Madrid, Spain, 2019: “Love Never Fails!” International Convention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Source: jw.org.
SPAIN: A court ruled against itself in a Jehovah’s Witnesses case
Similar expressions violated the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rights according to two decisions by the Court of Torrejón de Ardoz—but not according to a third one.
by Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter (18.12.2023) – In a country as passionate for soccer as Spain, the difference between winning three to zero and two to one is easily understood. Yet, when the “goals” are decisions rendered by different judges of the same court with respect to the same, or very similar, facts, a confusion is created that perhaps superior judges should one day solve.
It exists in Spain an anti-cult group called Spanish Association of the Victims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (AEVTJ). The name already tells it all. The AEVTJ’s activity consists in exposing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “cult” harmful to its “victims,” with the customary laundry list of accusations used by anti-cult associations throughout the world. In this case, the Spanish Jehovah’s Witnesses found that their right to honor was violated and decided to react. Their “match” against the AEVTJ was played in the Court of Torrejón de Ardoz and went (so far) through three stages.
Stage 1. On November 21, 2022, the Spanish newspaper “El Mundo” published an article against the Jehovah’s Witnesses based on information supplied by the AEVTJ. On October 2, 2023, the Court of First Instance no. 1 of Torrejón de Ardoz ruled that “El Mundo” had been fed false information by the AEVTJ. It ordered the newspaper to publish the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ reply and to pay the litigation costs. The court explicitly qualified as false and offensive statements calling the Jehovah’s Witness a “secta,” the Spanish word for “cult,” describing inaccurately their attitude about sexual abuse of children, inter alia by relying on a certain interpretation of a controversial Australian report, and claiming that “shunning,” or refusing to associate with, disassociated ex-members and those who had publicly left the organization, amount to illegally inflicting a form of “social death” to those former members. Jehovah’s Witnesses 1, AEVTJ (which was the source of what “El Mundo” published) 0.
Stage 2. In a video presenting his organization, the Secretary of the AEVTJ, Enrique Carmona, repeated the same comments on the Jehovah’s Witnesses that “El Mundo” had published and added some colorful expressions such as calling the religious organization a “cult” and a “disease.” On October 25, 2023, the Court of First Instance no. 1 of Torrejón de Ardoz found Carmona guilty of having violated the right to honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses through the core statements of his video. The AEVTJ has a lawyer who at times appears to be more anti-cult that the association itself, one Carlos Bardavío, who—strange as it may seem—is sometimes presented as “the greatest expert on cults in the world.” Since not “all” the comments in the video had been found to violate the right to honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bardavío bizarrely claimed that the AEVTJ had “won” the case. Who wins cases of this kind is clearly indicated by who is sentenced to pay money to the other party, and it was Carmona who had to give 5.000 euros to the Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than the other way around. Jehovah’s Witnesses 2, AEVTJ 0.
Third stage. Several individual Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Spanish religious organization had sued AEVTJ directly. They claimed that its activities and publications violated the right to honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This case was decided by the Sixth rather than the First Section of the Court of First Instance of Torrejón de Ardoz, which on December 5 found against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and declared that the AEVTJ had not violated their right to honor. Jehovah’s Witnesses 2, AEVTJ 1. The game does not end here, as this decision will be appealed, and it seems somewhat strange that Section 6 of the Torrejón de Ardoz court ignored and contradicted what Section 1 had clearly stated.
It is always useful to read the whole decision, which Attorney Bardavío and AEVTJ propaganda on social media is already reducing to “we won, they lost, and a judge certified that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a bad cult.” While I find the decision poorly motivated and biased, it is nonetheless more complicated than that.
It is based on two legal arguments. The first is that in Spanish case law, more than in the case law of other countries, freedom of expression has been traditionally protected over the right to honor when the two rights enter into a conflict. According to this judge, this is particularly true when the right to honor of a religious organization is considered. For example, the decision explains, Spanish courts have allowed critics of the Catholic Church to declare that it is “a political power rather than a religion,” that it has systematically protected pedophile priests, and has committed a variety of crimes (p. 59). Even when the accusations are not true, Spanish case law believes that associations targeting a particular religion and gathering its disgruntled ex-members may play the role of the “watchdog” and provided that “they do not go beyond the limits… of religious liberty,” may even exert a positive role in inducing religions to improve and reform (p. 71)
The judge’s interpretation of Spanish case law is questionable. In a scholarly article written before the decision with reference to the slander campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a leading Spanish legal scholar, Professor Juan Ferreiro Galguera, expressed a different opinion. He wrote that under Spanish law “the freedom to express opinions will prevail over the right to honor insofar as these opinions are the expression of an ‘animus criticandi’ or an ‘animus jocandi’ [criticism or humorous satire]. However, freedom of expression does not protect the right to insult, that is, it does not protect those disqualifications that have been made from an unequivocal ‘animus injuriandi,’ that is, from a direct and main intention to hurt, humiliate or defile a natural person or in this case a religious denomination… Expressions that can be included in the category of hate speech are outside the scope of freedom of expression” (“Honor de las confesiones religiosas ante la libertad de expression: especial referencia a los Testigos de Jehová,” “Revista General de Derecho Canónico y Eclesiástico del Estado” 63 [October 2023], pp. 1–55 [p. 53]).
The second principle mentioned by the Torrejón decision is that “veracity [veracidad] should not be confused with truth [verdad]” (p. 21). Quoting Spanish legal precedents, the decision states that to be protected by freedom of expression, even when potentially harmful to the right to honor of a community, “veracity” is enough, and truth is not required. For example, when media report that an organization has been accused of a certain harmful behavior, “veracity” should not be identified with the “accuracy of the news” (exactitud de la noticia). “The veracity required is limited to the objective truth of the existence of the statement,” even if the statement reported is not accurate (p. 22). Veracity “must be understood as the result of the diligent activity deployed by the communicator in verifying that the information he intends to disseminate conforms to reality, even if, in the end, it is proven that such information is not accurate, and may even turn out, after the corresponding judicial or investigative process, to be false” (p. 23).
Accordingly, the decision stated that establishing the “truthfulness” or the “accuracy” of the accusation raised by the AEVTJ was not necessary to conclude that they are protected by freedom of expression. Assessing their “veracity” was enough.
The decision then devoted several dozen pages to reporting statements by “apostate” former Jehovah’s Witnesses who testified that they believe the accusations of the AEVTJ in the fields of shunning, sexual abuse, blood transfusion, and others to be true, and quoting media that repeated the same accusations. Interestingly, the court reports that “in September 2019, both the newspapers ‘El País’ and ‘ABC’ reported that in Milan the parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, had had their parental authority temporarily withdrawn from a 10-month-old baby so that he could receive an indispensable blood transfusion.” However, the judge seems not to be aware that the 2019 decision of the Juvenile Court of Milan, whose content had been reported by media quite incorrectly, was overturned on appeal by the Appeal Court of Milan on September 10, 2020.
Even the unavoidable Australian Royal Commission report, or its current interpretation by anti-cultists, was quoted, ignoring the objections by scholars, and the fact that on June 2021, News Corp (Daily Telegraph Australia), the largest media outlet in Australia, published an apology for misusing (as many other media did) the Royal Commission report, spreading inaccurate information that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had been covering child abuse.
The judge also inaccurately wrote that in Belgium “the confession [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] was condemned” for hiding sexual abuses (p. 50), while in fact the contrary happened. It was the Belgian government and its anti-cult agency that were found guilty by the Court of Brussels of having falsely and without evidence accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of concealing sexual abuses.
While the “veracity” standard would make the fact that several media and organizations had spread the same accusations sufficient to exonerate the AEVTJ from any liability, the decision is biased to the extent that the opinions of scholars, Jehovah’s Witnesses who are happy to remain in the organization, and foreign courts of law (not to mention Section 1 of the same Court of Torrejón de Ardoz) are ignored or quickly dismissed, and a disproportionate weight is given to anti-cultists and “apostate” ex-members, towards whom the sympathy of the judge who drafted the decision is clearly directed. I also believe that the judge erred when she used dictionaries to conclude that the expressions “secta” (cult) and “victim” may have a neutral or non-offensive meaning, while in the context of the current media controversies about “cults” they have certainly acquired a clear derogatory meaning. This is what the Tonchev decision of the European Court of Human Rights about the use of the Bulgarian expression equivalent to “secta” or “cult” also stated. It was a decision the Spanish judge regarded as not applicable to her case since it protected religious liberty rather the right to honor.
Ultimately, the decision adopted a free-market approach. “Even if some expressions are inaccurate or exaggerated, as discussed above, the right to freedom of expression and information prevails over the right to honor” (p. 71). Rather than relying on courts of law, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are incited to go public “to explain or defend their beliefs, their practices, their traditions and to contradict, if necessary, with total freedom, the criticisms received, even more so in today’s society in which there are various means of communication, social networks, and digital resources to freely express their opinions.”
This comment appears to be quite naïve, as it assumes that a slandered religious minority and its opponents have equal access to the media. In fact, it is almost only the opponents’ voice that is heard through the media, whose bias against groups stigmatized as “cults” has been studied by scholars for decades. Paradoxically, this is confirmed by the decision itself, which relies heavily on anti-cult propaganda spread through Spanish and international media. In turn, the same decision has been reported by several Spanish media by relying on AEVTJ’s social media posts and press releases only and without even bothering to read its text.
The decision recognizes that “it is also known that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are absolutely peaceful citizens as they are forbidden to take up arms against another human being, that they do not enter into conflict in society and that they promote very positive behaviors for human beings such as work well done, care for the family, the prohibition of drugs and very limited consumption of alcohol. All these virtues, which also benefit the Spanish society, can be expressed publicly in the same way from the confession or by the devotees themselves.”
I suspect that this part of the decision will not be publicized by Attorney Bardavío or the AEVTJ. The question, however, remains whether courts of law should act only as a distant and somewhat lazy referee, allowing the players to hurt each other and leaving some of them free to use false, although perhaps technically “veracious” allegations, or should intervene to protect the dignity of slandered minorities and their freedom of religion or belief that can be separated from their right to honor in theory but not in practice.
Most courts throughout the world, and even another section of the same court, answered the question differently from Section 6 of the Court of First Instance of Torrejón de Ardoz. I believe that these other courts were right, and Section 6 was wrong. Until it will be hopefully corrected by a superior court, domestic or European, the decision of December 5 should be better considered as an anomaly, the proverbial exception that confirms the rule established by dozens of decisions that found in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The renovated building hosting the translation department at the Spanish branch office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Source: jw.org
Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio. From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.