Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University: Newsletter

16 05 2020

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.

Community HIghlights and Recent News

● EDRI has set up a document pool hosting relevant articles and documents related to the intersection of the COVID-19 crisis and digital rights. It lists developments in surveillance measures, content moderation, tracking and privacy-threatening actions in Europe as they relate to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as offers perspectives and recommendations put forth by a host of digital rights watchdog organisations across Europe and the world.

● UNESCO launched ResiliArt, a global movement to raise awareness about the far-reaching ramification of COVID-19 across the culture sector and support artists during and following the crisis. ResiliArt sheds light on the current state of creative industries amidst crisis through high-level global discussions with key industry professionals while capturing experiences and voices of resilience from artists – both established and emerging – on social media.

● Sarah Cook documents in the recent China Media Bulletin how the coronavirus fallout has shifted Beijing’s disinformation toward covert, Russian-style tactics. Over the past month alone, a series of exposés demonstrated that pro-Beijing actors are carrying out a whole range of covert activities in multiple countries and languages. The campaigns aim to spread proven falsehoods, sow societal discord and panic, manipulate perceptions of public opinion, or undermine the democratic process.

● Ashwanee Budoo, in a blog for the Nieman Lab, writes that in Africa, government attempts to fight misinformation are also limiting freedom of expression. She argues that “measures being taken by governments in response to COVID-19 must be debated without fear of frivolous charges,” and that “African governments must not use pandemic fake news as a shield to violate the freedom of expression of its citizens — or settle old scores with the press.”

 

Decisions this Week

United States
Committee on the Judiciary v. Department of Justice
Decision Date: March 10, 2020
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives (the Committee) should be given access to three specific categories of grand jury materials which had been redacted.  These materials were part of the Special Counsel’s Report of his investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election.   The US Attorney General released a public version of the report with sections of the grand jury materials redacted.  Although the Committee had received a slightly less redacted version, specific sections of the Report remained redacted. The Court confirmed the ruling of the District Court,  and authorized the disclosure of the first two categories of the requested material and “ordered the Department to provide these materials to the Committee by October 30, 2019.

United Kingdom
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoum v. Her Royal Highness Princess Haya bint al Hussein
Decision Direction: February 28, 2020
The Court of Appeal, Civil Division, ruled against imposing a publication ban on the judgments and case proceedings involving the ruler of Dubai and his wife, finding that publicity was “a necessary step in order to meet the private and family life needs of the mother and the children.” The case concerned Princess Haya who fled with her two children from her husband Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, to the UK. Family proceedings in the UK are generally private, but Princess Haya and representatives of British media sought to lift publication restrictions citing public interest and a need to counter the defamatory and harmful media narrative orchestrated by the Sheikh against the Princess. A family court agreed that there existed domestic and international public interest in the case and that media coverage of the hearing offered a counterbalance to the damaging narrative orchestrated by the Sheikh. The Court of Appeal fully endorsed the lower instance judgment, adding that not publishing information on the family proceedings did nothing but continue the “highly  negative  and  harmful  experience  of  living  in  circumstances  in  which  all  those  with  whom they have contact are likely to have been influenced by a largely false account of the mother’s actions.”

Hong Kong
Chor Ki Kwong David v. Lorea Solabarrieta Cheung
Decision Date: February 19, 2013
The High Court of Hong Kong granted an interlocutory injunction against the publication of material concerning a businessman and his family which had been gathered during an interview. The interview had been conducted for the purposes of a university journalism project, but the interviewer then used the material for a separate article and uploaded the project’s video on to YouTube. Objecting to the online publication, the businessman approached the Court for injunctive relief and for an interlocutory injunction. The Court granted the interlocutory injunction, finding that it was “seriously arguable” that the information obtained was confidential in nature, that a duty of confidence existed between the interviewer and the businessman, and that the consent for publishing the information was limited to the graduation project.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

Russia

On May 13, 2020, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced its plan to issue letters to the New York Times and the Financial Times requesting the publications recant claims that Russia’s death toll due to the coronavirus may be 70 percent larger than reported. On May 11, the New York Times published an article A Coronavirus Mystery Explained: Moscow Has 1,700 Extra Deaths which notes the country’s death toll in Moscow “exceeded the five-year average for the same period by more than 1,700,” and suggests that this is an indication of significant underreporting of coronavirus death count which stands at 642. The Financial Times published similar findings and assertions. The Ministry’s spokeswoman said that the letters have been distributed to embassies in the US and the UK, which will forward them to the newspapers. Copies of the complaints will also be sent to the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the Secretary General of UNESCO. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that the articles are an example of the “infodemic” that UN Secretary General Guterres warned against.

Kyrgyzstan

On May 13, 2020, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan upheld the unjust life imprisonment of human rights defender and journalist Azimjan Askarov. In September 2010, following court hearings marred by violence and threats against the defense, Askarov was found guilty of participating in mass disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred, and abetting the murder of a police officer. His arrest and conviction followed mass ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan that resulted in 450 deaths, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, and the displacement of thousands. Mr. Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek himself, was targeted by the local law enforcement for his investigative work into police abuse. In April 2016, the UN Rights Committee called on Kyrgyzstan to immediately release Mr. Askarov, after finding that he had been arbitrarily detained, held in inhumane conditions, tortured and mistreated, and prevented from adequately preparing his trial defense. Failing the appeal, the human rights defender who turned 69 in prison this month is left without legal options to seek his release.

Post Scriptum

● On 13 May 2020, France passed the “Avia” law which was originally drafted to tackle online ‘hate speech.’ It has been widely criticised for being overly broad in terms of the scope of the platforms affected and the content that they are expected to remove. ARTICLE 19’s analysis of the bill is available here.

● In a landmark acknowledgment of the toll that content moderation takes on its workforce, Facebook has agreed to pay $52 million to current and former moderators to compensate them for mental health issues developed on the job. In a preliminary settlement filed in San Mateo Superior Court, the social network agreed to pay damages to American moderators and provide more counseling to them while they work. The Verge Reports

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


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