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Proposed law on criminal proceedings could gag journalists in Spain

The International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed concern over the future "Law on Criminal Proceedings," which could have troublesome implications for freedom of expression.

The law would grant presiding judges the discretion – or consider requests by prosecutors – to order media outlets, under the threat of criminal liability, to cease reporting on legal procedures.

The Spanish Ministry of Justice plans to present the proposal to the Council of Ministers in October, and has assured the Congress of Deputies that the law will not pose restrictions to the right of freedom of information. Minister of Justice Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón described the proposal as "intended to protect the rights of indicted citizens" and a way to prevent "the influence of public opinion on decisions by tribunals."

Ruiz-Gallardón has also defended the bill by pointing out its narrow scope and limitations. According to him, a tribunal's order to render a proceeding secret must be based on a finding that "the fundamental rights of individuals involved are under 'grave' threat" and bearing in mind that "the right to information deserves preferential treatment." Furthermore, Ruiz-Gallardón has explained that such orders are also temporally restricted - "limited to a maximum period of 12 months."

Nevertheless, critics continue to express concern over the reach of the proposal. Madrid's Press Association (APM, according to its Spanish acronym) stated that the bill "regulates, among other things, the publicising of legal proceedings and establishes what the media may or may not report on during the investigation phase, as well as whether a tribunal has the power to issue a gag order."

Media outlets and organisations have also elaborated on the possible alarming implications. The Spanish Federation of Journalist Associations (FAPE, according to its Spanish acronym) believes that if passed the law "will hinder the work of journalists and lead to censorship and self-censorship." FAPE sees such a situation as a direct threat to democracy because "a democracy's value depends on the quality of journalism," and thus the proposal could "send Spain as much as 30 years back."

IPI shares the concerns of media organisations in Spain and calls on the government to reconsider its proposal.

IPI Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: "We urge the Spanish government to reconsider the proposal to pass legislation that could have a gagging effect on the reporting on criminal proceedings even in instances in which there is a strong democratic public interest argument in favour of the public's right to information."

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