Defamation remains a criminal offence in Spain.
The Spanish Criminal Code includes two general types of offences against honour: slander (Art. 205) and defamation (Art. 208).
Slander (Criminal Code Art. 205; calumnia): Defined as “accusing another person of a felony while knowing it is false or recklessly disregarding the truth”. It is generally punished with a fine of six to 12 months. However, when committed by means of the media (print and broadcasting) or other “similarly effective means”, it is punished with a fine of 12 to 24 months or imprisonment for up to two years.
Defamation (Criminal Code Art. 208; injuria): Defined as any accusation, expression, or action that “harms the dignity of another person, detracting from his reputation or attacking his self-esteem”. Defamation is only considered a crime if “by its nature, effect, or circumstances is considered serious by the public at large”. In the case of an assertion of fact, the offender must also know the statement to be false or have acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Defamation is generally punished with a fine of three to seven months. However, if the defamation is committed through the media, the potential punishment increases to a fine of six to 14 months.
In certain cases (e.g. if defamation was committed for payment), the offender may be barred from certain rights, such as holding public office or practicing a particular profession (Art. 213, in accordance with Arts. 42-45) for six months to two years.
Finally, Art. 620 of the Criminal Code provides that defamatory statements that do not otherwise constitute a felony are considered a misdemeanour (falta) and punishable by a fine of 10 to 20 days.
Art. 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code prohibits “acts that involve discredit, disdain or humiliation of the victims of terrorist offences or their relatives”. The penalty is imprisonment from one to two years and a fine of 12 to 18 months. Art. 578(2) stipulates that penalties shall be on the higher end of the spectrum if the act is committed through the media or the Internet.
Criminal Defamation of Public Officials
Criminal Defamation of the Head of State
Offence toward the monarch and the royal family (lèse-majesté) remains a criminal offence in Spain under the Spanish Criminal Code.
Slander or defamation directed “against the King, the Queen, any of their ascendants or descendants, the consorts, the regent or a member of the regency, or the Prince or Princess of Asturias” is a criminal offence under Art. 490(3). In the offence is serious, the penalty is imprisonment from six months to two years. If not, the penalty is a fine of six to 12 months.
Any other act of slander or defamation against a royal is punishable by a fine of four to 20 months (Art. 491(1)).
Additionally, the misuse of a royal’s image in a way that “may damage the prestige of the Crown” is a criminal offence under Art. 491(2). The punishment is a fine of six months to two years.
Criminal Defamation of the State and its Symbols
Art. 543 of the Spanish Criminal Code prohibits “[v]erbal or written offences or outrages… against Spain, its Autonomous Communities or the symbols or emblems thereof”. The penalty is a fine of seven to 12 months.
Further, defamation of Parliament (or the legislature of an autonomous community) or its laws, is a criminal offence under Art. 496. The penalty is a fine of 12 to 18 months. Under Art. 504, the same penalty applies to serious slander of defamation directed at the national government, the General Council of the Judiciary, the Constitutional and Supreme Courts (national and those of an autonomous community), the armed forces and security forces.
Art. 594 prohibits sending false news that is “aimed at damaging the prestige of the State or the interests of the Nation” in a time of war. The penalty is imprisonment from six months to two years.
Criminal Defamation of Foreign Heads of State
Criminal Defamation of Foreign States and Symbols
Criminal Defamation of the Deceased
Offending the feelings of members of religious groups or publicly disparaging their dogmas, beliefs, rites, or ceremonies is a criminal offence under Art. 525 of the Spanish Criminal Code. The punishment is a fine of eight to 12 months. Insult against non-religious persons is also included under these article.
Additionally, Art. 524 prohibits “profane acts” offensive to religious feeling that are performed in a religious setting. The punishment is a fine of 12 to 24 months or six months to one year in prison.
The following are official data on criminal justice from Spain’s National Statistics Institute for the year 2013:
• There were 25 criminal convictions for slander
• There were 73 criminal convictions for defamation
Criminal Law and Media
In two separate cases in 2013 and 2014, the editor of the Lanzarote-based satirical blog El Agitador, Carlos Meca, was sentenced to pay approximately €38,000 over vignettes considered to have offended the honour of a former public prosecutor implicated in a municipal corruption affair. The images referred in particular to the prosecutor’s occupancy of a home determined by local authorities to be in violation of various rural housing regulations. In one case, a judge condemned Meca to pay a criminal fine of €8,000, plus €15,000 in damages and legal costs to the prosecutor. In the other, a civil court similarly ordered Meca to compensate the prosecutor €15,000 for non-pecuniary damage caused by one of the vignettes.
In 2010, the Provincial Court of Seville acquitted two editors of the Andalucía version of the daily El Mundo, Francisco Rosell and Javier Caraballo, of defaming the former president of the Andalusian government, Manuel Chaves, and several other members of the Andalusian Socialist party. The accusation arose after the paper, in 2001, printed allegations that the officials had ordered a spying operation on the presidents of Sevillan banks. The judge in the case, confirming a lower court ruling in 2007, reportedly ruled that although the reported espionage had never conclusively been proven true, the paper had acted with “sufficient diligence so as to fulfil the constitutional requirement of truth”. The judge noted that if newspapers were only allowed to publish information “proven scientifically true”, this would lead to a “paralysis of the flow of information vital to a democratic society”. In 2011, Chaves announced that he would not appeal to the Constitutional Court.
In 2008, journalist and commentator Federico Jiménez Losantos was convicted of having criminally insulted the then-mayor of Madrid, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, and ordered to pay a fine of €36,000. A member of the Spanish People’s Party, Ruiz-Gallardón had publicly suggested in 2006 that, among other things, the party should avoid becoming mired in debate over its actions following the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings and instead focus on evaluating subsequent mistakes it made. The party, which had been in power at the time of the bombings, was widely criticised for incorrectly blaming the Basque separatist group ETA for the attacks, allegedly in order to strengthen its position in a national parliamentary election held just days later. The party ultimately suffered large losses at the 2004 polls. In response, Losantos stated in a television programme that Ruiz-Gallardón “did not care that 200 people died as long as he came to power” and called the mayor a “traitor”, “deceitful”, and a “lackey for the opposition”, comments he repeated on several other occasions. Ruiz-Gallardón filed criminal charges and the judge in the case reportedly ruled that Losantos “had put words into Ruiz-Gallardón’s mouth that he did not say” and thus “did not transmit true facts” and was not protected by freedom of expression. According to reports, the judge also found that Losantos had sought to harm the “image and dignity of (Ruiz-Gallardón) in a gratuitous and unnecessary way and to discredit him publicly in his condition as mayor and member of the People’s Party”. In 2009, the Madrid Provincial Court upheld the sentence, agreeing with the lower-court judge that Losantos’ choice of words had been disproportionate to his aim. “The right to free expression… does not protect unjustified and unnecessary offence or insult,” it reportedly stated.
In 2007, El Mundo journalists Eduardo Inda and Miguel Ángel Ruiz were convicted of criminally defaming the former mayor of the city of Mahón on the island of Menorca. The journalists reportedly were each sentenced pay a fine of 18 months at a rate of €180 per month, in addition to damages in the amount of €9,000. The conviction reportedly rated to a series of articles suggesting corruption on the part of the mayor, Borja Carreras. In 2012, Inda, together with Esteban Urreiztieta, was the subject of another criminal defamation complaint, this time from Catalonian politician Jordi Pujol, over an article based on a draft police report that alleged that the Pujol family had stashed €137 million in a secret Swiss bank account. A judge reportedly dismissed the case because the journalists had acted on information coming from trustworthy sources and without the intent to harm. It was later reported that Pujol planned to appeal. However, in July 2014, he admitted to having committed tax fraud by hiding money in foreign accounts.
In 2009, prosecutors in Catalonia charged two journalists with criminally defaming Xavier Vilaró, chief of the Barcelona police (Guardia Urbana). The charges related to a 2008 incident in which Vilaró was wounded during a public celebration of Spain’s victory in the European [football] Championships. Vilaró later claimed that he had been wounded by a rubber bullet shot by a member of the Catalonian police (Mossos d’Esquadra). The newspaper El Mundo and the website Vilaweb both published articles questioning Vilaró’s version of events. Prosecutors requested a year in prison for Fernando García, author of the El Mundo article, and requested damages of €150,000 to be paid to Vilaró. Prosecutors sought a fine of €15,000 against Vicent Partal, editor of Vilaweb. In March 2011, a Barcelona court absolved both García and Partal.
In February 2014, the director of Spain’s Civil Guard, Arsenio Fernández de Mesa, threatened criminal defamation and slander charges, apparently in relation to claims that the Civil Guard stationed in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in northern Morocco had mistreated would-be asylum seekers. The threat came after reports that at least 11 Western Saharan migrants had died attempting to reach Ceuta. Fernández de Mesa vigorously defended the Civil Guard’s actions and in response to the allegations stated: “It’s not fair and there are certain lines that cannot be crossed… the Civil Guard cannot be accused of any type of crime.”
In 2007, a cartoonist and an editor working for the satirical magazine El Jueves were fined €3,000 each for offending then-Crown Prince Felipe and his wife, Letizia, for an image depicting the royal pair having sex. The prince is depicted as saying: “Do you realise if you get pregnant this will be the closest thing I’ve done to work in my whole life.” The judge in the case said Guillermo Torres and Manuel Fontdevila “had vilified the crown in the most gratuitous and unnecessary way”.
In 2008, the mayor of the small town of Puerto Real was fined €6,480 for calling the King “weak” and a “libertine”. During his court appearance, José Antonio Barroso complained of a “democratic defect” in that, in his view, it was not possible to talk about the King, his “illicit businesses” or his “fortune of unknown origin”. The court noted that the right to free expression did not include insulting the “ultimate nucleus of a person’s dignity” and that the terms used by Barroso were not necessary for the expression of his view.
In 2013, a court sentenced a former military colonel, Amadeo Martínez Inglés, to a fine of €6,480 for insulting King Juan Carlos I in article titled “Why don’t you shut up now?” in a commentary on the website Canarias-Semanal. The article referred to the king as “maximally corrupt” and guilty of genocide, and called him the latest in a line of “drunks, idiots and nymphomaniacs”. In its ruling, the court said that it was “not necessary to vilify the King” in order to express rejection of the monarchy.
The European Court of Human Rights in 2011 found that the conviction of a Basque politician, Arnaldo Otegi Mondragon, on lèse-majesté charges was a violation of freedom of expression. Speaking to the press in 2003 following a royal visit to the Basque region, Mondragon referred to the king as “he who protects torture and imposes his monarchical regime on our people through torture and violence”. Mondragon was later handed a suspended one-year prison sentence. Accepting that Mondragon’s language could be considered “provocative”, the Court noted that – especially in the case of a “public debate on general concern” – individuals may have recourse to “a degree of exaggeration, or even provocation”. Furthermore, although the Court acknowledged that a monarch may occupy a “unique institutional position”, it nevertheless held that “the fact that a King occupies a neutral position in public debate and acts as an arbitrator and a symbol of State unity should not shield him from all criticism in the exercise of his official duties or… in his capacity as representative of the State which he symbolises”.
Recent Legal Changes
Notes and Acknowledgements
Information for Spain was originally collected by IPI as part of the “Out of Balance” report, published in January 2015 with support from the European Commission and incorporating research contributed by Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest and by the SHARE Foundation in Belgrade. This entry was later expanded and updated by IPI as part of a study commissioned by the Office of the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
A fully footnoted version of this entry is available in the OSCE study. This entry was last updated in March 2017.
The information contained in this database is for informational and advocacy purposes only. If you are a journalist facing a defamation claim, you should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. However, if you are unable to find such an attorney, IPI may be able to assist you in doing so. Please contact us at info(at)ipi.media.