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

● Agnes Callamard, the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, presented the posthumous Courage Under Fire award to Jamal Khashoggi at the 2019 Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Award Ceremony. In her presentation speech, she stressed that the award honors not only Jamal Khashoggi’s courage but also celebrates the courage of Hatice Cengiz, his fiance who continues to seek justice for his brutal murder.

● In “Human Rights in the Age of Platforms” scholars from across law and internet and media studies examine the human rights implications of today’s platform society. The contributors consider the “datafication” of society, including the economic model of data extraction and the conceptualization of privacy. They examine online advertising, content moderation, corporate storytelling around human rights, and other platform practices. Finally, they discuss the relationship between human rights law and private actors, addressing such issues as private companies’ human rights responsibilities and content regulation. The book was edited by Rikke Frank Jørgensen with a foreword by David Kaye.

● Columbia Global Freedom of Expression experts Jacob Mchangama and Joelle Fiss published a new report, The Digital Berlin Wall: How Germany (Accidentally) Created a Proto­type for Global Online Censorship. The report documents that at least 13 countries have adopted or proposed laws similar to Germany´s Network Enforcement Act which obliges social media platforms to remove illegal content within 24 hours or risk huge fines.

● At the end of last week, the Internet Society (ISOC) announced that it has sold the rights to the .org registry for an undisclosed sum to a private equity company called Ethos Capital. The decision shocked the internet industry, not least because the .org registry has always been operated on a non-profit basis and has actively marketed itself as such. The suffix “org” on an internet address – and there are over 10 million of them – has become synonymous with non-profit organizations.

Decisions this Week

Sigifredo Fonseca González vs. Jael Johana Castro León
Decision Date: April 4, 2019
The Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that an individual’s freedom of expression was unlawfully restricted when she was forced to take down an allegedly defamatory Facebook post and to apologize. Jael Johana Castro León re-shared a Facebook post that accused Sigifredo Fonseca González of belonging to a corrupt cartel at the Santander University Hospital. Fonseca Gonzalez sued Castro León, arguing that she violated his fundamental rights to good name, honor, and privacy. After introducing and applying a five-part test to balance the competing rights to freedom of expression and privacy, the Constitutional Court reasoned that Castro León did not violate the rights of Fonseca González because she expressed an opinion that was of public interest and did not accuse Fonseca González of any specific wrongdoing.Uganda
Kyagulanyi v. Kampala Metropolitan Police Commander
Decision Date: May 10. 2019
The Kampala High Court in Uganda dismissed an application from a musician-turned-politician seeking a declaration that his right to freedom of expression had been infringed by the cancellation of a series of concerts. The politician planned to play a series of concerts in the fall of 2017, but the police cancelled them on the ground that a previous concert was marred by violence. The Court determined that the politician organized the concert for entertainment purposes and failed to prove that he planned to express specific views at his concert. Thus, he did not clearly show that he was being persecuted for his speech. The Court added that commercial gatherings, such as the one at hand, do not enjoy protection under freedom of assembly.

United States
Vazzo v. City of Tampa
Decision Date: January 30, 2019
A Florida district court granted a preliminary injunction, finding that that a city ordinance banning “conversion therapy,” which aims to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, was a violation of health care professionals’ First Amendment rights. Two licensed therapists who practiced sexual-orientation-change-efforts (SOCE) counseling, a form of conversion therapy, and New Hearts Outreach, a Christian organization which referred minors to have the therapy, claimed the City of Tampa lacked standing to implement the Ordinance and that it violated their free speech rights. The Court found that the SOCE counseling constituted speech rather than conduct, and that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in their claim that the ordinance was content-based, view-point discriminatory, unconstitutionally vague and a form of prior-restraint. The Court concluded that the limited injunction, which allowed for “talk-therapy” but not coercive forms of therapy, struck the proper balance between protecting the First Amendment rights of SOCE therapists and the health and safety of minors.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On November 19, 2019, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, accepted the third and final version of a bill making positive changes to the law regulating the usage of Nazi symbols. Russia has long maintained an absolute prohibition on the usage of Nazi symbols and its overboard nature sometimes penalized legitimate historic discussion of World War II. The newly passed amendment still maintains a general prohibition on the usage of Nazi symbols, but provides exceptions for cases when the usage forms a negative attitude towards Nazi ideology, or does not justify Nazism or advocates it. The change in the law was welcomed by SOVA-Center, Russia’s premier hate-speech research institute, that for years criticized the oft absurd prosecutions of hundreds of individuals sharing images or videos that included Nazi symbols.Kazakhstan
On November 18, 2019, three activists were fined for claiming that the country’s ruling party Nur Otan prevented them from establishing their own political party. In the beginning of the year Alnur Ilyashev, Marat Turymbetov and Sanavar Zakirova began the legal and administrative process to establish a political party named “Our Right.” They filed documents with the Ministry of Justice, announced a party convention, and booked a venue. Several weeks later, the venue’s owners canceled the booking, suddenly claiming that there was no heat, water and electricity in the venue. Around the same time, the authorities began a campaign of pressure against the activists. They were summoned for questioning by police and prosecutors several times and asked to cancel the convention or face charges for organizing an unsanctioned public assembly. On the day of the convention, the three were detained once again. The activists filed a complaint against Nur Otan, the police, and the prosecutor’s office for thwarting the establishment of the “Our Right” political party. In a likely reprisal, Sanavar Zakirova was investigated for allegedly participating in unsanctioned protests critical of the judiciary and association with a banned and possibly extremist group. Additionally, on November 13, several members of Nur Otan sued the activists for defamation, alleging that the party’s image suffered as the result of false claims about its opposition to the establishment of “Our Right.” Within five days, a court processed the complaint, sided with the country’s ruling party, and ordered the activists to pay $15,500 in compensation, a hefty sum considering that the average annual salary in Kazakhstan is under $5,000. The ruling illustrates the authorities’ intolerance to political opposition, no matter how minor. Following the March 2019 resignation of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s autocratic leader for almost three decades, protesters took to the streets demanding democratic reforms. The government responded with mass arrests and transition of power guaranteeing the continued survival of the regime..


Post Scriptum

● Facebook and Google’s omnipresent surveillance of billions of people poses a systemic threat to human rights, Amnesty International warned in a new report as it called for a radical transformation of the tech giants’ core business model.

● A new report by the Open Technology Fund, The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism In Egypt: Digital Expression Arrests From 2011-2019, investigates the methods used by state authorities to surveil and target online activity in Egypt and examines the laws which are used to legitimize the worst human rights crackdown in the country’s history.

● The anonymous organisation Unknown Fund has announced that it intends to invest and donate $75 million in bitcoin to startups which directly or indirectly support the idea of anonymity.

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