Support for peaceful and democratic change in a member state is under the aegis of freedom of expression says the Council of Europe

The Council of Europe Secretary General releases a consensus report that includes support for the independence of a European region among the changes shielded by freedom of expression

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić has released a report on freedom of expression and its protection in the CoE’s member states. The report asserts that proposing structural or constitutional change peacefully and democratically in a state is shielded by the right to free speech. The document spells out that these changes include support for the independence of a European region.

Ms Pejčinović Burić thus affirms that public officials have the right to forward “proposals, the implementation of which requires changes to the constitution, as long as the means are peaceful” and “the objectives are not contrary to democracy and human rights.” The Secretary General adds that among these is “changing the status of a territorial entity, including guaranteeing greater autonomy and even independence.”

The report has garnered major consensus in the Council of Europe on this matter as it includes the perspective of all the bodies with a say on political rights. Among these are the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). The document has also been endorsed by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Although the Secretary General does not explicitly mention any specific case, Ms Pejčinović Burić bases her report on Resolution 2381 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—the Cilevičs report —which recognized that the jailed Catalan independence leaders were political prisoners. The Cilevičs report recommended Spain should reform its Penal Code, specifically regarding the crimes of rebellion and sedition. Cilevičs also acknowledged that there was no violence on the part of the citizens during the 1st October 2017 independence referendum and proposed the adoption of the path of dialogue and democratic resolution.

Ms Pejčinović Burić also bases her findings on discussions at an academic event—Freedom of Expression in Political Speech —held by the University of Geneva with the support of the Council of Europe and the participation of international bodies that have condemned Spain for violating political rights. For example, the President of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention based her intervention there on Opinions 6/2019 and 12/2019, dealing with the preventive detention of the pro-independence leaders.

The Secretary General thence reiterates the emphasis on the importance of “examining the criminal legislation” so that “disproportionate penalties and restrictions” do not derive from its wording. The report also reiterates that freedom of expression does not protect those speeches that “promote violence.” Finally, the text emphasizes respect for parliamentary immunity, which aims to “protect freedom of expression in Parliament, protect the opposition and maintain the separation of powers.”

Senator Laura Castel, the sole pro-independence member of the PACE, remarked on the essential role of the Parliamentary Assembly in furthering reports on the matter, and highlights the Council’s statement. “What Marija Pejčinović Burić says is especially significant, since the Secretary General of the Council of Europe represents the most political branch of the institution.”