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

● Coronavirus has started a censorship pandemic, Global Freedom of Expression Expert Jacob Mchangama writes in his article for Foreign Policy. Governments around the world are banning fake news about the crisis—and cracking down on their critics while they’re at it

●The Web Foundation published an open letter affirming that the Internet is both a lifeline and a critical force in helping to curb the spread of the virus, but it could do so much more if we could fight misinformation and use data responsibly and effectively. They call on people to adhere to their  Contract for the Web, to make our online world safe, open and empowering.

● South Africa has established a Digital Complaints Committee to fight COVID-19 related disinformation based on a Code of Conduct that addresses hate speech, incitement to violence, and harassment of journalists.It further  provides guidance on striking the appropriate balance between competing rights and interests, including the importance of the right to freedom of expression, artistic creativity, satire, journalistic activities and the public interest.

● “COVID-19 and the European Convention on Human Rights,“ by the Strasbourg Observers provides an overview of a range of rights potentially engaged by the COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how human rights must be protected during crises to hold authorities accountable. While some restrictions on freedom of expression may be legitimate, the Court would likely apply a high level of scrutiny if states unjustifiably limit freedom of expression.

● The BBC has revealed plans to combat fake news and disinformation during the ongoing pandemic as part of the Trusted News Initiative (TNI). The TNI, established last year, is comprised of a number of major news and tech organisations, including the BBC, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, to name a few. The system will allow partners to alert each other to disinformation to ensure that publishers don’t unwittingly republish false news.

● How coronavirus scammers hide on Facebook and YouTube: Bellingcat documents how a range of disinformation specialists are dodging efforts by Facebook and other platforms to rein them in.


Decisions this Week

United States
Swart v. City of Chicago
Decision Date: February 20, 2020
The United States District Court in the Northern District of Illinois granted a preliminary injunction against the City of Chicago’s prohibition on religious evangelism and circulation of petitions in a City Park. A group of Christian Evangelists and a separate group of citizens who circulated petitions in public places were repeatedly prevented from conducting their activities in the Park, and they then approached the Court. The Court ruled that the Park was a public forum and that the rules which prohibited free speech and petitions in the Park violated the right to free speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Katamadze v. Parliament of Georgia
Decision Date: July 4, 2019
The Constitutional Court of Georgia struck down the provision of the Administrative Offences Code of Georgia that prohibited the temporary placement of placards, slogans or banners on private property viewable to the public during a spontaneous protest. The Georgian activists – Besik Katamadze and two others were charged by the Ozurgeti District Court with damaging the appearance of the municipality after they displayed the banner – “LYING GOVERNMENT” from the roof of a building, in protest against the Georgian Prime Minister while he was visiting the city of Ozurgeti, Georgia. The Constitutional Court of Georgia ruled that as long as the owners of the private property give their consent, a short-term change in the appearance of the building or surrounding area cannot outweigh the applicants’ right to protest. Thus, the prohibition was abolished. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court held that the ban on putting up the impugned objects on the City Council building was justified since no permission from the respective governmental body had been granted and municipal buildings should not be misused.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On March 31, 2020, Russia’s Prosecutor General labeled “extremist” online comments calling for “liquidating” corona-virus patients and restricting their movement. The statement was issued in response to commentary posted by an individual from the western region of Penza in a VKontakte group. The Prosecutor General noted that such comments violate the federal prohibition on extremist activities targeting a social group. According to the Russian research center SOVA, the authorities also ordered the deletion of the comment in question from social media and the individual who posted them is now under investigation for publicly inciting extremism. Russia is notorious for broadly defining the meaning of a protected social group to punish speech aimed at public and law enforcement officials, while refusing to extend protections to certain vulnerable populations such as LGBT people.

On March 31, 2020, a group of international human rights organizations called on Kyrgyzstan to release human rights defender and journalist Azimjan Askarov from prison due to concerns over the increasing threat of COVID-19 to those in detention. Mr. Askarov was imprisoned over a decade ago on seemingly trumped-up charges of inciting ethnic violence in June 2010 and killing a policeman. Local law enforcement targeted him due to his investigatory work into police torture and prison abuse in the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad. He was tortured in prison and sentenced to life in a trial that violated international standards. After relentless national and international advocacy, Mr. Askarov’s lawyers managed to convince the Supreme Court to re-hear his case. The court however has been postponing scheduled hearings, most recently to April 6, but due to the corona virus epidemic, all trials have been postponed indefinitely. Mr. Askarov is 68 years-old and ten years of detention had a deteriorating effect on his health.

Post Scriptum

● Microsoft Corp has announced it will sell its stake in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition startup, and said it will no longer make minority investments in companies that sell the controversial technology.

● According to CBS, Zoom Video Communications is facing increased scrutiny over customer privacy this month as New York’s top prosecutor is probing the suddenly popular teleconferencing company’s security practices during the coronavirus work-from-home movement. Zoom also is being sued in California for allegedly giving users’ personal data to outside companies including Facebook without fully informing customers.

● Politico reports that an appeals court won’t review the Trump Twitter case , which ruled Trump may not block his followers, on the ground that “Twitter is not just an official channel of communication for the President; it is his most important channel of communication.” The request came from the Justice Department, which can still appeal to the Supreme Court.

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