I. Insulting the Crown
On May 23rd, Spanish police knocked on the door of Majorcan rapper Josep Miquel Arenas Beltrán, more commonly known as Valtonyc. Last year, he was found guilty of “glorifying terrorism” and “insulting the crown” in some of his lyrics, and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail. However, when his prison entry deadline arrived, the police discovered that Valtonyc had fled the country.
In March, the European Court of Human Rights acquitted two Catalan protesters who had been convicted of a similar crime. In September 2007, Enric Stern and Jaume Roura set fire to a photograph of the king and queen of Spain, and a Spanish court found them guilty of insulting the monarchy, which is a felony in Spain. They were initially sentenced to 15 months in prison, but this sentence was later reduced to a fine of 2,700 euros. After the Spanish Constitutional Court refused to hear their appeal, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. The court unanimously ruled that burning a photograph of the king did not constitute incitement to hatred or violence, but was rather a legitimate act of political protest, protected under the principle of free speech.
This is not the first time in recent months or years that the Spanish justice system has been accused of obstructing free speech or of suppressing political rights by a European court. Just last week, a court in Brussels rejected a Spanish request to extradite three Catalan politicians who fled Spain to avoid arrest for their involvement in a declaration of independence in October. In April, a German court rejected an extradition request for Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont, on the charge of rebellion for his role in the campaign. Prosecutors re-applied for his detention on May 9th, citing “new information,” but the court again rejected the request a few days ago. Puigdemont is still awaiting their decision regarding the charge of misuse of public funds.
Perhaps Valtonyc was encouraged by these precedents, hoping that he would find better justice in a non-Spanish court system.
The lyrics for which he was convicted included some fairly unsavory imagery. He rapped that Jorge Campos, former president of the Balearic Circle (a foundation that fought against the imposition of the Catalan language in the Balearic Islands), “deserves a nuclear bomb”; “we want death for those swine”; “I will pull out his artery and everything else necessary”. About the monarchs of Spain, he rapped about bringing a Kalashnikov to the palace, that they should be “as frightened as a police officer in the Basque Country”, that “the king has a rendez-vous with the town square, with a noose around his neck”, and other references seemingly supporting violence by the ETA, a terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.
Well, Valtonyc is certainly guilty of the crime of writing crude and distasteful lyrics–but that, at least at the moment, is not punishable by jail time in Spain. “Insulting the monarchy”, however, is. And that is completely ridiculous in a country that claims to be free and democratic. (So, by the way, is Israel’s law against “insulting a public official”. But I digress.)
On the other hand, when it comes to incitement of violence and condoning terrorism… these lyrics are far from innocent or vague. They are explicitly violent. And I’m asking myself: is this not a legitimate concern? If it is, should it be considered a crime? If so, should it be punishable by imprisonment?
How does all this square with free speech?
In the beginning of May, an Israeli court convicted Israeli-Arab poet, Dareen Tatour, of incitement to violence.
Tatour was arrested in 2015 after posting a video on Facebook. The video featured her reading her poem alongside footage appearing to show Palestinian protesters throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. The poem included the following lines: “Resist, my people, resist them. / Resist the settler’s robbery / And follow the caravan of martyrs.”
The context here is important: she posted this poem during a spate of terror attacks known as the “Knife Intifada”, during which young Palestinians stabbed Israeli civilians ostensibly to protest the occupation and/or a perceived threat against the status quo of the Temple Mount.
During the same month, Tatour also posted a news story from Islamic Jihad calling for “a continuation of the Intifada”, as well as picture of Asra’a Abed, an Israeli-Arab woman shot and wounded by Israeli security forces after appearing to threaten them with a knife (who turned out to be mentally ill and trying to commit suicide-by-cop), and Ali Dawabsheh and Muhammad Abu Khdeir, Palestinian children killed by Jewish extremists months before. Beneath these pictures, she wrote, “I am the next martyr”.
Tatour was jailed for several months pending her trial, and in January 2016 was released to house arrest, confined to an apartment in Tel Aviv because she was perceived as a “threat to public safety”. She was later allowed to return to her family home in Reineh, near Nazareth, but she was still under house arrest and not allowed to use the Internet.
Her case centered around the use of the Arabic word “shaheed” (“martyr”), and whether it implies violence. While the word is used to describe terrorists who died committing an act of terrorism, it is also used as the word “martyr” is in English. (Note, for example, that the three people in the photographs she posted with the words “I am the next martyr” were not terrorists.) The word “resistance” is also dangerously ambiguous, as it has been used to refer to violent resistance in the context of the Palestinian struggle.
Now… as a person who if, under duress, were forced to peg herself politically, would claim right-of-center, and who lives beyond the Green Line, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I disagree strongly with Dareen Tatour and find the way she expressed herself offensive and arguably dangerous, considering the context in which she posted her words.
But to lose two-and-a-half years of her life to house arrest, enduring a prolonged trial dissecting her choice of words in a poem to determine whether it did or did not incite violence?
Once again, I’m torn. It is a known fact that incitement on social media had a crucial role in encouraging youth to become “martyrs” and commit stabbing attacks. What if seeing Tatour’s post pushed one of these teens over the edge and helped them make the decision to stab an Israeli? Should Tatour be held partially responsible for that death?
III. Artistic Responsibility
“Art is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old adage. But how much responsibility should an artist have for the beholder’s interpretation of their message?
Artists wield an enormous amount of power. Art has the ability to circumvent the rational mind and speak directly to the audience’s subconscious. As a writer, I am cognizant of this power, and I also know that once my words are released into the world, they may take on a life of their own. I think both Valtonyc and Tatour must be aware that though they, themselves, may never have meant for their words to be interpreted violently, there are people in their fan bases who might do so. Along that vein, yes, I think they should bear at least partial responsibility for their message.
While Valtonyc didn’t specifically call for violence, he did explicitly and graphically express a desire for violence against those individuals. On the other hand, the ETA just officially announced its complete dissolution after calling a definitive end to its armed campaign in 2011, and the Catalan independence movement has been notably characterized by nonviolent, peaceful protest. No one is actually expecting someone to tear out Jorge Campos’s artery or hang Felipe VI in the town square anytime soon. Tatour, by contrast, expressed herself more vaguely, but in the context of supporting a movement that encouraged teenagers to actually go out and stab innocent Israelis–which they went ahead and did. To argue that she was not supporting violence, she would have needed to be a lot more specific about what kind of “resistance” she was encouraging.
That said, do either of these people deserve jail time and a restriction of freedoms for this offense?
I’m not convinced. But I think that both Spain and Israel need to examine, and more carefully define, the legal parameters of free speech, to ensure that we are prosecuting, and not persecuting, our artists for their problematic expressions. I’m not expecting much from Spain at this point, but I believe we Israelis can do better than this.