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

● U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that the world is facing “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation” about COVID-19 and announced a U.N. campaign to flood the internet with facts and science to counter what he called “a poison” that is putting lives at risk.

● Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’ Covid-19 misinformation is a danger to public health: In an open letter to Fox Corporation’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, and Fox Corporation’s CEO, Lachlan Murdoch, over 188 journalists and teachers of journalism across the US argued that Fox has “violated elementary canons of journalism” which has “contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic” and they call on Fox to ensure that the information they deliver is based on scientific facts.

● In an analysis for the China Media Bulletin, Beijing Covered Up COVID-19 Once. It Could Happen Again, Sarah Cook writes the political system is designed to cover up failure and exaggerate success. With the disease sweeping through the rest of the world, a second wave of infections in the country remains a very real possibility, and there are lingering doubts over the accuracy of official data.

● The EU Disinfo Lab’s post “Covid-19 Disinformation: Narratives, Trends, and Strategies in Europe” tracked the evolution of Covid-19 disinformation in France, Italy, and Spain. Based on their findings they developed a “typology of narratives” and identified 4 primary strategies for spreading the disinformation.

● Media Legal Defense Initiative’s post, A state of emergency is not an excuse for government repression, looks at the threats to rights arising as a result of emergency legislation ostensibly intended to fight the pandemic. It provides an overview of emergency laws in 7 countries, a list of states which have derogated from their obligations under regional and international human rights treaties and emphasizes the need for critical journalism as executive power expands around the world.

In yet another example, Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers issued the following regulations regarding the implementation of the State of Emergency Declaration 3/2020, which went into effect on 11 April. The regulations prohibit the dissemination of “rumors or information that is likely to create confusion or panic among the public,” and oblige “Government and private media [to] ensure that information and news on COVID are not exaggerated or underreported, are sufficient and are not likely to create panic.”

Decisions this Week

The Case of Mr T
Decision Date: November 6, 2019
The Federal Constitutional Court of Germany reversed a Federal Court ruling that an individual convicted of murder did not have the right to have his name removed from online articles about the murder and his trial. The individual had sought to have his name removed from the articles published by a German magazine and the articles themselves removed from general internet search results of his name. The Federal Court had held that the magazine’s right to freedom of expression outweighed the individual’s personality rights. However, the Federal Constitutional Court held that the Federal Court had not given enough weight to the impact of the articles on the individual’s everyday life and had not considered all the options open to the magazine to balance their right to freedom of expression with the individual’s personality rights. The Federal Constitutional Court noted that the Federal Court is the appropriate forum to determine a suitable solution and so remanded the case back to the Federal Court for a final determination.Lebanon
X v. Public Prosecutor
Decision Date: November 14, 2018
The Misdemeanor Court of Appeals in Beirut dismissed charges against three men for allegedly engaging in homosexual relations in violation of Article 534 of the Penal code. The first defendant, X, was a university student from Syria who was arrested based on unsubstantiated evidence from an unnamed source and was tortured while in custody to force a confession. The other two defendants were men he had texted with but never met, whose identities were discovered when the police unlawfully searched X’s mobile phone. The Court found that as the men were not caught in “the act” of any unlawful behavior, there was no actus reus on which to convict. In a concurring opinion, Maalouf J further found the charges should be dropped as X’s mobile phone was searched without a warrant, his right to the confidentiality of correspondence was violated, the investigation was marred by irregularities, and the alleged “evidence” was inadmissible as it was collected under duress and means of torture. Regarding the charges related to homosexuality, he declared that preventing people from enjoying their inherent personality rights constituted a violation of the fundamental Right to Privacy as enshrined  under Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Lebanese constitution.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On April 16, Moscow based civil society organization Roskomsvoboda reviewed how Russia’s largest internet companies respect digital rights. The assessment (in Russian) looked at VKontakte, Yandex, Rambler,, Odnoklassniki, Avito, Wildberries, Sberbank, Ozon, hhru and Habr. The methodology used was developed by Ranking Digital Rights. The findings painted a somewhat bleak picture – most companies did not fully reveal how they ensure the respect for human rights online. Habr, a blogging platform, received the best grades in large part because it is the sole company that annually published a transparency report. Despite the Russian authorities’ seemingly constant requests for user data, only Habr specified how many such requests it received. Further, no company but Habr publicly declared that it performs a legal assessment of take down requests before deciding whether to implement them.
On April 16, Dushanbe’s City Court sentenced journalist Daler Sharifov to one year in prison for inciting hatred. The journalist’s publications focused on religious freedom and criticized the authorities’ intolerance of practicing Muslims. He was arrested in late January, following a summons for a “discussion” by the security services. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office accused Sharifov of publishing some 200 articles of “extremist nature” with the intent of inciting religious intolerance. At the trial, the prosecution fixated solely on Sharifov’s unpublished book “Prophet Muhammad and Terrorism,” which few could access online. In it, the journalist questioned the usage of the terms “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamic radicalism,” and called for greater respect for freedom of religion in Tajikistan. Most concerning to the prosecution were Sharifov’s inclusion in the book statements made by Yusuf al-Qardawi, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood thinker accused of terrorism and banned from entry into the US, the UK and France. International human rights organizations and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media called the accusations levied against Sharipov baseless and called for his release.

Post Scriptum

● Dirk Voorhoof, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression expert, has published a five year retrospective on the impact of the seminal Delfi v. Estonia ECtHR case for the Strasbourg Observers entitled The Court’s subtle approach of online media platforms’ liability for user-generated content since the ‘Delfi Oracle.’

● The Future of Free Speech project is hiring a research fellow specialized in the intersection of free speech and technology. The position involves researching, drafting and co-authoring analyses, academic articles, writing op-eds, and analyzing relevant community standards, laws and principles.

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