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

● Columbia Global Freedom of Expression is pleased to announce the launch of an Arabic language version of the Case Law Database at the Bread&Net conference, Nov. 15-17 in Beirut, Lebanon.  At launch, the site hosts 30 landmark decisions which have upheld or established international standards on freedom of expression as well as a range of publications on digital rights in the MENA region. Coming soon are analyses of important cases from around the world with up to four new cases each month.

● The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to operationalize the International Human Rights Forum. The Forum seeks to enhance judicial dialogue, publish annual reports on the leading judgments of the three courts with commentaries, undertake knowledge-sharing on human rights issues through digital platforms, and develop on-line learning courses, among others.

● Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) and the Law Society of England and Wales have submitted a joint stakeholder report ahead of Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review taking place in October and November 2019. The submission focuses on the use of the Counter-terrorism Law, the Protest Law, the NGO Law, the Media Law, the Cybercrime Law, and the Penal Code to harass, arrest, and prosecute lawyers and human rights defenders, among other issues.

Decisions this Week

United States
Speech First, INC. v. Schlissel
Decision Date: September 23, 2019
The United States Court of Appeal found that the advocacy organization Speech First had standing to bring a First Amendment challenge against the University of Michigan’s anti-bullying and anti-harassing policy for being overly broad and vague. Speech First had sought a preliminary injunction to block the enforcement of the policy and halt the activities of a Bias Response team on the grounds they stifled students’ protected speech, which the District Court denied. On Appeal, the Court found that activities of the Bias Response Team, such as the ability to refer bias incidents to the police, created an “objective chill” due to the implicit threat of negative consequences. Although the University removed the definitions of bullying and harassment under scrutiny, the Court found that the challenge could not be moot as there was insufficient evidence to prove that the University might not reenact the policies at a later date. The Court remanded the case to the District Court to reconsider the likelihood of its success and to weigh other factors against granting the injunction.Kazakhstan
WA and WB v. Mamedov
Decision Date: July 30, 2019
The Supreme Court of Kazakhstan upheld fines against a man who recorded and published a video on Facebook of two women without their consent and by doing so exposed their sexual orientation. WA and WB were secretly recorded kissing by a stranger at a cinema. The stranger then posted the video on Facebook, criticizing their sexual preferences and called on the women to be outed and shamed. The video became viral in Kazakhstan and the women become targets of harassment and threats. The two were forced to flee Kazakhstan for several months, and eventually sued the man for violating their privacy and sought compensation for moral harm. The first instance court ruled for the women, only for the judgment to be overturned by an appellate court on the ground that the women’s behavior was amoral. The Supreme Court reinstated the first instance judgment, reiterating that the man violated the women’s right to privacy by recording them without their consent, publishing the subsequent video on social media, which in turn harmed the women.Turkey
The Case of the Academics for Peace
Decision Date: July 26, 2019
The Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that the conviction of 10 academics on charges of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization,’’ for having signed a petition criticizing the State’s military operations, violated the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 26 of the Constitution. On January 11, 2016, the applicants, who were among 1,128 academics and researchers calling themselves “Academics for Peace’’, signed a petition entitled “We will not be a party to this crime.’’ The petition denounced the excessive and lethal force used by security forces during anti-terror operations in Southeastern Turkey and called on the Government to end the armed conflict. The applicants were subsequently indicted by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor for disseminating propaganda on behalf of the the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a militant organization. All applicants were convicted and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment under Article 7(2) of the Anti-Terror Law for disseminating terrorist propaganda. The Constitutional Court, in a one-vote majority, concluded that the custodial sentences violated the right to freedom of expression of the 10 academics.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On November 13, 2019, the Russian parliamentary Committee on Information Policy and Technology recommended lawmakers to adopt a bill that would allow the authorities to begin labeling some media outlets, journalists and bloggers as “foreign agents” and fine those who cooperate with them. According to the bill, any media outlet, journalist or blogger that receives foreign funding would be named a “foreign agent.” One of the bill’s drafters explained that journalists who write about socio-political issues face higher likelihood of receiving the unwanted classification. Those who cooperate with foreign agents by providing them with information or disseminating their information could face fines between 10,000 and 200,000 rubles, as well as imprisonment of up to fifteen days. Lawmakers explain that the law simply reflects legislation used against Russia Today and Sputnik in the United States. They are confident that the bill will be adopted into law in late 2019. The bill is extremely problematic, especially considering the transborder nature of information in the digital age, as it will further restrict freedom of expression and information in Russia particularly on issues of public concern.Uzbekistan
On November 1, 2019, a researcher of Uighur abuses committed by the Chinese authorities was denied entry into Uzbekistan. Evgeniy Bunin, a resident of Kazakhstan, is a researcher and activist behind the Xinjiang Victims Database, which collects and publishes testimonies of victims, their relatives and friends, about human rights abuses committed against ethnic Muslim minorities by the Chinese Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. At this point, the Database contains over 5,500 testimonies about 5,150 victims. Bunin spends his winters in Uzbekistan and on his most recent attempt to enter the country was denied entry and deported back to Kazakhstan. He recalled that during his last visit to Uzbekistan, national security was tracking him. Bunin believes his mistreatment stems from the Uzbek authorities’ fear of upsetting relationships with China, which has invested significantly into the country. Considering Uzbekistan’s poor human rights record, its authorities decision to restrict Bunin’s activities may not be very surprising, but nonetheless worrying as it illustrates the extraterritorial spread of China’s censorship.


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.