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

● Britain to give regulator power over social media: The UK Government announced plans to put forward legislation that would give Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, control over social-media platforms. The proposed law comes in response to a government inquiry that produced last year’s Online Harms white paper, and it would allow Ofcom to fine—and even in some cases imprison—any executives that refuse to remove illegal content in a timely manner, or even content that isn’t actually illegal but could be seen as “damaging to children or other vulnerable users.”

● From Russia with Blogs:  Based on account data provided by Facebook,  Graphika identified a network of false personas that posted anti-Western and pro-Kremlin messaging across Facebook, Twitter, blogs and news websites in Russian, Ukrainian, English, German and Turkish. The report examines several campaigns manned by Russian military intelligence operators using fake accounts to influence audiences around Russia’s borders, with a primary focus on Ukraine.

● Article 14 reports that since January 29, 74 Indians have been charged with sedition across five cities for participating in protests against a new citizenship law. Article 14 argues that although the 150 year old law has been held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court, the way it is being used now contravenes Indian citizens’ fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression.

Decisions this Week

South Africa
Gqubele-Mbeki v. Economic Freedom Fighters
Decision Direction: January 24, 2020
The South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg held that statements made by a political party that certain journalists had been apartheid agents were defamatory. The application was brought by two journalists after the party published a statement on Twitter repeating allegations made by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela that the journalists had worked for an apartheid government-sponsored disinformation and propaganda campaign. The Court stressed that there was no evidence of the truth of the allegations and held that the political party could not rely on the defences of reasonable publication and fair comment.

CasaPound v. Facebook
Decision Date: December 12, 2019
The Court of Rome ruled that Facebook must reactivate the account and restore the pages of the Italian neo-fascist party CasaPound.  The action was brought after Facebook deactivated the party’s account as well as the profile of the page’s administrator without providing any notice or explanation. Facebook argued that the removal of CasaPound’s pages was legitimate on the grounds that they included content which constituted hate speech and incitement to violence, in violation of Facebook’s Community Standards. The Court reasoned that due to Facebook’s dominance as a social media platform and its stated mission to uphold freedom of expression, the deactivation of CasaPound’s page violated its rights as a political party to participate in public debate and “contribute by democratic means to national policy” under article 49 of the Constitution.  The Court further stated that Facebook was bound to abide by Italian law, which limited its discretion in its contractual relationship with its users, until violations had been proved. Therefore, the Court granted the request and ordered Facebook to pay costs as well as a penalty of €800 for each day the account remained inactive following the order. Facebook has appealed.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On February 11, 2020, the human rights organization Memorial declared that Yulia Tsvetkova, an artist-activist who is at risk of imprisonment for publishing feminist cartoons, was a political prisoner. A year ago, the authorities banned a festival organized by Tsvetkova after learning that its program included a play combatting gender stereotypes. Soon after, police began scanning her social media accounts for “incriminating” information. Police found Tsvetkova’s posts of drawings calling for LGBT and gender equality problematic. In October she was questioned over her artwork depicting vulvas and cartoons calling for an end to body shaming. Within a month she was charged with distribution of pornography and placed under house arrest. She was also accused twice of “propaganda of homosexuality” and fined 50,000 rubles. If convicted, she may spend six years in prison. Memorial called her prosecution unfounded and political, seeking to simply penalize Tsvetkova for demanding gender equality.

On February 4, 2020, an appellate process challenging the imprisonment of a video blogger and his wife began in Mangystau, a province on the Caspian Sea. Zhambyl Kobeisinov blogged about problems in his region. In May, police attempted to detain him for planning to protest. He resisted and police supposedly used physical force against him. Soon after, the blogger published three videos on YouTube, alleging that his detention was arbitrary, criticizing police actions, and asking the Governor of Mangystau to investigate the events. The head of the police department who oversaw the arrest filed criminal defamation and insult complaints against the blogger and his wife, who was seen in the videos. In December, a first instance court found Kobeisinov guilty of criminal defamation using the internet and sentenced him to six months in prison. His wife, Dilbar Bekzhanova, was given a suspended sentence of similar length. The insult claim was dismissed. In the fall of 2019, the President of Kazakhstan ordered a review of defamation laws, which was interpreted by local civil society as a step towards decriminalization. However, it is unclear if and when the reform will take place.

Post Scriptum

● Facebook does not understand the marketplace of ideas: In a recent article for the Financial Times, Anya Schiffrin and Joseph Stiglitz breakdown the flaws in the concept of the marketplace of ideas, noting that unregulated markets for goods have been shown not to work; and it turns out that unregulated markets for ideas don’t either. They conclude that without full transparency, without a mechanism for holding participants to account, without equal ability to transmit and receive information, and with unrelenting intimidation, there is no free marketplace of ideas.

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