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

●  ECPMF and partners in the Rapid Response Mechanism to support journalists under threat briefed the European Commission on coronavirus related threats in 12 European countries. Their Corona Watch feature maps and monitors ongoing reports of violations and anyone can upload details of assaults, insults, censorship, sexual harassment or unfair legal action related to the effects of the pandemic on press and media freedom around Europe.

● Nani Jansen Reventlow, Director of the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF) and Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Expert, wrote in a DFF Blog that the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an equally urgent digital rights crisis. New measures being hurried in to curb the spread of the virus, from “biosurveillance” and online tracking to censorship, are potentially as world-changing as the disease itself.

●  Access Now’s latest policy paper ‘Fighting misinformation and defending free expression during COVID-19: recommendations for states’ provides clear, achievable recommendations to governments for protecting freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to impart and receive information, including global case studies from Ethiopia to Hungary, Tunisia to the U.S.

●  A webinar Drones and COVID-19: how do these applications help and do these applications make any sense? sponsored by the World Summit on the Information Society Forum 2020 (WSIS) will discuss how drones are being applied in response to the coronavirus. 28 April 2020, 14:00 – 15:00 CEST (UTC+2).

transcript is now available for this past week’s WSIS webinar ‘The role of information, journalism and media in countering COVID-19’ featuring Giacomo Mazzone — Head of Institutional Relations, European Broadcasting Union (EBU); Rachel Pollack — WSIS Action Line Focal Point C9: Media, UNESCO; Christophe Deloire — Secretary General, Reporters Without Borders (RSF); Mira Milosevic — Executive Director, Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD).

Decisions this Week

In Re: Banners Placed on Roadside in the City of Lucknow v. State of Uttar Pradesh
Decision Date: March 9, 2020
The Allahabad High Court ruled that the posting of banners by State officials publicizing personal details of individuals accused of vandalism was a violation of the fundamental right to privacy. The Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court invoked its public interest jurisdiction and initiated suo moto proceedings against the Lucknow District administration and the Police administration (State Executive) for posting the large scale banners at major roadside areas in response to damage done during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019. The Court held that the displaying of photographs, names and addresses of certain persons publicly by the State Executive was an “unwarranted interference with [their] privacy.” Publication of such personal details by the State failed to satisfy the three-part test of legality, legitimacy and proportionality. Accordingly, the Court directed the State to take down the banners and prohibited the public placement of any additional banners containing personal data of individuals without authority of law.United States
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Donald J. Trump
Decision Date: February 10, 2020
A District Court in Columbia denied motion to Plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the U.S. President Donald J. Trump and the Executive Office of the President for alleged failures to create, maintain and properly dispose records of meetings and interactions with foreign leaders. The Plaintiffs sought a writ of mandamus ordering compliance with duties and a declaratory judgment on several grounds, including primarily the violation of non-discretionary duties under the Presidential Records Act and the interference of the President with the agencies tasked with creation and maintenance of records in compliance of the Federal Records Act. The Court, citing separation of powers and few limiting precedents from the early 1990s, found that it lacks authority to oversee compliance of the President’s daily acts and dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.

The Case of Wikimedia Foundation Inc. and Others
Decision Date: December 26, 2019
The Turkish Constitutional Court concluded that the blocking of all language editions of the Wikipedia website in Turkey violated the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 26 of the Constitution. Access to Wikipedia was blocked on April 28, 2017, by the Information and Communication Technologies Authority following a request from the Prime Ministry on the grounds of maintaining national security and public order under article 8/A of Law no. 5651. The administration decision was then reviewed and approved by the Ankara 1 Criminal Judgeship of Peace. The blocking decision was issued after Wikipedia refused to remove two articles in English that claimed the Turkish Government was sponsoring terrorist organizations in Syria, which the Government believed tarnished its reputation. The Constitutional Court found the interpretation of the grounds for the interference overly broad, making the legal basis unforeseeable and could have a substantial chilling effect. The Court concluded that the blanket ban did not meet a pressing social need and constituted a disproportionate interference with Wikipedia’s right to impart information and ideas, and with the right to access information and ideas of two Wikipedia users from Turkey who lodged user-based applications. The Court, however, refused another user-based application by a civil society association on the ground that it was not directly and personally affected by the blocking.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

In mid-March, it was announced that Russia’s independent newspaper Vedomsti will change owners. The future owners assured the paper’s staff that Vedomsti’s reporting principles will be kept in place – a promise broken a month later. On April 22, the paper’s chief editor banned all mentions of the independent polling agency Levada-Center and its findings. Recent polls conducted by the Levada-Center show that public trust in Putin declined and that half of the country opposes newly proposed constitutional reforms that would reset the presidential term limit and allow Putin to lead Russia for another 12 years. The editors also censored articles about “Rosneft,” Russia’s second largest state-controlled oil and gas company. Vedomsti’s reporting “re-orientation” was made public by its journalists through Novaya Gazeta.

On April 18, 2020, a nationally renowned media manager and social activist Arman Shurayev was arrested on charges of spreading misinformation related to his criticism of the government’s response to COVID-19. Kazakhstan imposed a countrywide lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus and offered $100 to each family struggling due to loss of income. Shurayev called the financial aid package inadequate in an online interview published a week prior to the arrest. Additionally, he made general statements on systematic corruption in the country and what he called the “super-khanate” oligarchy in Kazakhstan that owned much of the nation’s wealth. The police asserted that Shurayev’s intentional dissemination of misinformation endangered public order and undermined the “legal interests of a State” during an emergency. He was released on bail after 48 hours in detention

Post Scriptum

● Dunja Mijatović, The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and Global Freedom of Expression Expert, issued the 2019 Activity Report which identifies 5 key human rights challenges facing European countries: the growing political and societal acceptance of racism; the disregard of the human rights of migrants and refugees; the threats to women’s rights; the repression of dissent; and the erosion of judicial independence.

● The Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network’s 2018/2019 Progress Report presents how I&JPN has continued to evolve within the internet governance ecosystem and discusses Operational Approaches for policymaking including 34 Norms, 31 Criteria and 3 Mechanisms that can be used by all categories of decision-makers when developing, evaluating, and implementing policies around cross-border access to e-evidence, content moderation and restrictions as well as Domain Name System (DNS) level action to address abuses.

● The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute has released the second issue of the IBAHRI Freedom of Expression Bulletin which assesses privacy and surveillance developments in states such as Azerbaijan, that now requires citizens to obtain an electronic permit in order to leave their home, and examines media restrictions in places including Algeria, Egypt and Venezuela.

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