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

● Join Columbia Global Freedom of Expression for a panel discussion, “Surveillance of Dissent: Dangers and Solutions,” with human rights experts, lawyers and technologists to consider questions concerning the dangers of private surveillance technology and possible responses. Susan McGregor, Assistant Director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism will moderate a panel of experts including Agnès Callamard, Director, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; Katie Fallow, Senior Attorney, The Knight First Amendment Institute; Camille Francois, Chief Innovation Officer, Graphika; and Avi Asher-Schapiro, Global Tech Senior Correspondent, The Committee to Protect Journalists. March 2, from 6 -7:30. Room 1501, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.

● Film Screening and Panel on “A Dark Place,” a documentary produced by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, in cooperation with the International Press Institute (IPI). The film explores the online safety of journalists through first-hand experiences shared by leading women journalists targeted with online violence and experts in the fields of human rights, gender and media freedom from Serbia, Spain, the UK, Finland, the US, Turkey and Russia. Panelists include Agnès Callamard – Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression; UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; Anya Schiffrin – lecturer and Director of Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; and Sarah Guinee – Research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute; former Patti Birch Fellow for Gender and Media Freedom at the Committee to Protect Journalists.  March 3, from 6-8pm. The Brown Institute, Pulitzer Hall, Columbia University.

● A report published by the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom recommends that governments, including signatories to the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, adopt targeted sanctions regimes to ensure that journalists, media professionals and others engaged in journalistic activities can carry out their work without harassment, intimidation, false imprisonment or violent attack.

Decisions this Week

Bhasin v. Union of India
Decision Date: January 10, 2020
The Supreme Court of India ruled that an indefinite suspension of Internet services would be illegal under Indian law and that orders for internet shutdown must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. The case concerned the internet and movement restrictions imposed in the Jammu and Kashmir region in India on August 4, 2019, in the name of protecting public order. In the end, however, the Court did not lift the internet restrictions and instead, it directed the government to review the shutdown orders against the tests outlined in its judgment and lift those that were not necessary or did not have a temporal limit. The Court reiterated that freedom of expression online enjoyed Constitutional protection, but could be restricted in the name of national security. The Court held that though the Government was empowered to impose a complete internet shutdown, any order(s) imposing such restrictions had to be made public, satisfy the aforementioned tests, and be subject to judicial review.

Hong Kong
HKSAR v. Chu Ting-Ting
Decision Date: October 11, 2016
The Hong Kong Court of Appeal set aside the conviction of the appellant Chu Ting-Ting by the Deputy Magistrate for criminal damage and obtaining illegal access to the web server of the Hong Kong police. According to data provided by the prosecution, a computer with an IP address matching the appellant’s accessed the Hong Kong police website 7,467 times between 00:53 and 01:17 during a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. She was subsequently convicted under Section 60(1) of the Crimes Ordinance for using a computer with criminal intent. On appeal of the conviction, the appellant argued that the prosecution had not proven that the computer she had used was the one responsible for the DDoS Attack. The Appellate Court  held that the appellant’s admission that she used the computer was insufficient evidence to support the finding by the lower court that she was responsible for committing the offence.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On February 27, 2020, MediaZona learned that two of its articles about the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov were de-indexed by Google per a request made under Russia’s right to be forgotten law. The articles disappeared from Google’s search results on the day of the fifth-year anniversary of Nemtsov’s assassination. Nemtsov was a prominent opposition politician and activist known for strong criticism of Putin and Chechnya’s leader Kadyrov. He was gunned down on a bridge in the vicinity of the Kremlin as he was walking home with his girlfriend. Five Chechen men were found guilty of a contract killing, but the mastermind behind the assassination was never identified. MediaZona published articles on each day of the murder trial. The de-indexed articles were summaries of day 20 and day 52 of the trial and included verbatim statements made by the suspects, their lawyers, prosecutors and judges. Russia’s law on the right to be forgotten provides no public interest exception, allowing individuals to seek the removal of any information about them that they find “no longer relevant.” The law also does not require search engines to identify the person requesting removal or their reasons for the request, making it almost impossible to challenge de-indexing.

On February 24, 2020, a woman was heavily fined for “spreading panic” over the coronavirus by wearing a face mask in public. Police detained the woman on her way home and suggested that by wearing a face mask she was questioning the government’s response to the coronavirus. The authorities set up quarantine camps around the country for Turkmens returning from China. Rumors spread last week that at least one person died in the camps, although the information was never confirmed. The use of phones or any other communications devices inside the camps is prohibited. As part of the coronavirus response, all flights to Turkey are suspended and stray cats, blamed for spreading the virus, are being hunted.

Post Scriptum

● In the latest twist to reveal the identity of the person behind the satirical twitter account Devin Nunes’ Cow (@DevinCow), Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief regarding the proper legal standard that the Court should apply in deciding whether to override anonymous speakers’ First Amendment rights. Background on the present case, Fitzgibbon v. Radack, is as follows: A political consultant sued a lawyer over her online criticisms and included a claim that she “conspired” to defame him. The consultant then had a subpoena issued to Twitter for information identifying the owners of twenty-two separate Twitter accounts, saying that he needed to probe their knowledge of the claimed conspiracy. Twitter filed a motion to quash the subpoena. Public Citizen’s amicus brief argues that, because the subpoena threatens the right to speak anonymously of the Twitter account holders, the plaintiff has to show that the subpoena is in good faith and that he has a genuine need for the evidence of each of the account holders to prevail in his core claims.

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