The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University: Newsletter

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

● Global Freedom of Expression experts Dirk Voorhoof and Ronan Ó Fathaigh have published an analysis of the recent ECtHR ruling Szurovecz v. Hungary, and conclude that the unanimous ruling “should serve a powerful precedent for journalists throughout Europe seeking access to asylum-seeker detention centres,” as well as potentially shield them from other forms of intimidation.● Freedom House has released its annual country-by-country assessment of internet freedom, Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media, which finds that global internet freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year, marking a trend towards digital authoritarianism.

● A work-in-progress screening of The Seeds of an Uncertain Land, a film by Jake Price. The film documents the struggles and success of Puerto Rican farmers who, after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, have been able to employ regenerative farming techniques to bring back traditional foods to sustain communities and address the pressing climate crisis. November 13, 2019 at the NoHo Sound in the East Village, New York City.

Decisions this Week

European Court of Human Rights
Szurovecz v. Hungary
Decision Date: October 8, 2019
The European Court of Human Rights found that a refusal to grant a Hungarian journalist access to an asylum seeker “Reception Centre” violated his right to impart information and hence his right to freedom of expression. The Reception Centre housed many asylum seekers entering Hungary and there had been allegations that the living conditions were inhumane. The journalist sought permission to enter the Centre in order to interview asylum seekers, take photographs and report on the conditions. Hungarian authorities rejected his request, citing concerns for the privacy and security of the asylum seekers. The European Court of Human Rights emphasized that newsgathering, including first-hand observation, is an essential part of press freedom. It found that the authorities had failed to properly consider the journalistic purpose and public interest in reporting on Government management of the refugee crisis. In light of those circumstances, there was little scope for restrictions on freedom of expression and the Court found a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.United States
Campbell v. Reisch
Decision Date: August 16, 2019
A District Court in Missouri ruled that a State Representative violated one of her constituent’s First Amendment rights when she blocked him from her Twitter account. Reisch, who sits in the Missouri House of Representatives, blocked Campbell for retweeting criticism of Reisch’s position on a matter of public interest. Relying on Knight First Amendment Inst. at Columbia Univ. v. Trumpthe Court found that the interactive space of Reisch’s Twitter account constituted a public forum, as she controlled it in her official government capacity, and that the blocking was a content-based restriction intended to suppress a political viewpoint.

Ogwuche v. Federal Republic of Nigeria
Decision Date: December 11, 2018
The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States held that a new regulation imposed by the Nigerian Government against a human rights group was tantamount to censorship and violated their freedom of expression. The National Broadcasting Commission had issued a regulation requiring Festus A. O. Ogwuche, as well as all broadcasting houses, to have any proposed live programming vetted by the Commission 48 hours prior to airing on the grounds that some programs were broadcasting content which threatened the peace and unity of the country. The Court examined international and regional human rights instruments to find that the Government of Nigeria failed to establish proof that Ogwuche’s media programs constituted a sufficient threat to justify the restriction and that the restriction, as such, was an excessive burden. Therefore, the Court ordered that the Regulation be withdrawn.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On November 6, a court in Moscow ruled that facial recognition technology was not used in a trial to identify and fine an activist. In October, RosKomSvoboda, a Russia-based digital rights NGO, sued the Ministry of Interior and the Department of Information Technologies on behalf of Alena Popova, an activist fined for protesting in front of the Russian Parliament in 2018. In that trial, the prosecutor submitted an image of Popova’s face obtained from a street camera, which was enlarged thirty-two times, as evidence. Popova and RosKomSvoboda argued that image enlargement to such a degree was a feature of facial recognition technology, which violated the constitutional prohibition on using biometric data without written consent, as well as the right to privacy. The Department of Information Technologies denied that its video monitoring system was used for identification or tracking purposes since all images were destroyed after 120 hours, and it did not keep a registry of personal data. The Department conceded that it had the capacity to capture an image and pass it onto another government agency, at which point any related legal liability was waived. It also argued that any image taken in a public space became public information, protected under Russia’s freedom to information laws. The department added that facial recognition technology was not needed solely to identify persons, but also to track the cleanliness of streets, to install children’s playgrounds and identify any needed repairs. The government agencies’ arguments seem to contradict numerous news reports and statements of politicians about the expanding use of facial recognition technologies across Russia. Nevertheless, the Moscow court sided with the government.

On November 1, Kasymberdy Garayev disappeared days after Radio Freedom published his recollection of feeling lonely and living in fear because he was gay. Garayev’s name was anonymized for protection, but included his vocation and age. He was a 24-year-old cardiologist. That was enough for the authorities to track Garayev.  On October 31, in a video message shared on Radio Freedom, Garayev said that he was being summoned by the police and asked for forgiveness in case he was disappeared. As of November 1, no one has heard from him. The hospital where Garayev worked stated that he was fired. On November 3, it was reported that the man’s colleagues were forced to undergo tests for venereal diseases and ordered to report to the police the names of anyone suspected of being LGBTI. Further, regional offices of the Ministry of Health held meetings to discuss “the man who dishonored the medical profession.” Law enforcement representatives attended the meetings and threatened to punish those who do not report individuals suspected of being LGBTI. Same sex relationships between men in Turkmenistan are illegal and punishable with up to ten years in prison.

Post Scriptum● In case you need a laugh at the end of the week, the US Representative of California “Devin Nunes Demands Satirical Internet Cow Stop Making Fun Of Him… Or Else.”  Rep. Nunes has launched SLAPP lawsuits against a satirical twitter account,Devin Nunes’ Cow, that he does not find funny. Thanks to the so-called “Streisand effect,” the Cow’s twitter followers have ballooned from 1,200 followers before the lawsuits, to over 630k.

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

1 Comment

  1. Festus Ogwuche

    I am Festus A. Ogwuche whose case instituted above before the ECOWAS community Court of Justice was mentioned above. I find your analysis quite impressive and I d cherish to partner with your organization. This will go a long way in enhancing my activism towards a more broader landscapes for freedom particularly in Africa. Thanks

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