How do we draw the line between “sedition” and free speech?


Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia’s generalitat who has been living in exile in Belgium since the declaration of independence from Spain last October, has been arrested in Germany, while crossing from Denmark back to Belgium, on an international arrest warrant.

The charges Puigdemont is facing include sedition and rebellion.

Puigdemont’s arrest is but the last in a long chain that saw most Catalan leaders ending up in jail.

In a way, secessionists are by definition threatening the existing order in the most upfront way. They aim at breaking it up, making two political entities of one. In this sense, they are undoubtedly “seditious”. But Puigdemont and his allies, though certainly threatening to Spain as it currently is, have never wielded a gun. You may question the legitimacy of the referendum they organised and won (for Spanish authorities, the questions belong to those questions that cannot be asked) but they did not start, neither did they preach, to the best of my knowledge, an armed insurrection.

Is this irrelevant? I find such a view quite irreconcilable with my deepest feelings. In a sense, I think we all tend to prefer democracy (with all its imperfections) to other political regimes because, to echo Karl Popper, it is a system that allows us to count heads instead of cutting them. This seems to go together with a commitment to free speech. There is little use in a system that allows us to count heads instead of cutting them, if the heads to be counted are supposed to remain silent.

The Spanish government is being quite transparent in putting the survival of the Spanish state as it is before everything. This ‘everything’ includes the Catalan governors’ personal liberty and indirectly, if imprisonment is the reward, open advocacy of secession.

If the Catalans were going rogue, as the Basques did before, the national government may have the moral high ground. But it’s one thing imprisoning terrorists, another imprisoning elected politicians.

The Catalan riddle is not easy to solve – and so far the Spanish government, led by Mariano Rajoy, had the better of its amateurish Catalan opponents. But could it be the case that the Spanish are now pushing their reaction too far? How do we draw the line between “sedition” and free speech?