Spanish secrecy law would hamper public participation, civil society warns

A group of 21 NGOs have voiced their concern about the potential transparency and media freedom implications of a new secrecy law introduced by the Spanish government following the Pegasus scandal. 

While the coalition of civil society and media organisations appreciate the long-awaited revision of the law, they have criticised the short time window for public consultations in the middle of summer.

“We are calling on the government to extend the consultation period by another month to permit genuine participation. It is scandalous to try to slip a consultation on such an important matter under the radar during the holiday season,” Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info, said.

The draft law presented on 1 August follows a pledge by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in May to reform Spain’s official secrecy system following the revelations that Pegasus spyware had been used to target figures linked to the Catalan independence movement, as well as government officials, including Sánchez himself.

The new legislation would replace a Franco-era law, which has been the subject of calls for reform for years. Under the Official Secrets Law, enacted in 1968, classified documents remain as such indefinitely until their declassification is ordered by select government bodies, one of which no longer exists.

Under the new draft law, set to bring Spain into line with other EU and NATO countries, the number of classification categories would be expanded to four, ranging from “restricted” to “top secret”.

Depending on its category, the material would be automatically declassified after a period of between four and 50 years, with a potential extension to 65 years for the most sensitive documents.

The law would also restructure the system for classifying, reclassifying and declassifying material and will regulate the right of access to classified information for the Spanish Parliament and for those directly affected by its contents.


Besides raising the issue of hefty fines ranging from €50,000 to €3 million for disseminating classified documents, the coalition is concerned about the declassification processes.

Much information from the Franco and transition era is still classified. According to the draft bill, the only way to declassify such information is if the committee of ministers decides to do so or if someone can prove to have a direct interest in a particular case.

“So you can forget about historians, academics or public citizens. It looks like I would have to go to court to challenge the classification,” Darbishire explains.

Therefore, it would take great lengths to declassify something that, for instance, was misclassified to hide corruption.

Spain has a public participation score of just 2%, compared to the OECD average of 21%, and the difficult process of declassifying information will not improve participation, Access Info expects.

The country is also still in the process of transposing the EU whistleblower directive. However, according to Access Info, the draft law is not cross-referenced with the directive or Spain’s access to information law.

“Of course, we need some exceptions for national security, but there should also be some exceptions for freedom of expression and public interest, and we need to know what exactly the consequences for journalists or others leaking information are,” Darbishire told EURACTIV.

Connection to the Pegasus scandal?

The overhaul follows revelations by Canadian research group Citizen Lab earlier this year that between 2017 and 2020, Pegasus spyware had been used to target the devices of more than 60 people connected to the Catalan independence movement, including the President of the Government of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès.

It was revealed shortly afterwards that the technology had also been used to hack the phones of both Sánchez and defence minister Margarita Robles in 2020.

The head of Spain’s Intelligence Agency, the CNI, was sacked after she told a parliamentary committee that the body had received judicial approval to use the spyware to monitor Catalan politicians, and in May Sánchez pledged to reform the country’s intelligence infrastructure.

The European Parliament has launched its own investigation into the use of Pegasus technology, supplied by the Israeli firm NSO Group, which was purchased by at least five EU countries.

The investigatory committee, which is set to present its findings next spring, has begun fact-finding trips to several countries involved in the scandal but has drawn criticism and claims of double standards from Catalans after Spain was excluded from the list.

The draft bill will be debated in the Spanish Parliament, for which the date is yet to be set.

The responsible department of the Spanish government, the Ministry of the Presidency, Relations with the Cortes and Democratic Memory, had not responded to EURACTIV’s inquiries nor the demand of civil society and media organisations at the time of publication.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi]


About the author

Related Post

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *