instrumentalisation of terror’ by Spanish media and authorities. Ferran Requejo,  political scientist and professor of philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, pointed out that when it comes to actual dangers, Catalan forced are often shut out of key information sharing systems. According to Marti: ‘Madrid has been systematically blocking Mossos‘ access to global anti-terrorist organisations such as Interpol, Europol, Siena and Sirene.’

The chief of the Mossos d’Esquadra, (Catalan autonomous police), Josep Lluís Trapero, confirmed later that the state security forces failed to share information of the terrorists with Catalan police and that they are not allowed to have a direct connection to the international intelligence community. On the Spanish side, the civil Guard and National Police have both complained that they were left out of the investigations after the attacks and did not even had access to the crime scenes in recent terror attacks in Catalonia. Belgian authorities got wind of the attacks, and notified the Spanish authorities – who then failed to disclose the information to their Catalan counterparts.

Raquejo goes so far as to suggest that such a blackout of information is a deliberate way to weaken the sovereignty process, by undermining Catalan security forces, therefore strengthening the argument that only Catalonian integration can help ensure safety on the Iberian peninsula. the integration of Catalonia in Spain was the best  taking into account security issues and prevention of future attacks.

According to Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia, the region’s autonomy has been de facto suspended by Spanish justice while the Guardia Civil staged raids in newspapers, government buildings and even on the seat of a political party (CUP, left-wing) to prevent the Catalonian people from voting on the 1st October independence referendum  – considered illegal by Spanish authorities, but voted by a strong majority in Catalonia’s Parliament and supporter by the overwhelming majority of the local population. To no avail, the process went its natural way and the population voted, despite immense police violence and decided by a 90% majority for independence – even though the process continues to drag on amid threats and attempts of negotiations.

If Raquejo is right in his speculation that Spain has attempted to undermine the independence process, then it seems like those tactics have spectacularly backfired. Recent events have only reaffirmed the commitment of many Catalonians to independence.

As the day of the independence referendum approached, the Spanish government increased the pressure on the Internet against websites that inform on the process. The official website of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Catalan government (referendum.cat) was blocked on 13th September by court order. Soon after, the President of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont tweeted another link that was also rapidly blocked. 

After this blockades dozens of “mirrors” appeared throughout the internet, either through the action of organisations supporting the process, or by the work of individuals. Activists have been using tools provided by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) to compile a list of blocked websites so far.

Spanish authorities forced the PuntCat Foundation, which manages the registry domains ending in .cat, the domain of Catalonia, to block any websites with information on the referendum. Activists from Catalonia, Spain and elsewhere have been calling this censorship, comparing it to the anti-democratic excesses of states like Turkey.

According to Politico.eu, the court might also order the blocking of any content referring to the referendum of being accessed through a .cat domain. This means that Spain would effectively be policing information about Catalonian independence hosted and published in Catalonia. In a letter to ICANN, the internet naming corporation, PuntCat Foundation denounced that they are ‘are being requested to censor content and suppress freedom of speech’. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a statement detailing their great concern ‘about the use of the domain name system to censor content’, stating that ‘the content in question here is essentially about political speech, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled as deserving of a higher level of protection than some other forms of speech.’

To worsen the situation, the offices of PuntCat Foundation were raided by the Civil Guard on 20th September, and one of its senior executives was arrested on charges of ‘sedition’, an accusation that causes chills in many Catalans and Spaniards who remember the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

The same accusation of sedition was used to arrest two Catalan nationalist leaders, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart, for organising demonstrations against Spain and for the Catalan independence.  To several human rights organisations, as well to a large portion of the Catalan society, they are political prisoners used as an example of what Spain is capable of doing – and willing to do so – against those who do not submit.

One of the blocked websites, marianorajoy.cat, caused sensation, receiving over 600 thousand visits on its short life. Lluís Montabes, a university student, decided to pay homage to President Rajoy by creating a mirror of the referendum website with his name. As humour seems not to be Spain’s forte, the website was promptly blocked and his author summoned to explain himself in a police station of the National Police for a possible offense of disobedience. He remained silent during the inquiry and to the press he denounced his situation as an attack against freedom of expression. He was not the only one; at least two other activists responsible for similar mirror accounts were also hauled before the police.

As Montabes and others do not hold any office and are not public servants of any kind, they cannot be prosecuted for disobedience. This fact seems to have escaped the police who, however, may be acting only to intimidate any peaceful resistance to the virtual takeover of Catalan institutions and autonomy in the past few days.

The internet crackdown in Catalonia went along with the seizure of thousands of  ballots, the arrest of 14 key members of the team organising the referendum process and the sending of thousands of police officers from all over Spain to prevent the referendum from happening, in an unparalleled show of force that threatens the democratic fabric of the country, a fabric considered by many to be already worn and even full of patches.

Measures restricting open and free access to the internet in Catalonia became a commonplace. Major telecom operators have been asked to monitor and block specific traffic to political websites and offices of institutions related to the referendum have been raided, computes have been breached and public servants have been arrested. As the democratic situation in Catalonia worsened, activists feared for their safety and freedom of speech while Spain walked towards a ‘Turkish solution’ – and the world pays attention without moving a finger.

Spain wont recognise the right for the self-determination of Catalans, nor the result of the October referendum as measures to not only de facto, but effectively suspend the Catalan autonomy (with the use of the article 155 of the Spanish constitution), where approved by the Spanish senate on October 27 a few minutes after the Catalan Parliament voted their declaration of independence. Meanwhile, Europe washes its hands as tensions escalate.

 

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