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.

Covid-19: Expression in a Time of Crisis

● Columbia Global Freedom of Expression expert Dario Milo, in his recent blog, discusses a new South African regulation which makes it an offence to publish a statement through any medium with the intention to deceive about COVID-19, anyone’s COVID-19 infection status or government measures to address the pandemic. The penalty is a fine or imprisonment for six months, or both.

● Amnesty International has issued a joint statement regarding the Hungarian government’s proposed Bill on Protection against the Coronavirus (Bill T/9790) which would extend the current State of Danger indefinitely, grant the Government extraordinary powers to rule by decree, and establish new criminal offenses for 1) publicizing false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public and 2) for interfering with the operation of a quarantine or isolation order.

● ECPMF joins with press freedom partners in call to EU leaders to protect the free flow of information to tackle COVID-19. Recognizing that “numerous governments around the world are already using the pandemic to claim excessive powers that can undermine democratic institutions, including the free press,” their statement urges governments ensure all emergency measures are “necessary, proportionate, temporary, strictly time-limited and subject to regular scrutiny, in order to solve the immediate health crisis.”

● Quarantine Inspiration: Take a break from the news to remind yourself “Why Freedom of Expression Matters” in this short video.

● Quarantine Entertainment: The Borowitz Report (satire) finds “New Evidence Indicates Intelligence Not Contagious.”


Decisions this Week

United States
Kessler v. City of Charlottesville
Decision Date: February 21, 2020
The United States District Court of Western District of Virginia, Charlottesville division held that a decision by City of Charlottesville officials to declare a rally an unlawful assembly did not violate the participants’ rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The rally, which was organized by an Alt-Right group to protest the decision to remove a Confederate-era statue, became violent after clashes between participants and counter-protestors. Law enforcement officials policing the rally then declared the rally an unlawful assembly and ordered all individuals to disburse. The Court held that while the City had an obligation not to suppress individuals’ free speech themselves, that obligation did not extend to preventing private third parties from suppressing that speech. It also held that the decision to declare the rally an unlawful assembly was a proportionate reaction to the threat to public safety posed by the violence.India
Kumar v. Central Bureau of Investigation
Decision Date: October 22, 2019
The Bombay High Court ruled that the interception of a businessman’s telephone calls was an infringement of his right to privacy. The Indian Home Ministry had ordered the interception of a businessman’s communications after he was accused of bribing a public servant. The businessman challenged the interception orders, arguing that they were unlawful and infringed his right to privacy. The Court held that there was no lawful justification for intercepting the businessman’s communications, set aside the orders and instructed that all information obtained through the interception be destroyed.
Health and Access to Information Cases from the Database
European Court of Human Rights
Vilnes v. Norway
Decision Date: March 24, 2014
The European Court of Human Rights held that a failure to provide professional divers with relevant information on the risks involved in their work was an infringement of the right to respect for private life, and awarded damages to the divers. The case was brought by seven individuals who had worked as professional divers in the North Sea between 1965 and 1990 and who had suffered damage to their health as a result of their diving activities. After unsuccessful legal proceedings in Norway, the divers approached the European Court of Human Rights. The Court reasoned that a failure to provide the divers with decompression tables which contained essential information for divers to assess the health risks involved in operations meant that the divers had been unable to give informed consent to the taking of the risks inherent in the work.To our readers: Please send recommendations for court decisions which relate to freedom of expression and right to health to

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On March 24, 2020, the Ministry of Interior ordered Dr. Anastasia Vasilieva, head of the medical labor union the “Alliance of Doctors,” to explain if a video in which she accused the authorities of not being fully transparent about the spread of COVID-19 in Russia contained misinformation. Dr. Vasilieva published the video in question on YouTube on March 19 in which she highlighted that the authorities mobilized doctors across the country to combat pneumonia. She suggested that the real reason behind the mobilization was the spread of COVID-19 in Russia, the true extent of which the authorities were hiding. Her video went viral and was viewed by hundreds of thousands. The “Federal News Agency,” a pro-Kremlin private media company sanctioned by the United States for interfering in the 2016 elections, contacted the police about the video and accused Dr. Vasilieva of spreading “fake news” about the coronavirus in Russia. Spreading misinformation is an administrative offense punishable by heavy fines. The “Federal News Agency” is tied to Mr. Prigozhin, Putin’s confidant and the owner of the notorious private military force “Wagner.” The media company has been repeatedly accused of orchestrating defamation campaigns against Russian opposition politicians and activists. As of March 24, Russia’s Ministry of Health claims to have under 495 individuals infected COVID-19, but the figures are under scrutiny domestically and internationally. Further, the European Commission identified instances of major pro-Kremlin outlets spreading disinformation about COVID-19’s impact on Europe and its origins.

On February 26, 2020, a court revoked the license to practice law from two lawyers for posting an audio recording on Facebook of a judge acting unprofessionally during a trial. In 2019 the lawyers represented a businessman sentenced to prison for fraud after a public trial. During the trial, the prosecutor alleged that the judge discussed the case with a criminal investigator who built the case. The judge also repeatedly admonished the prosecutor, complained that he was not removed from the case, and seemingly guided some of the prosecutor’s arguments. The lawyers captured these interactions on audio and submitted the recordings with appellate pleadings. However, the appellate court refused to admit the recordings into evidence and per their client’s instructions, the lawyers posted the audio on their personal Facebook pages to underscore the judge’s unprofessionalism. The lawyers also filed an official complaint with the High Judicial Council of the Supreme Court over the judge’s alleged unprofessional conduct. The Council did not reprimand the judge but agreed to discuss the complaint. Soon after the judge requested the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Interior to review the lawyers’ actions. She argued that the lawyers broke an order prohibiting them from publishing the audio and by doing so violated her right to privacy. At the end of 2019, the Ministry of Justice began a legal process to revoke the lawyers’ license to practice law and to ban them for life from working as lawyers or advocates. The trial began on February 19, 2020, and a week later the lawyers were found guilty of contempt of court and violating the judge’s right to privacy. In 2018 Kazakhstan adopted the Law on Legal Work and Judicial Services, which stripped lawyers of independence and certain protections. Since then several prominent lawyers lost their license to practice law.

Post Scriptum

●  An article by Just Security, “Coronavirus, Public Perceptions and the Dangers of “News Deserts,”’ discusses the impact of information desertification, politicization of information, and news gluts:  “It’s not just about whole communities but also individuals and diffuse groups of individuals, and it’s not just about having access to information but also about segments of the American populace that don’t seek to obtain clear, fact-based information, even on existentially vital matters.”

● The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is launching Reporting and COVID-19: Conversations for Journalists, a Zoom-based webinar / discussion series about  the challenges of reporting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Co-sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review, this series will help journalists share ideas, connect to subject-matter experts and navigate this uncharted terrain — from safely covering this fast-moving crisis to invigorating non-coronavirus reporting under social distancing and quarantine.

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