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

October 2nd marks the two-year anniversary of the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, and it is being recognized around the world in a variety of ways including:
  • The official launch of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a rights organisation established by Khashoggi months before his murder. Dawn plans to focus on violations by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt and publish articles by political exiles from across the Middle East to carry on Mr. Khashoggi’s legacy.
  • Official launch of “The Dissident” at the Zurich Film Festival directed and produced by Bryan Fogel. It follows the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s effort to control international dissent.
  • Showtime’s premiere of its original documentary Kingdom of Silence, which examines the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia as a backdrop to the assassination.
  • A recognition that the fight for justice is not over, especially in light of revelations from Bob Woodward’s tapes that U.S. President Donald Trump admitted to helping shield the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, from scrutiny by obstructing Congress’ inquiries into Khashoggi’s murder.

● Free press under attack: Protecting investigative journalism. The Journalism Institute and Investigative Reporters & Editors hosted an online discussion with press freedom advocates on their work in journalism, law, and human rights. Panelists included Amanda Bennett, former Director of Voice of America; Agnes Callamard, Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and United Nations Special Rapporteur; and Nabiha Syed, President of The MarkUp. Angela Greiling Keane, editorial director of states and Canada for POLITICO, moderated.

● Marija Sajkas, Global Freedom of Expression researcher, observes in a recent article that “[w]hile there is impunity for crimes against journalists in Serbia, in Slovakia, the killers of Jan Kuciak were convicted in just one year.” She interviewed Peter Bárdy, editor in chief of the portal for which Kucijak worked, who explained that in Slovakia massive local protests, combined with international pressure led to the fall of the government and the arrests of suspects. By contrast, in Serbia there are three unresolved murders but only one trial – for the murder of Slavko Curuvija in 1999- which took 15 years, and is still not settled. (see case analysis below)

● Jean-Paul Marthoz, writing for the Committee to Protect Journalists, discusses how the French media have unified in support of freedom of expression following the stabbing of two people outside the former Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The trial for the killers behind the 2015 massacre has been underway since 2 September. More than a hundred French news media outlets endorsed an open letter to defend freedom of expression, stating that “while defending the freedom to blaspheme, we don’t defend blasphemy but freedom.”

Decisions this Week

The Case of Radomir Markovic and Others (Slavko Curuvija)
Decision Date: July 15, 2020
The Appeals Court in Belgrade reversed and remanded a lower court decision convicting four members of the Serbian State Security services of murdering journalist Slavko Curuvija. After hearing testimony from over 100 witnesses, the High Court determined that Curuvija had been labelled as an “enemy of the State,” that data collected from mobile phone towers placed three of the defendants in close proximity to Curuvija at the time of the killing, and that the killers, in cooperation with an unidentified shooter, were acting on orders from the highest echelons of the Serbian government to eliminate Curuvija. The Appeals Court argued that no evidence of an unidentified shooter was presented during the trial and therefore the convictions were flawed. The case was sent back to the High Court for reconsideration or retrial, and hearings are scheduled for 5, 6, and 9 October 2020.

People of the Philippines v. Santos, Ressa and Rappler
Decision Date: June 15, 2020
The Manila Regional Trial Court found Maria Ressa, the executive editor of the online news website Rappler, and the journalist Reynalodo Santos Jr guilty of “cyberlibel”. The case was brought following a 2012 Rappler story concerning the businessman Wilfredo King’s alleged involvement in “human trafficking and drug smuggling,” as well as his links to then-Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona. The Court convicted Ressa and Santos pursuant to Section 4(c)(4) of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act (CPA), and sentenced them to imprisonment of up to six years and a fine of PhP 200,000 (approximately USD 4,000). Although the original article was published before the CPA was passed, the Court reasoned that the article was “republished” on 19 February 2014 when Rappler updated their article to fix a typographical error and that charges could be brought for a period of 12 years. Finally, the Court recognized the importance of the right to freedom of speech under the Philippines Constitution, but found that the defendants failed in their journalistic responsibilities to verify the facts and to publish the requested clarifications. Considering the influence of online news organizations, the Judge noted that the “keyboard is now mightier than the pen,” making cyberlibel far more serious a crime than traditional libel.

United States
Barr v. American Assoc. of Political Consultants
Decision Date: July 6, 2020
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the exception carved out to allow robocalls for collection of government debt was unconstitutional and should be severed from the remainder of the statute. Robocalls had been restricted in 1991 through the enactment of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, but an exception was added in 2015 which allowed robocalls “made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” A group of organizations that participated in political advocacy challenged the robocall restriction, arguing that it violated their First Amendment rights by preventing them from using robocalls to communicate their political messages efficiently. The Supreme Court found the exception was an unjustifiable content-based restriction and hence could not survive strict scrutiny. It therefore, severed that exception but kept the broad restriction on the use of robocalls intact, recognizing “Congress’s continuing interest in protecting consumer privacy.”

Post Scriptum

● The Cyberpeace Foundation, in cooperation with WhatsApp, has released a new study End (-to-end Encrypted) Child Sexual Abuse Material. The study found that the presence and proliferation of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram continues unabated, and that many groups flagged for such material remain active. It further proposes a techno-legal strategy to tackle the issue, including a mandatory ‘Report CSAM’ button for messaging apps.

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