The problem runs deeper than fake news. As George Monbiot argues in his column in The Guardian, the problem is that the media frequently offers news about a fake world. In an insightful and courageous article, he warns that symbols and sensations have replaced substance and analysis. We struggle to understand because critical issues remain in the darkness. We see the “world as it is portrayed, and not as it is”.
Fifty-four years ago, Justice Willian Brennan Jr, wrote: “public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government”. Brennan reasoned that “erroneous statements are inevitable in free debate” and that public discussion must be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open”.
Our understanding of freedom of the press, and our work as journalists, changed the day he wrote his decision. It follows from this that the purpose of public discussion is to have well-informed citizens capable of discerning what is right and wrong. Citizens must be informed to hold their leaders accountable.
We struggle to understand because critical issues remain in the darkness.
I want to argue that an article published at openDemocracy a couple of weeks ago, Catalonia and post-fascism, reflects how easy it has become to replace serious debate with misapprehensions of reality. Vindicating nationalism and identity politics in detriment of the rule of law and individual rights, the authors bend the truth and use public debate as a disinformation tool, reproving an entire class and a democratic system for the mistakes of a few.
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte are not journalists. Nevertheless, they have published the piece in a public discussion forum that goes beyond ideologies, and values accurate and intelligent debate. Their piece might succeed in corroborating their facts and grievances perfectly, but fails to account for reality.
A biased narrative
Catalan secessionists marked the first anniversary of last year´s independence referendum by taking to the streets of Barcelona and neighbouring cities. Rallies started after the Committees for the Defense of the Republic, a radical grassroots movement, blocked roads, motorways, and train tracks across the region. In Girona, at the north, protesters trespassed a government office and replaced the Spanish flag with the Estelada. In Barcelona, protesters surrounded the headquarters of Spain´s national police and tried to break into the Catalan Parliament by the end of the day, forcing the regional police to charge and protect the premises.
The Catalan president, Quim Torra, addressed Catalans the same morning. And urged them to “keep up the pressure”. Many of them did keep the pressure on, as they created unrest across the Catalan capital. The images taken during the assault on the Parliament portray a different movement from the one advertised worldwide by the Catalan authorities: the movement has both peaceful and violent members, and the former seem unable to control the latter.
The Catalan republic is not an avenue for a more inclusive and more democratic political community.
Carles Puigdemont was quick to denounce the attackers, accusing them of not belonging to the secessionist movement that participated in last year´s referendum. He failed to make a convincing case: if the few radicals waving fascist flags in support of Spain unity represent the unionists, why aren’t those that use violence and burn Spanish flags part of the secessionist movement?
Contrary to the narrative constructed by their leaders, the Catalan republic is not an avenue for a more inclusive and more democratic political community. During his presidency, Carles Puigdemont denied the opposition their fundamental rights of participation by unfairly approving the referendum act and the legal transition act and calling for an illegal referendum, which failed to respect the basic standards laid down in the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Finally, he unilaterally declared independence.
Unable to change the law and without the popular support needed to attain independence through legitimate means, the secessionist movement came up with a plan: to provoke a disproportionate reaction from Madrid. Unable to understand that laws can change, Mariano Rajoy, the former prime minister, refused to treat the situation as a political problem and took the bait.
The crackdown on voters and protesters during the referendum confirmed that neither the government nor the security forces understood what was happening. Confusing voters for rioters was an appalling mistake and strengthened the narrative that Spain is an authoritarian state. It is not. Spanish security forces did use excessive force. Nonetheless, only four people were seriously injured. Politicians have been detained not because of their political ideas, but because they violated several legal provisions.
There is no systematic violation of the rule of law in Spain. That doesn’t mean sedition charges are not disproportionate preventing former members of the Catalan cabinet from awaiting trial in liberty. Josep Borrell, Spain´s minister of foreign affairs, made the case last month, while Meritxell Batet, Spain´s minister of regional policy, argued that it would be more comfortable for Madrid if there weren’t prisoners. The decision, however, belongs to the judiciary, and not to the Spanish government.
Confusing voters for rioters was an appalling mistake and strengthened the narrative that Spain is an authoritarian state.
Turning the tide
The new government in Madrid seems to have been able to establish better relations with the Generalitat than the previous executive did. Future negotiations between both parties will demand compromise: this means that nothing should be off or on the table. Still, it´s increasingly difficult to know who will be leading the negotiations from the Generalitat. Quim Torra’s position is fragile, and the secessionist movement is splitting in two. Clashes with the Committees for the Defense of the Republic and the fact that he receives is orders from a former President in self-imposed exile have both weakened his authority.
Pedro Sanchez, Spain´s new prime minister, inherits a thorny political problem that prevents more than seven million Catalans from living in harmony. And the situation has implications at the national level too, as Spanish nationalism is making a comeback. If it rises to challenge secession claims in Catalonia, the outcome could be disastrous for everyone.
It was Albert Camus who admonished us about the perils of abstraction, which he described as the “tendency to dehumanise” those who stand in the way of history. Journalists and opinion-makers have a responsibility to inform and explain, not to divide and contribute to the escalation of conflict. They shouldn’t manipulate their audiences into agreeing with an argument or a political agenda. “Catalonia and post-fascism” portrays a Spain that doesn’t exist. We must go further than criticise it: we must engage with it and remind people that two half-truths don’t make one truth.
Don’t discredit Spanish democracy
The purpose of the article is to discredit Spain as a democracy.
Certainly, the authors are right to point that there are residues of fascist behaviour in the Spanish state, as it exists in other countries. Citizens are often suspicious about politics. Cross-party pacts are uncommon. And some politicians have trouble dealing with freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.
It´s true that Spain has failed to investigate the crimes committed by Franco´s dictatorial regime. One hundred and twenty thousand victims have been identified from almost two 2,591 mass graves around the country. And those responsible have not been held accountable due to an amnesty law passed in 1977, which postponed the rights of victims to justice, truth, and reparation.
Journalists and opinion-makers have a responsibility to inform and explain, not to divide and contribute to the escalation of conflict.
The authors rely on these circumstances to justify the argument that Spain is a post fascist state. They fail, however, to contextualise what happened then, who ruled when it happened and what happened since.
In 2007, for example, the socialist government passed the Historical Memory Law condemning Franco´s dictatorship and honouring its victims, seeking to recover the remains of those buried mass graves. And recently, the mayors of Madrid and Barcelona have decided to change street names marking the dictatorial regime.
They fail to mention that the new executive passed a decree to dig up the remains of the dictator from a monument to the victims of the Spanish Civil War, amending the previous law. The proposition was approved by the Parliamentand aims to establish a truth commission to identify victims, allow courts to open investigations about mass graves and grant reparations to the heirs of those who died in defence of freedom and democratic rights.
As nationalism and populism spread across Europe, maybe it´s time to clarify what we understand as fascist, post-fascist and democratic.
The authors also conveniently forget to mention that constitutional norms have always been upheld during elections. And incorrectly imply that it was Franco who chose the current Spanish flag or established the Day of the Race.
They are free to believe that Spanish and Turkish citizens enjoy the same political and civil rights. But why single Spain out for designation as post-fascist?
As nationalism and populism spread across Europe, maybe it´s time to clarify what we understand as fascist, post-fascist and democratic. The state of affairs in Hungary and Poland should encourage us to run away from populists, not towards them. The tribalisation of the conflict in Catalonia has gone far enough, and it´s time to reach a compromise: political problems should have political solutions. Repression, manipulation, and exclusion are not the answer.
As Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission said during the State of the Union address in Strasbourg, it was “sunny, optimistic and peaceful in 1913”. He couldn’t have been clearer.