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Why free expression advocates should pay attention to Catalonia's referendum

On 1 October 2017, the autonomous region of Catalonia will hold a historic referendum on whether to declare independence from Spain. The ballot has been prohibited by the Spanish government, which has been accused of employing heavy-handed judicial measures to silence political debate around the issue of self-determination. Cinta Arasa, a novelist, independence activist and board member of the Catalan PEN centre, talked to Cathal Sheerin about the current situation and its repercussions for political free expression.

People gather outside Catalonia's high court as regional acting President Artur Mas arrives for questioning over his suspected role in holding a poll in Barcelona, Spain, 15 October 2015
People gather outside Catalonia's high court as regional acting President Artur Mas arrives for questioning over his suspected role in holding a poll in Barcelona, Spain, 15 October 2015

AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

"The use of judicial measures to silence our democratic debate is a direct attack on our right to free expression."

CS: Against the will of the Spanish government, Catalonia held a non-binding vote on self-determination in 2014. On 1 October 2017 it will hold a historic, legally-binding one (also prohibited by the Spanish authorities). How did Catalonia arrive at this point?

CA: In April 2014, the Spanish government rejected a petition by the Catalan Parliament to hold a referendum on self-determination. However, the following September, Catalan lawmakers passed the Law on Non-Binding Popular Consultations (with the support of 79% of MPs) and set a referendum on self-determination for 9 November that year. In response, the Spanish Constitutional Court temporarily suspended both that law and the decree calling for the November vote. The Catalan president at the time, Artur Mas, got around that by announcing a new vote and declaring it a 'public participatory process'. The ballot went ahead thanks to more than 30,000 volunteers and the result was a resounding success for the cause of independence. [Editor's note: more than two million of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters took part in the ballot, with 80% backing independence.]

It had great political and social impact, both for the Spanish political agenda and for Catalan society. To some extent I think that the referendum on 1 October 2017 will take place because of the November 2014 ballot. Both the Catalan Government and Parliament have stated that the October vote will be legally-binding and, if the majority of voters support independence, Catalonia will declare independence shortly after.

There were quite serious repercussions in terms of political rights, free expression and censorship for the Catalan leaders who organised the 2014 referendum. Can you comment on this and also on the restrictions being imposed on the October ballot?

Following the 2014 referendum, the Spanish State Prosecutor filed criminal charges against then President Mas, the Catalan Vice-President and the Minister of Education for their involvement in the ballot; as a consequence, all three were banned from holding public office. Regarding the October 2017 vote, the Spanish government says simply that Spanish law does not permit it. The President of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, was charged with contempt of court after she allowed a parliamentary debate and vote on agreeing a road map to Catalan independence. And in a separate case, she and other members of the Parliamentary Bureau were required to testify in court on charges of disobeying the Spanish Constitutional Court - this was for permitting a debate and two resolutions supporting the referendum.

But these are just the high-profile cases. There are currently over 400 court proceedings ongoing against local Catalan authorities and their elected representatives. All these cases have to do with actions related to the question of self-determination: the 'offences' range from not flying the Spanish flag at the town hall, to declaring a town 'free and independent', to opening municipal buildings on Spain's national day.

It's all extremely disturbing. The use of judicial measures to silence our democratic debate is a direct attack on our right to free expression - it's pure censorship. It's also an assault on the political rights of the majority of Catalan people who want this referendum to go ahead.

There has also been legal pressure placed on civil society organisations, including the National Agreement for the Referendum, whose former coordinator was required by the Spanish Guardia Civil to make a statement explaining the organisation's activities.

So how will the Spanish government enforce the prohibition on the October referendum?

Up until now their main public response has been that they will use whatever means they have in a rational and proportionate way. They spoke about suspending Catalan autonomy some months ago, although not recently. However, one of the biggest debates here is what the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan police, will do - whether they will respect Spanish law (banning the referendum) or the mandate of the Catalan government (organising the referendum). A similar debate took place before the 9 November 2014 ballot and the Catalan police didn't prevent the referendum then.

In 2005 there was a moment of hope for an amicable solution. Can you tell us what happened?

In 2005, the Parliament of Catalonia passed the new Statute of Autonomy (a regional constitution). This was later rewritten by the Spanish Parliament and approved in a referendum by the Catalan people. The then Spanish president, Zapatero, had previously promised that he would support a Statute of Autonomy passed by Catalan lawmakers. However, in 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court significantly changed the new legislation, watering down its goal of greater self-governance for Catalonia and also one of its core parts: the reference to Catalonia as a nation.

For me that was one of the most significant moments of what we call "road to independence". That day, many people who had always supported another kind of relationship with Spain, with a stronger Catalan government (though not quite independence), were disappointed and realised that this was not actually realistic. This experience increased support for Catalan independence and, in July 2010, the first of the mass demonstrations for independence took place. Its slogan was: "We are a nation! We decide (our future)."

The Spanish government now criticises Catalan politicians as lone, single issue figures; some cynical anti-referendum politicians say things like: "The Catalan people deserve politicians that take care of their real problems, not politicians worried only about independence"… [even though they know that] the pro-referendum and pro-independence politicians have been elected democratically, meaning that the Catalan population considers the future of their nation to be one of their priorities.

Can you talk a little about the place of the Catalan language in relation to independence, free expression and identity?

I would say that the Catalan language is one of the most important aspects of the Catalan identity. However, the Spanish government does not recognise Catalan as an 'official' language outside Catalonia, so its use is not permitted in Spanish Parliamentary debate (even though Spanish is permitted in the Catalan Parliament).

For centuries, the Catalan tongue was also banned from institutions and cultural life, but the Catalan people never stopped speaking it at home. During many periods, speaking Catalan in public or official spaces was an act of political resistance.

Under Franco, Catalan was totally prohibited in schools, and children were often punished if they spoke their native tongue. As a child, my mother mainly spoke Catalan (even thought she could understand some Spanish). When she was four years old, on her first day of school, she needed to use the toilet, but couldn't remember how to ask for it in Spanish. She was so embarrassed, but knew that she wasn't allowed to speak Catalan, and because of this, she ended up urinating on herself.

Finally, what do you think will happen on the day of the vote? What's your greatest hope?

My greatest hope is that there's a high participation and that the independence option wins. I have to admit that I used to be afraid that the Catalan government would give up at some point because the whole process has been so long and difficult. However, I think that nowadays every politician in the Catalan government is totally committed to the referendum.

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