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Language discrimination complaints up 32% in 2018

Plataforma per la Llengua received 570 complaints from Catalan-speakers who saw their language rights infringed.

The organisation reported 25 cases of serious language discrimination by the public authorities last year.

Plataforma per la Llengua deals with consumer complaints about the way they are treated in terms of language by companies and institutions operating in Catalan-speaking areas. Since 2015 it has also systemised the collection of serious cases of language discrimination by the public authorities. After analysing and processing the data, the Catalan NGO presented two reports, one with the complaints collected during 2018 and the other with the serious cases of language discrimination dealt with during the same year. The organisation believes that raising Catalan-speakers' awareness of the rights they have is also a way of exercising and upholding them. Along these lines, this year Plataforma per la Llengua joined the Committee of Organisations Caring for Victims of Discrimination in Barcelona, an example of good practice the organisation believes should be extended to other cities, such as Valencia and Palma.

During 2018, complaints received by Plataforma per la Llengua increased by 32%, from 430 to 570, exceeding 500 complaints for the first time. Although the increase may appear to mark an increase in discrimination, the organisation puts a positive gloss on the figures because they reflect an increase in awareness among citizens and knowledge of Plataforma per la Llengua's complaints service.

Although the authorities most complained about are the Spanish Central Government and the Government of Catalonia, the type of complaint differs between the two. In the first case, complaints are distributed between different ministries or bodies and refer either to discrimination in oral or written dealings with the authorities or are general complaints about the Spanish government's attitude to Catalan. In the case of the Government of Catalonia, most of the complaints focus on two bodies for which it is responsible: the Department of Health and the Catalan Audiovisual Media Corporation. The reasons for the complaints are also diverse, with none particularly standing out. In the private sector, which continues to be the largest source of complaints, the trends of the last few years also continue, with service companies, those basing their activities on the internet and big stores and franchises receiving most of them. For 2018 we should highlight the fact that the number of complaints aimed at the hotel and catering sector have doubled, from 19 in 2017 to 38 in 2018. Once again, TripAdvisor is the company receiving most complaints.

"We're in Spain, speak Spanish"

As for serious discrimination by the public authorities, Plataforma per la Llengua has handled 25 cases, a similar number to previous years: in 2017, Plataforma per la Llengua detected 26 cases of language discrimination and in 2016 there were 22. As in previous years, the cases detected during 2018 have occurred in various areas of public administration, in the different Catalan-speaking territories and at different administrative levels. However, as is also common, the majority of the discrimination cases involve central government authorities. The police forces, courts and health centres have been the main contexts for them.

The Catalan NGO, however, is certain that these cases are only the tip of the iceberg of a bigger language exclusion problem, where the most important phenomenon is the inhibition and self-censorship of Catalan-speakers, who often choose to not to speak their own language. Many Catalan-speakers have internalised situations of diglossia, convergence towards Spanish and submission to public servants, who often impose their will in an arbitrary way.

One of the cases Plataforma per la Llengua deplores in its report is that of Cristina Brullet, aged 69, who was verbally harassed and threatened with being handcuffed for speaking to a Spanish National Police Force officer in Catalan. The events happened in the police station in Carrer Balmes in Barcelona, where Brullet went to ask for information to renew her passport. The police officer quickly became irate and demanded that she speak to him in Spanish because he didn't understand and "we're in Spain". This demand is absolutely illegal because article 54.11 of the Basic Public Employees Statute Act establishes that public servants must offer "attention to citizens in the language they request, provided it is official in the territory". When Cristina Brullet carried on speaking Catalan, stating that it was also an official language, the public servant ordered her to identify herself because she had been disrespectful to him. After identifying herself, Brullet asked the police officer, a public servant, to show her his identification number, but he refused. Brullet even reported that the officer threatened to handcuff her. Advised by Plataforma per la Llengua and the Anti-Discrimination Office in Barcelona, Brullet made an official complaint about the officers' actions but the reports have been left on file with evasive responses, which reinforces the impunity of public servants guilty of discrimination.

Jaume Arbós also suffered discrimination from the Spanish National Police Force when he was refused access to a police station for speaking in Catalan to the officer at the entrance. Arbós went to the Spanish police station in his town, Terrassa, to obtain a criminal record certificate he needed. At the door, an officer stopped him to ask him where he was going. When Arbós answered in Catalan, the officer said he did not understand and demanded that Arbós speak to him in Spanish. He carried on speaking Catalan, aware of his right to speak it, but the officer continued not to deal with him. Nor would he let him enter the police station.

But serious language discrimination also affects the authorities of Spain's autonomous communities. One of the cases reported involved a worker from the Catalan Health Service, who refused to attend to a child with psychological problems in Catalan. The events occurred when Núria Navàs accompanied her son Bernat on visit to the psychologist at the Children's and Young People's Mental Health Centre in Reus belonging to the Catalan Health Service. Bernat had been to the centre before but the professional in charge of his case was new. As soon as Bernat's mother introduced herself she told them she did not understand Catalan. When the surprised mother asked her if it was not a requirement for her to know Catalan, the young woman lied and said it was not.

A structural problem with the State

Discrimination against Catalan-speakers is a structural problem with the Spanish State, which has been constructed over the centuries exclusively around Castile, its culture, its tradition, its history, its symbols and, particularly, its language. Even today, the Spanish Constitution establishes that Spanish is the official language throughout the State, while limiting the possibility of making Catalan official where it is the native language. At the same time, the Spanish Constitution imposes on all citizens of the State the duty to know Spanish while - in line with the Spanish Constitutional Court in a decision against the Statute of Catalonia - prohibiting an equivalent duty being imposed for Catalan, even where it is the native language. This has important effects on people's rights. It is unthinkable that civil servants will not understand citizens who address them in Spanish, but it is very common for Catalan-speaking citizens to find difficulties and obstacles when they express themselves in their own language to the authorities and public servants. State civil servants are almost all exempt from knowing any language other than Spanish. For all these reasons, Plataforma per la Llengua suggested an emergency plan as part of the "Prou de Catalanofòbia" (No More Catalanophobia) campaign, with requests to the Spanish Government, such as repealing the structural legal discrimination against Catalan-speakers and requiring improved language skills from central government staff in Catalan-speaking territories. It also asked the Catalan, Valencian and Balearic Islands' governments to provide free assistance to victims and to introduce Autonomous Community regulations making it possible to impose administrative penalties on those guilty of discrimination.

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