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

● Ranking Digital Rights launched the second report in their two-part series on targeted advertising and algorithmic systems. In “Getting to the Source of Infodemics: It’s the Business Model,”  they argue that international human rights standards provide a framework for holding social media platforms accountable for their social impact that complements existing U.S. law and can help lawmakers determine how best to regulate these companies without curtailing users’ rights. Watch RDR’s archived panel discussion on the report’s findings.

●  PEN America, in a new report “Arresting Dissent: Legislative Restrictions on the Right to Protest” in the USA shines a spotlight on the proliferation of state-level legislative proposals seeking to limit protest rights. Since 2015 they have documented an explosion of 116 state bills – 110 of which were introduced between 2017 and 2019 alone – that create new penalties or harsher sentences for protesters.

●Call for Applications: In partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Columbia Global Centers | Amman has established a new fellowship program to support emerging displaced scholars working in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The goal of the program is to create opportunities for scholars to reintegrate into academia and resume their academic pursuits. More information here and the deadline is June 30, 2020.

Decisions this Week

European Court of Human Rights
The Case of Khadija Ismayilova v. Azerbaijan (no. 3)
Decision Date: May 7, 2020
The European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that Azerbaijan violated the right to private life and reputation of renowned investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. The case concerned the refusal by the domestic courts in Azerbaijan to sanction a newspaper for an article discussing the private and sexual life of the applicant. The article had been published eight months after the secret filming and distribution of a video of a sexual nature featuring Ismayilova. The Court found that there was no legitimate public interest in exploiting an existing breach of a person’s privacy for the purpose of “satisfying the prurient curiosity of a certain readership.” Moreover, the Court reasoned that the domestic courts failed to balance the competing privacy interests of Ismayilova with the expression interests of the respondent newspaper.

United States
Washington Post v. McManus
Decision Date: December 6, 2019
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a ruling by the Maryland District Court declaring unconstitutional the content-based regulation on speech under Maryland’s Online Electioneering Transparency and Accountability Act, 2018. The Act regulated paid ads relating to a candidate or ballot question posted on online platforms operating in Maryland. It was passed to prevent instances of foreign meddling in domestic elections in the US such as the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 Presidential contest. The Court held that despite the admirable goals that the Act sought to advance, it was “laced with several First Amendment infirmities” and did little to further its chief objective of combating foreign meddling in the state’s elections. In particular, it found the requirement to disclose the identity of the advertiser and the cost of placing the ad to constitute compelled political speech that infringed on editorial control. The Court further declined to decide whether strict or exacting scrutiny should apply to a disclosure law such as the one in question in the present case, and held that the law was unconstitutional even under the more permissive exact scrutiny standard.

Thebian and Nassereddine v. Public Prosecutor
Decision Date: November 29, 2019
The Individual Penal Judge in Beirut dropped all charges of insulting the Lebanese flag pressed by the Public Prosecutor against two protestors for violating Article 384 of the Lebanese Penal code. The two defendants were participants in the “You Stink” movement which took place in Lebanon in 2015, after the failure of the government to handle the garbage crisis. They were arrested for writing “You Stink” and “Persisting” on a painted version of the Lebanese flag on a wall alongside the Ministry of Interior. The Court considered that the acts carried out by the two defendants did not amount to insulting the flag but rather fell under freedom of expression which is guaranteed in Article 13 of the Lebanese constitution. The Court found that the statements did not refer to the flag but rather the government’s failure to carry out its duties. Accordingly, with the absence of the moral element of the crime, the intent to insult the Lebanese flag, the Court concluded there could be no crime in the committed acts, and therefore the two defendants were acquitted.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On May 27, 2020, a blogger who published videos of abuse of power by law enforcement officials in Russia’s southern city Rostov-on-Don received a two-and-a-half year imprisonment sentence for blackmail. The blogger, Mr. Gaspar Avakyan, posted on YouTube videos of police officers abusing power. On May 16, 2019, he posted a photo on VKontakte of a police officer with a message claiming that he was offered 200,000 rubles to take down a certain video and that he will expose the whole entrapment scheme. Two weeks later, Mr. Avakyan was arrested after two senior police officers complained that he demanded 200,000 rubles from them to take down disparaging videos. Just days ago, another blogger who goes by the nickname “Police Ombudsman”  and who similarly publishes videos of police abuse was detained on charges stemming from somewhat strange circumstances. A police officer claims that he met a woman online and sent her nude photos, but that the woman’s social media accounts were hacked. The “Police Ombudsman” then somehow obtained the private photos and demanded 300,000 rubles from the police officer.

On May 27, 2020, activists belonging to a recently formed political movement complained about police harassment. The movement “Kashe Partiyasy” was formed in February of this year by a dozen activists and sought to register as a political party. The movement advocates for a peaceful transition of power to move away from the established politicians who have ruled the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union and for constitutional reforms to eliminate the office of the president. Mr. Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh oligarch who became an opposition figure after fleeing to the UK where he received political asylum, supported the movement on social media. Mr. Ablyazov’s own party, “Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan,” is banned in Kazakhstan as extremist for its criticism of the country’s former President Nazarbaev. The Kazakh authorities banned “Kashe Partiyasy” movement for allegedly being a branch of Mr. Ablyazov’s party, which is denied by the movement’s founders. The activists who formed “Kashe Partiyasy” appealed the ban, but since its imposition have been repeatedly summoned by the police for questioning and detained for organizing protests.

Post Scriptum

The International Journal of Press/Politics is publishing a special issue, “Digital Threats to Democracy: Comparative Lessons and Possible Remedies,” that features articles comprising research from twenty-three countries and four continents on the sources, impact on citizens, and possible remedies to various digital threats to democracy, ranging from disinformation to hate speech to state interference with online freedoms. The following articles are “ungated” and free until the end of the week, so grab them while you can!

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