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 legal researcher Sofia Verza, in her article Resetting the Relationship Between Police and Press: New Guidelines, takes a look at the new “Press Freedom Police Codex,” drafted by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and several other European organisations. The codex sets out guidelines for the police on how to interact with journalists, based on the premise that the ultimate goal of both professions should be the same: to work for a fairer, more transparent and safer society.

● It has been a very bad week for democracy with reports from Freedom House and ARTICLE 19 documenting more global slippage towards authoritarian style policies.

  • Freedom in the World 2020 finds that established democracies are in decline, marking the 14th consecutive year of deterioration in political rights and civil liberties.
  • In a policy briefing, ARTICLE 19 has expressed concerns about a series of attacks on freedom of expression in the UK, such as plans to scrap the BBC licence fee and the closing down of protests. ARTICLE 19 believes that these incidents are part of a broader trend of declining free speech in countries like the UK, that have traditionally stood for its protection.

● Strasbourg Observers has announced the winners for Best and Worst ECtHR judgments of 2019, and the winner of the best judgment is Szurovecz v. Hungary! In this case, the Fourth Section found that the refusal to grant a journalist access to an asylum-seeker reception centre violated Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression).

Decisions this Week

Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal
Decision Date: November 13, 2019
The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India held that the Supreme Court is a “public authority” and hence will fall within the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). The respondent, Subhash Chandra Agarwal, an Indian businessman and right to information activist, filed separate applications requesting access to information from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) relating to assets of sitting judges, as well as correspondence relating to the appointment of judges and alleged influence on a decision. The applications were denied with a response that the information requested was either exempted or confidential. Upon appeal, the Chief Information Commission (CIC) granted access to the information. The appeal against one of the orders before the Delhi High Court led to a judgment from its Full Bench holding the Office of the Chief Justice of India to be a public authority and subject to the RTI Act. The Court conducted a proportionality test, balancing the right to privacy against the public interest in disclosure, to find that the requested information regarding the functioning of the Supreme Court and judicial assets should be released in the name of transparency and accountability, but that information related to third-parties needed to be re-examined.

Ried v. Munich
Decision Date: December 12, 2018
The Administrative Court in Munich held that a refusal to hold an event in a public facility, and the City resolution that enabled that refusal, did not violate the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. After the City Council in Munich passed a resolution that excluded events that addressed or supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel from public facilities, an activist applied for permission to hold a discussion in a city facility about the impact of that resolution and was refused – on the basis of that resolution itself. The Court held that the powers given to municipalities to regulate the use of its facilities meant that it was legitimate for the City to pass the resolution and then refuse the application for the event, and that the resolution and the refusal therefore did not unjustifiably infringe freedom of expression and assembly.

Glanz v. Oldenburg
Decision Date: September 27, 2018
The Administrative Court in Oldenburg held that the City of Oldenburg’s decision to revoke permission for an event regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel (BDS) in a public building was a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. A BDS activist had applied for permission and entered into a lease agreement with the City to rent a room for an event featuring a presentation from a human rights activist followed by a discussion with the audience. After receiving complaints, the City revoked its permission and terminated the lease agreement on the grounds that the event could threaten public safety. The Court held that in reversing its original decision, the City had not adequately balanced the rights to freedom of expression and assembly with the need to protect public safety, and held that the decision infringed the Basic Law.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On March 4, 2020, Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor announced that it ordered social media companies to take down misinformation about the coronavirus. The order was issued per the request of the Prosecutor’s Office which determined that false posts about the virus posed a risk to public order and safety, as well as threatened the functioning of retail stores. Moreover, the Ministry of Health issued a public request to critically evaluate sources of information about the coronavirus. Common examples of misinformation include posts that there are over 20,000 infected persons in Russia, that the epidemic is out of control and people need to start purchasing canned food, water and other products, which will be in short supply soon, as well as that garlic is the miracle cure.

On March 2, 2020, the Kazakh authorities released draft amendments aimed at relaxing penalties on defamation. Under the current law, defamation is a criminal act punishable by fines up to $20,000 and jail time of up to three years. The amendments propose de-criminalizing defamation and making it an administrative violation for which individuals could be fined up to $4,200 and imprisoned for thirty days. Defaming someone by accusing them of corruption or other felonies carries the gravest punishment. Kazakh civil society criticized the draft amendments for authorizing law enforcement to prosecute alleged defamation on their own volition and without first receiving a complaint from the supposed victim.  Furthermore, although fines were lowered, they remain incredibly high for country where the average monthly salary is under $600. Following the criticism, the draft amendment disappeared from the government’s legislative portal, but it is uncertain if they had been withdrawn.

Post Scriptum

● The Open Technology Fund has published the findings of its year-long research into tactics and tools of digitally enabled repression against exiled activists from Egypt, Syria and Iran. The report explores the subtle but pervasive forms of online transnational repression, such as surveillance, threats, and smear campaigns designed to stifle activists’ opposition and induce self-censorship.

● ARTICLE 19 has written to Italian Ministers asking them to include civil society in a working group of experts set up to tackle hate speech online. To date, 16 members have been appointed to the group but none of them represent civil society.

● The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy is looking for a Development Director who can spearhead fundraising and development. This is an exciting opportunity for a leader who is committed to playing an instrumental role in the institute’s strategic growth as it expands its work to cover new thematic areas and employs new tools to center local voices in the policy discourse to foster transparent, accountable, and just societies across the Middle East and North Africa. Applications will be accepted through March 16.

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