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

● Civil society welcomes Irene Khan as new U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. Thirteen civil society organisations congratulate and welcome Irene Khan to her new role and outline broad priority themes that require particular attention including the emerging challenges faced by media professionals under the guise of national security, evolving threats to freedom of expression in the digital age, and need for an enabling legal and regulatory environment, among others.

● U.N. Special Rapporteurs warn of closing digital space amid COVID-19 at RightsCon Online. The experts including, Agnes Callamard, director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, issued the joint statement in light of thematic discussions taking center stage at the summit. Highlighting that state actors are continuing to leverage the internet and digital technologies to muzzle dissent and quash online and offline collective action, the independent U.N. experts emphasized that they are “deeply concerned that such patterns of abuse have accelerated under the exigencies of the global pandemic.” Videos available on YouTube.

● The first Media Freedom Rapid Response Report documents 120 severe threats to media freedom across Europe over 4 months. The report identified three main trends during the period: 1) use of the COVID 19 pandemic a pretext to restrict democratic discourse or reinforce authoritarian tendencies, 2) dangers to journalists and media workers when covering protests and demonstrations, and 3) a rise in online harassment.

● The new Council of Europe HELP (Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals) course on Protection and Safety of Journalists is now available on the HELP online platform. Tarlach McGonagle, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression expert, contributed to the development of this free 10 hour course which aims to assist legal professionals, journalists and law-enforcement officials, in identifying and tackling the threats towards journalists and other media actors. .

Decisions this Week

The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)

Amnesty International & Ors v. The Togolese Republic
Decision Date: June 25, 2020
The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States held that the Togolese government violated the applicants’ right to freedom of expression by shutting down the internet during protests in September 2017. In August 2017, tens of thousands of protesters across Togo called for the return of the state’s 1992 constitution that guarantees multi-party elections and a two-term limit for the head of state. In order to disrupt the protests, the Togolese government shutdown the internet from September 5 to 10 and again from September 19 to 21. The Court found that access to the internet is a “derivative right” as it “enhances the exercise of freedom of expression,” and as such it was “a right that requires protection of the law” and any interference with it “must be provided for by the law specifying the grounds for such interference.” As there was no national law upon which the right to internet access could be derogated from, the Court concluded that the internet was not shut down in accordance with the law and the Togolese government had violated Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court subsequently ordered the Respondent State of Togo to take measures to guarantee the “non-occurrence” of a future similar situation, implement laws to meet their obligations with the right to freedom of expression and compensate each applicant to the sum of 2,000,000 CFA (approx. 3,500 USD).


Foundation for Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir & Anr
Decision Date: May 11, 2020
The Supreme Court of India ordered the constitution of a Special Committee to review the restriction of internet mobile service to 2G in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The petition was brought by the Foundation for Media Professionals, the lawyer Soayib Qureshi and the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir, seeking the restoration of 4G internet in the region following the communications blackout imposed by the central government in August 2019. The Court recognised that the rights to freedom of speech and expression, health, education and business must be balanced against the prevailing national security concerns. Applying the minimum standards for internet restrictions set out in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, WP (C) No. 1031/2019, the Court held that the impugned order did not “provide any reasons” for the blanket enforcement of the shutdown across all districts. However, while the petition would “merit consideration” in “normal circumstances”, the particular “compelling circumstances of cross border terrorism” prevented the Court from finding a constitutional violation. Rather, the Court directed the constitution of a Special Committee, led by the Indian Home Secretary, to evaluate the necessity of the internet restriction in Jammu and Kashmir.

United States 

Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump (Rehearing)
Decision Date: March 23, 2020
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied rehearing  a 2019 ruling of the Appellate Court inKnight First Amendment Institute v. Donald J. Trump which confirmed that President Trump’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account violated the First Amendment.The Plaintiffs had sued President Donald Trump for blocking them from accessing @realDonaldTrump Twitter account on the ground of an unconstitutional restriction on their right to access statements reflective of Trump’s views and decisions in his official capacity as President. The Court found that the use of the account by Trump and his communications staff and its interactive features to function as an “official vehicle of governance” protected under the constitution. Noting that the case was a “straightforward application of state action and public forum doctrines, congruent with Supreme Court precedent,” the Court concluded that the use of the twitter account by the President amounted to “state action” and the selective exclusion of critics on account of their displeasing comments (viewpoint discrimination) was an “egregious form of content discrimination.

The Frontier of Expression: Russia and Central Asia

On July 27, 2020, the Ministry of Culture issued an order to libraries across Russia to implement measures to make it impossible for anyone under the age of 18 to access books deemed harmful. The order aims to implement last year’s amendments to the Law on the Protection of Children from Information Harmful to their Health, which expanded prohibitions on content about LGTBI relationships, drug use, and suicide, to also include any content that causes panic or fear among children. Libraries will be forced to keep such “dangerous” works under key in separate rooms. The head of the Association of Internet Publishers complained that the law is overly broad and will force libraries to restrict access to many Russian classics, including works by Bulgakov and Nabokov, to anyone under 18. Following Russia’s takeover of Crimea, the country’s libraries were already forced to remove certain Ukrainian works from their shelves because the authorities considered them anti-Russian. Further, most content, be it in established media or online, concerning drug abuse and suicide is generally prohibited.

On August 4, 2020, it was reported that regional authorities threatened 120 medical workers with criminal prosecution for issuing a statement demanding better working conditions and access to medical supplies during the pandemic. In late July, medical workers from Turkmenabat, a city in the country’s north-east, signed a letter directed to the regional authorities. The letter outlined medical and staffing needs to adequately respond to COVID-19, and demanded more safety gear, medicine, as well as improved living conditions for staff brought into the city as part of the pandemic response. On July 20, the signatories were invited to a meeting attended by the regional authorities, representatives of the ministry of health, and the police. The medical staff was criticized for violating the Hippocratic oath, trying to use the pandemic for personal gain, and violating the policies of President Berdymukhamedov. They were told that anyone who issues similar statements in the future will be punished and may face criminal charges. Turkmenistan is the only country in the world claiming that COVID-19 never entered its borders, despite imposing a quarantine and other anti-pandemic measures. However, according to independent reports dozens are dying daily as the result of COVID-like symptoms. President Berdymukhamedov suggested that increased deadly pneumonia cases were a result of an unknown virus brought by the wind and recommended burning wild rue, a traditional medical herb.

Post Scriptum

● One Free Press Coalition, a collection of nearly 40 news organizations, calls for a worldwide release of journalists in detention during the pandemic. Time Magazine, part of the coalition, features the August list of the 10 most pressing cases of journalists under attack around the world for pursuing the truth.

● Greenpeace’s new report “Sued into Silence: Privatised Censorship and the Rise of SLAPPs” explores how abusive lawsuits are used to block accountability and shut down the work of activists, journalists, and other public watchdogs across Europe.

● The National Endowment for Democracy’s new report “Artificial Intelligence and Democratic Norms: Meeting the Authoritarian Challenge” discusses how to establish democratically accountable rules and norms that harness the benefits of artificial intelligence-related technologies, without infringing on fundamental rights.

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