“COVID-19 is a serious global challenge, but it is also a wake-up call for the revitalization of universal human rights principles. These principles and trust in scientific knowledge must prevail over the spread of fake news, prejudice, discrimination, inequalities and violence,” declared a number of UN Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups.

Regrettably, some States responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with imposing broad restrictions on fundamental freedoms, interfering with the right to privacy, or spreading misinformation. Media companies and private individuals have also contributed to the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theories about the virus and hate speech targeting certain vulnerable or ethnic groups.

To help navigate the impact of COVID-19 on human rights, below is a list of free online courses and related content on freedom of expression and information. The select material introduces core concepts and legal principles concerning freedom of expression and information, explains challenges posed by the digital revolution, and offers regional perspectives. If you are an educator, the ready-made and free content could be used to introduce students to topical themes or complement existing material. The hope is that this list will assist us all in defending fundamental rights in this critical time.

Freedom of Expression and Information in the Time of Globalization: Foundational Course  Columbia Global Freedom of Expression via edX

Technology has shaped, reshaped, and radically transformed the production and distribution of information, profoundly impacting whole societies and greatly influencing, if not defining, information and communication. However, as the course will demonstrate, the foundation of a global protection of freedom of protection and information largely predates the IT revolution of the last decade. Dr. Agnes Callamard, the Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, who led the human rights investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, delivers the lectures. International experts provide additional information on topics addressed by the main lectures or additional issues which could not be included in the core course.  Each week includes proposed readings from classic philosophical works on the concept of freedom of expression, key texts of international human rights law, and significant decisions of international and national courts.

Freedom of Expression and Information in the Time of Globalization: Advanced Course Columbia Global Freedom of Expression via edX

This course follows the above-listed foundational course. It focuses on the multiple challenges to freedom of expression brought about by the technology revolution of the last two decades. Technology has precipitated or heightened a range of normative, regulatory and political issues related to the protection of free speech, on and offline. This course examines the complex, and often awkward, interplay of global information flows with national jurisdiction and state sovereignty, its effects on democracy and fundamental rights, and what it means for the realization of a borderless vision for the right to freedom of expression.

COVID-19 and Human RightsAmnesty International via Amnesty Academy

The brief course outlines the many human rights implications of a global pandemic, including limitations on right to health, right to free speech and an increase in discrimination and xenophobia. It also clearly outlines states’ human rights obligations and what they should and should not do when responding to a pandemic. States are not responsible for COVID-19, but they are responsible for how they respond to it. The virus cannot be used as an excuse to roll back on fundamental human rights. World leaders should know that even in times of uncertainty, Amnesty and its supporters will continue to call out human rights violators wherever we see them.

Human Rights: The Rights to Freedom of Expression, Amnesty International via edX

In Amnesty International’s first human rights MOOC, students will learn from the experts at Amnesty International how to claim and defend their rights. The course challenges students to think critically and devise effective actions to defend the human rights of others. Students are taught to adapt the human rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly to real life situations and come face-to-face with human rights activists on the front line of human rights defense.

Digital Security and Human Rights, Amnesty International via edX

This course is a starting place for learning more about digital threats and how to strengthen your security online. Malware. Phishing. Data retention. Mass surveillance. We know there are real risks in the digital world, but we don’t always know what to do about them. How do these threats work? How important is digital security? Where do we even start? Students can learn about the key human rights implications of digital security and explore in-depth the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression. A human rights-based approach demonstrates how digital security affects and concerns us all.

Cyberwar, Surveillance and SecurityThe University of Adelaide via edX

Once heralded as the ultimate vehicle for open communication and self-expression, the internet is rapidly becoming a globally networked surveillance device. Serious threats to national security, combined with the seemingly endless capacity of digital processing and storage, have led to levels of data capture and 24/7 monitoring of individuals’ activity that were unimaginable even a decade ago. With resistance to such practices rising, this course will equip you to take an active part in the debate. Students will gain a broad understanding of the competing tensions of the laws related to national security and personal and commercial privacy in the post-Snowden online environment. They will also grasp the looming consequences of this battle for peace, sovereignty, human rights and the internet itself.

Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression in Africa, The University of the Witwatersrand via edX

This course aims to empower activists, students, regulators, journalists, lawyers, and everyone interested in ensuring a free, pluralistic and independent African media. The media play a critical role in democratic societies by informing citizens, facilitating and building freedom of expression, and fostering access to information. This course will help students to identify the principles and components of democratic media policy and practice, and to identify strategies for effective engagement with these matters in African settings. Drawing from a network of experts and recent case studies from across the continent, the course explores what freedom of expression is and why it is important for democracy. The course is dedicated to and seeks to deepen the work of the late Southern African activist, Jeanette Minnie, who was devoted to robust civil society engagement with African media policy.

Other Video Content

Making Accountability Real: Strategic LitigationNani Jansen Reventlow via ACM FAT Conference

Digital Freedom Fund Director Nani Jansen Reventlow deliveed the lecture “Making Accountability Real: Strategic Litigation at the ACM FAT* Conference, a computer science conference with a cross-disciplinary focus on fairness, accountability, and transparency in socio-technical systems.


All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society via YouTube

“In our data-driven society, it is too easy to assume the transparency of data. Instead, we should approach data sets with an awareness that they are created by humans and their dutiful machines, at a time, in a place, with the instruments at hand, for audiences that are conditioned to receive them,” says Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. All data are local. The term data set implies something discrete, complete, and portable, but it is none of those things. Examining a series of sources important for understanding public data in the United States—Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, the Digital Public Library of America, UCLA’s Television News Archive, and the real estate marketplace Zillow—this talk explains how to analyze data settings rather than data sets.

Law, Policy, and Public Health: The Case of Coronavirus. NYU School of Law via YouTube

As the coronavirus threat continues to grow, China, the United States, and the rest of the world are grappling with the global health, economic, and political stakes of the WHO-declared public health emergency. At this Forum, a diverse panel of experts assessed unfolding efforts to contain coronavirus and discussed the legal and policy issues faced by individual countries and the international community in dealing with the threat posed by epidemics and pandemics.

Human Rights and Medical Care in Times of EmergencySheri Fink via University of Michigan Donia Human Rights Center

If access to healthcare is a human right, what happens when disasters, pandemics and armed conflict limit the care that can be provided? Who decides which patients are prioritized, and how are those decisions made? What kind of care should be given to patients nearing the end-of-life when caregivers are overwhelmed with urgent conditions? While vast inequities already exist in healthcare systems, emergencies often bring them into focus and can perpetuate them. This talk by Pulitzer Winner Sheri Fink highlights examples from a hospital cut off for days by the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina, where health professionals were later arrested on accusations of second degree murder, and touch on complications to healthcare from this year’s horrible hurricane season. It delves into the Ebola outbreak, where the care provided varied sharply on lines of nationality, and reaches back to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, when humanitarian health aid hid a lack of political will to confront a genocide.

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov is Program Officer, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, and Legal Adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Aisrbitrary Executions.