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.

● According to Reporters Without Borders, 90 of the 193 UN Member States have obstructed press coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. No continent was immune to these violations of freedom of the press and Africa was the worst affected with 32 restrictions identified in 32 countries. These and the many other violations documented by RSF  can be viewed on the Tracker-19 website and map.

● A two-year audit of Facebook’s civil rights record led by civil rights and civil liberties activists and lawyers concluded that Facebook failed to address misinformation and hate speech, leaving the platform vulnerable to abuse. The Audit began “at the behest of civil rights organizations and members of Congress, who recognized the need to make sure important civil rights laws and principles are respected, embraced, and robustly incorporated into the work at Facebook.” The Auditors expressed concern over Facebook’s defense of absolute protection of freedom of expression “that has meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights.” The Audit report was released a day after civil rights leaders met with Mark Zuckerberg and complained that during the meeting it felt that “the company was simply rolling out its powerful PR machine and trying to spin the news.

● Join the Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub Fellows for a webinar showcasing their projects focused on Seeding Success: Equity, Technology and Policy. The projects offer tools for using technology to achieve policy changes impacting access to resources for marginalized communities, democratic representation, and discrimination. July 22, 2020 9:00 AM PT.

● The Information Society Project at Yale Law School ran a 5 part webinar series  Everything You Need to Know About Section 230 in 5 Hours   (It is actually 7.5 hours). Panels were moderated by Kate Klonick, and speakers included Cory Doctorow, Daphne Keller, and Olivier Sylvain among others. Recordings available here..

Decisions this Week

Vetticad and Dorsey v. State of Rajasthan
Decision Date: April 7, 2020
The High Court of Rajasthan allowed two petitions seeking to quash the First Information Report (FIR) filed against journalist Anna MM Vetticad and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for posting a photo on Twitter featuring the slogan: “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy.” The FIR was filed by Rajkumar Sharma, a member of the Brahmin community, who alleged that the tweet “badly hurt” the “feelings of the entire Brahmin community.” Justice Sandeep Mehta reasoned that the slogan could not reasonably be considered to hurt the religious sentiments of any Indian citizen or create a religious rift in society. The Court further determined that the necessary ingredients of the alleged offences had not been made out, thereby halting any further police proceedings against the petitioners.

United States
Committee on the Judiciary v. U.S. Department of Justice
Decision Date: March 10, 2020
The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the decision of the District Court which authorized disclosure of redacted grand jury materials referenced in the Special Counsel’s (Robert Mueller) Report in relation to the investigation for impeachment of US President Donald J. Trump. In this case, the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives petitioned the Court under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Code of Criminal Procedure for access to secret grand jury materials in and underlying the Mueller Report for potential use in the impeachment proceedings. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Appellant was entitled to access of the initial two (of three) categories of requested material and allowed to make an application for the third, on grounds of Senate impeachment qualifying as a ‘judicial proceeding’ under Rule 6(e) warranting disclosure and on account of the Appellant’s particularized need for the requested portions.

The Case of Ricardo Martinelli
Decision Date: August 26, 2019
The First Oral Judicial Circuit Court of Panama ruled that the former President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, was not guilty of the interception of communications without judicial authorization, surveillance without authorization, and embezzlement of state funds to purchase espionage equipment. The case was brought following an investigation by the Public Prosecution Service of Panama into allegations that Martinelli had ordered National Security Council officials to monitor the digital communications of over 150 journalists, union leaders and members of civil society between 2012 and 2014. The court recognized “indications” of “activities outside the law” in the National Security Council, but held that the evidence and testimonies presented by the Prosecution were insufficient to find Mr Martinelli guilty of the charges..

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On June 30, 2020, Vademecum, a healthcare trade magazine, filed a lawsuit against Russia’s communication watchdog Roskomnadzor and the Office of the Prosecutor General for unlawfully blocking its content. On April 22, the magazine published an article claiming that patients who self-hospitalize will need to cover the treatment of COVID-19 out-of-pocket. The article’s content was based on a letter from Moscow’s mandatory health insurance fund sent to hospitals, the authenticity of which was confirmed by the fund on April 25. Nevertheless, by April 28, the article was blocked, and the magazine was ordered to take it down on the grounds that it contained intentionally false information as well as information that incited public disorder and participation in unlawful public gatherings. Vademecum took down the article, but decided to sue the authorities, calling the takedown orders censorship and an insult to its editorial standards.

On July 3, 2020, a Kazakh court ruled that human rights defender Elena Semenova misinformed the public and harmed the reputation of prison colony ЕС-164/4 after she posted on Facebook about an inmate who was beaten by the prison’s staff. Semenova was ordered to take down the Facebook post and to pay a fine around $240 despite submitting evidence that the information was based on a first-hand account. Exactly a month before the date of this verdict, a separate court similarly found that Semenova harmed the reputation of prison colony УК-161/2 by posting online about inmates who faced torture there. The human rights defender is facing five additional civil complaints from prisons where she reported human rights violations. Over the past five years, Semenova has been repeatedly targeted for shedding light on injustices in Kazakhstan’s prisons. She was arrested several times and in the fall of 2018 unidentified assailants attempted to set her house on fire with Molotov cocktails.

Post Scriptum

● The International Press Institute (IPI) has launched a new podcast series IPI Freedom Dialogues: Turkey, a platform for timely, vital conversations on press freedom, freedom of expression and the future of quality journalism. In the first episode, prominent journalist Kadri Gürsel discusses turning points in freedom of expression since 2008 in Turkey and the thin line between journalism and activism as a universal question.

● Help reduce harassment and abuse of women journalists on social media: A team of Columbia researchers is developing new computational tools designed to automatically identify abusive, offensive and harassing speech on social media platforms. As a first step, this work will develop targeted tools that smartly identify the nuances of problematic speech targeted towards women journalists on Twitter. As such, the team is looking for women-identifying journalists who are willing to both share parts of their Twitter history and spend up to an hour using an interactive tool to evaluate problematic tweets. If you are interested in participating or have any questions, please reach out to Julia Hirschberg (, Sara Ita Levitan (, and Susan McGregor (

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