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.

● 31 UN Human Rights experts renewed the call for an on-the-ground independent, impartial investigation into human rights violations in the Philippines. The call came following the publication of the OHCHR’s comprehensive written report on the human rights situation. The experts highlighted “the staggering cost of the relentless and systematic assault on the most basic rights of Filipinos at the hands of the Government,” including the multiple arrests and eventual conviction of Maria Ressa on cyber libel charges, the shut-down of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV and radio network, and other encroachments on the right to freedom of expression and information.

● Sejal Parmar, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression expert and Lecturer at the School of Law at the University of Sheffield, wrote about the Internationalisation of Black Lives Matter at the Human Rights Council. She discussed the recent UN debate on racism and how it connected George Floyd’s murder on a Minneapolis street on 25 May with the worldwide anti-racism protests. The debate offered a “a sense of hope that this latest example of the ‘internationalisation’ of the struggle for racial justice in the United States, would lead not only to scrutiny, but also to meaningful accountability at the global level for the systemic human rights violations exposed by and unleashed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.” Regrettably, the result of “the urgent debate was profoundly disappointing; the adoption by consensus of a ‘very weak’ resolution that fails to set up a commission of inquiry and strips any mention of the US in its operative paragraphs.”

● Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and German journalist and filmmaker Benjamin Best have been awarded this year’s “Prize for Freedom and Future of the Media” of the Media Foundation of Sparkasse Leipzig. The prize is awarded to media professionals who strive for media freedom and independent reporting in a particularly outstanding manner and often risk their own well-being.

Decisions this Week

United States
PEN American Center v. Donald J. Trump
Decision Date: March 24, 2020
A District Court in New York rejected US President Donald Trump’s attempt to dismiss a motion for alleged suppression of First Amendment-protected speech of certain White House press corps and media commentators. The complaint alleged that Trump, utilizing his executive power and authority, since assuming office has continuously intimidated reporters critical of his administration, issued credible public threats and taken retaliatory actions against PEN America members, including Washington Post, CNN and NBC journalists. In granting a declaratory relief to the plaintiff, the Court allowed the case to go forward on claims relating to alleged unlawful suspension of press credentials and security clearances. With the ruling of the District Court, the plaintiff will be entitled to obtain documents from the government to substantiate its claim of First Amendment violations against President Trump.

European Court of Human Rights
Studio Monitori v. Georgia
Decision Date: January 30, 2020
The European Court of Human Rights found no violation of freedom of expression when the Georgian authorities refused to disclose criminal case files to an NGO and its journalist, as the latter did not specify the purpose of the information request. Moreover, the Court held that since a journalist could proceed and finalize an investigation, without the denied information, the information in question was not instrumental for the effective exercise of her freedom-of-expression rights. Concerning the second application, by a lawyer unconnected to the first two applicants, the Strasbourg Court held that the applicant was neither a journalist nor a public watchdog and thus, while requesting state-held information, he did not enjoy protection under article 10 of the Convention.

Saeed Ahmed Hassan v. Head of honorable El Azhar (Sheikh El Azhar)
Decision Date: May 20, 2003
The Court of Administrative Judiciary in Egypt ordered the cancellation of the administrative decision of Sheikh El Azhar prohibiting the publication of three books written by the plaintiff. El Azhar, the institution responsible for authorizing printing and distribution of Islamic literature, initially refused the Plaintiff’s request for permission to publish abroad his third book in a series.  The Plaintiff then petitioned Sheikh El Azhar, the head of El Azhar, who not only affirmed the refusal on the ground that the books were full of errors that could confuse readers, but also issued a decision to ban all three domestically.  The Court noted that both the Egyptian constitution and Islamic Principles protect and promote freedom of opinion and expression. The Court found that the contents of the books represented the plaintiff’s opinions and that the ideas neither encroached upon the foundations of Islam nor the fundamentals of Islamic culture. Accordingly, the Court cancelled the contested decision finding it incompatible with the law and the constitution and awarded the plaintiff 5000 Egyptian pounds in damages.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On June 23, 2020, an appellate court in Pyatigorsk, southern Russia, overturned ten court decisions prohibiting activists from organizing protests in support of an imprisoned journalist Abulmamin Gadzhiev. The journalist was arrested in 2019 for allegedly financing and belonging to a terrorist organization and faces decades in prison. International human rights organizations called the charges fabricated, aiming to silence the journalist. Moscow based human rights center “Memorial” declared Gadzhiev a political prisoner. Since the journalist’s arrest, activists filed 580 requests to hold protests in support of the journalist and every single one was refused by the Ministry of Justice of Dagestan. 108 refusals were challenged, and first instance courts expectedly upheld all of the prohibitions. A lawyer representing the activists hopes that the appellate court ruling will help set a positive precedent.

On June 27, 2020, the President of Kazakhstan signed into law amendments decriminalizing defamation. Before the law’s passage, defamation was a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. The amendments impose fines between $1,100 and $4,900 and administrative detention of up to thirty days. The severity of the punishment is dependent on the method of dissemination of the defamatory content and the nature of the allegations. Use of telecommunications technologies, including social media, and defamatory content alleging corruption or other felonies carry the most severe penalties. Although the law may seem like a step in the right direction, Adilsoz, Kazakhstan’s premier freedom of expression organization, opposed its passage. The amendments allow the prosecutor general to initiate investigations into allegations of defamation, regardless of whether the target of the defamatory content filed an official complaint. The fear is thus that the law gives the authorities greater discretion to silence or pressure critics or opposition figures, a worrying development in a country considered one of the most censored in the world.

Post Scriptum

● The Media Legal Defence Initiative issued a call for consultants to conduct an independent evaluation of their Digital Rights Advocates Project. MLDI is looking to engage an experienced evaluation consultant to carry out an interim and final evaluation. The consultant will also conduct final research using baseline research to measure the impact of the project on the digital rights landscape in selected African countries.

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