The terrible murder last Monday of the head of the León Provincial Council, Isabel Carrasco, has given rise to a clear situation of abuse and excess on social networking sites. In the immediate wake of the shooting, messages were posted online that were in many cases insulting and denigrating to the victim, and in others, clearly in favor of the use of violence against politicians – in particular, those of the ruling Popular Party
These excesses have led the interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, to defend the need to go after those who “justify crimes or incite hatred” via the internet. He proposes that this be done through the use of “additional legal instruments that allow for the compatibility of freedom of expression and the right to information, with a citizen’s right to honor and safety.”
Thus far he has only issued a declaration of intentions, but it is regrettable that a minister should react to a situation that has caused legitimate unease with a proposal to toughen the law that has not been properly thought through, and comes in the heat of the moment. Legislation should never be created in the immediate wake of a scandal.
Legislation should never be created in the immediate wake of a scandal
But what’s more, in this case, current laws provide sufficient instruments for the authorities to tackle behavior that is harmful to third parties or violates fundamental rights. All that is needed is for them to be applied. Spain’s penal code covers offenses such as slander, libel, threatening behavior, coercion, incitement to commit a crime, and justifying terrorism and violence. What’s more, these offenses carry punishments that are sufficiently dissuasive. The recent arrests of two youngsters for inciting violence via the social networking sites proves this to be true. The fact that such behavior has not, until now, been the target of the authorities, apart from on a few rare occasions, has created a perception of impunity, which, in large part, has contributed to the spiral of deterioration in which we find ourselves.
It is likely that the application of the law will have the effect of providing a warning to internet users, given that many of them are insufficiently aware that their online actions can have criminal consequences. In any case, the social networks should not be treated differently from any other form of media.
Aside from criminal proceedings, in the case that they are justified, there are other ways of fighting these excesses. In the first place, via the raising of civic awareness, in the form of moral reproaches. But there is also room for political reproaches when these excesses are carried out by those with public responsibilities. It would be welcomed if Spain’s political forces were to adopt a self-regulatory code aimed at ending insults and threats over the internet, with offenders forced to resign.
There is, then, no need to change the law, and an approach that leans toward criminalizing the use of the internet, or that threatens freedom of expression, should be avoided.