Columbia Global Freedom of Expression seeks to contribute to the development of an integrated and progressive jurisprudence and understanding on freedom of expression and information around the world.  It maintains an extensive database of international case law. This is its newsletter dealing with recent developments  in the field.

Community Highlights and Recent News

● Digital Freedom Fund Director, and Global Freedom of Expression expert, Nani Jansen Reventlow in a lecture entitled  “An inclusive digital age” at the Brainwash Festival discussed how technological developments reproduce power structures in society and also amplify social and economic inequality. She presented a series of examples and called for greater transparency on how technology is impacting our human rights.

● In a special edition of the podcast Clear And Present Danger, Jacob Mchangama and David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, put current challenges to free expression in historical perspective and explore how to apply international human rights standards to address harmful online speech.

● Call for Papers: Women in the Digital World. The Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Audencia Business School (Nantes-Paris, France) are pleased to announce a call for papers for a conference focusing on the relationship between women and digital media to be held April 16-17, 2020 at Columbia University. Deadline to submit abstract: December 1, 2019

Shirin R.K. v. State of Kerala
Decision Date: September 19, 2019
The High Court of Kerala held that a restriction imposed on the use of mobile phones in a women’s hostel was an unreasonable infringement upon the right to access the internet, the right to privacy, and the right to education. Fareema Shirin, a student, brought the challenge after being ordered to vacate college housing for refusing to comply with a rule restricting mobile phone usage during designated hours. The Court relied on international conventions to find that the hostel had an obligation to ensure women’s online freedom of expression and that digital resources offer important opportunities for affordable and inclusive education necessary to advance students’ careers.  The Court ordered the College to modernize the policies so they do not discriminate based on gender or undermine students’ access to educational resources. Finding the restriction to be “absolutely unwarranted,” the Court further ordered Shirin’s immediate re-admission to the hostel, and declared that the right to access the Internet has become part of the right to education as well as right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.Pakistan
Awami Workers Party v. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority
Decision Date: September 12, 2019
The Islamabad High Court in Pakistan ruled that the blocking of the Awami Workers Party’s official website by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)  was in violation of the principles of natural justice and fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 10-A of the Pakistani constitution. The PTA had blocked the official website of the political party on national security grounds during the 2018 General Elections under Section 37 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. The blocking order was issued without notice or opportunity for a hearing. The Court held this order to be a flagrant violation of fundamental rights under Article 10-A as no “due process” was observed.  The Court reasoned that the authorities did not follow “due process” in the present case because no rules were formulated to carry out the purposes of Section 37(2) of the Act, and therefore the Court directed the authorities to establish the necessary rules. Further, the Court observed that principles of natural justice should be read in every statute. In conclusion, the Court held the manner of blocking the website to be arbitrary.Colombia
Mayorga Ariza v. Solano Peña
Decision Date: April 6, 2018
The Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that a judge’s right to privacy was violated and her reputation damaged when a journalist published an online article about the judge’s alleged workplace harassment and judicial misconduct. The journalist, Aldemar Solano Peña, had collected information from various employees who claimed they had been mistreated by Judge Gloria Patricia Mayorga Ariza. The article was published on Peña’s blog and Facebook account, and used a personal photo of Mayorga Ariza without her consent. A lawyer, Nasly Johana Huertas, commented on the Facebook post and questioned Mayorga Ariza’s ethics. The Court reasoned that the journalist violated the principles of truthfulness and impartiality, required by the right to information, by not verifying the information with other sources and by presenting the facts in a misleading manner. The Court then dismissed Mayorga Ariza’s other “action of tutela” against the lawyer Huertas for her comments, noting that it was simply her personal opinion and reaction to Peña’s article.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On October 28, 2019, a Moscow court ordered opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer at his organization, to pay 88 million rubles (around $1,375,500) to a company that they allegedly defamed. In February 2019, Navalny released a series of YouTube videos about a dysentery outbreak in Moscow’s kindergartens. A teacher interviewed by Navalny blamed the ailment on expired food provided by companies tied to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the owner of Russia’s notorious private military contractor the “Wagner Group” and supposed Putin confidante. One of the food distribution companies sued Navalny, the teacher, and Sobol, who represented families of children suffering from dysentery, for damaging its reputation that allegedly led to a loss of a large contract. The Moscow court sided with the company and imposed some of the largest compensations for defamation in Russia’s history. The court also ordered Navalny to take down the YouTube videos. Pressure on Navalny and his group increased in recent months. Earlier in October his Anti-Corruption Fund was declared a foreign agent for receiving donations from a Russian citizen residing in the United States. The aggressive attacks on Navalny are reflective of a general trend taken by the authorities in response to Putin’s falling popularity.

On October 24, 2019, residents of Kazakhstan who failed to register their cellphones with the Ministry of Information were denied mobile service. In January 2019, the Kazakh authorities demanded cellphone users register their phones’ IMEI numbers as a mechanism to combat cellphone theft. IMEI numbers are a unique identification that all mobile and smartphones have which allows service operators to block a cellphone and even track its location. Allowing the authorities to possess IMEI numbers limits the ability of journalists, activists and citizens to anonymously exercise and enjoy freedom of expression and information. For instance, the Saudi Government has used IMEI numbers to hunt down women who escaped the country. Given Kazakhstan’s history of repression of activists and government critics, this registration scheme is likely to strengthen the authoritarian government’s ability to control information and limit accountability

Post Scriptum

● Transnational Othering – Global Diversities Media, Extremism and Free Expression
This anthology addresses complex, interconnected issues, such as the rise of extremism and terrorism, diversity and minority rights, as well as the situation for freedom of expression in eight different countries, most of them with a Muslim majority population.

● In case you missed it, read the letter Facebook employees sent to Mark Zuckerberg about political ads!

This newsletter is reproduced with the permission of Global Freedom of Expression.  For an archive of previous newsletters, see here.