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.

● Upcoming Event – The IPI World Congress and Media Innovation Festival “New frontiers: Press freedom and media innovation in the age of AI.” Join press freedom experts, journalists, editors, and publishers to explore journalism and press freedom in the context of today’s technological innovation trends and challenges. More than 80 speakers from around the world will discuss “building sustainable business models, harnessing new technologies in your work, fighting disinformation, engaging and representing diverse communities, innovation strategies, and much more.” The two-day program will include panel discussions, workshops, film screenings, and an award ceremony honoring the 2023 IPI-IMS World Press Freedom Hero and Free Media Pioneer. May 25-26, 2023, Vienna, Austria. Register here to attend the Congress and Festival in person or online.

  • RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index – Journalism Threatened by Fake Content Industry.Reporters Without Borders released the 21st edition of the annually-compiled World Press Freedom Index – a report that evaluates the state of press freedom in 180 countries and territories. The 2023 Index concludes, “the environment for journalism is ‘bad’ in seven out of ten countries, and satisfactory in only three out of ten.” The report highlights the impact of “the digital ecosystem’s fake content industry” on press freedom. That industry, according to RSF, includes disinformation and propaganda campaigns, mass dissemination of manipulative content, and AI-generated content.

 News on Blasphemy Laws: a recently-launched report, an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and two executions in Iran

On Religious Freedom and Discontent: Report on International Standards and Blasphemy Laws. The report, published by the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom in cooperation with the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, was authored by Karuna Nundy, a member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. It is the result of close collaboration with leading academic institutions from around the world. The report examines national laws regulating speech that is characterized as “blasphemous” and assesses the compatibility of those laws with media freedom. On World Press Freedom Day, Columbia GFoE hosted the High Level Panel and special guests for the launch of the report. The speakers discussed the report’s findings and recommendations, reflecting on the right of journalists to operate free from control, censorship, and harassment. You can access the event’s recording here.

ISLP Submits Amicus Curiae Brief to Supreme Court of Nigeria In A Blasphemy Case With Death Penalty Sentence. The plight of a young Nigerian musician reveals the particular vice of blasphemy laws. Yahaya Sharif-Aminu sang a song on WhatsApp expressing his sincere religious belief in that a prominent local imam was somehow superior to the Prophet Mohammad. He was promptly arrested and brought before a Sharia judge. In a closed hearing, the Sharia judge charged and convicted him of the crime of blasphemy and sentenced the musician to die by hanging. Mr. Sharif-Aminu has languished on death row for three years. His appeal is pending in the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The first intervenor, International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP), has organized interventions by Amnesty International and two religious freedom organizations. The ISLP amicus curiae brief argues that unless the Supreme Court reverses the conviction, it will cause Nigeria to violate its treaty obligations under the ICCPR. You can find a copy of the brief here.

Iran executed two men convicted of blasphemy on May 8, 2023. Referencing an Iranian-judiciary-linked news source, JURIST reports the executions of Yousuf Mehrdad and Sadrollah Fazeli Zare were announced on Monday morning. The arrests of the two men took place in 2020 based on blasphemy-related allegations in connection to anti-Islamic groups and online Telegram channels. JURIST reports, “Mehrdad was convicted of insulting the Prophet (Sabb-ul-Nabi) and insulting sacred things, while Fazeli Zare was convicted of rejecting Islam (apostasy), insulting the Prophet, blasphemy of the Prophet’s mother, desecration of the Quran by burning, insulting sacred things and publishing private images of others without consent.” According to human rights organizations’ estimates, Iran carried out 194 executions in 2023 alone.

Decisions this Week

United Kingdom
Attorney General for Northern Ireland v. Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones)
Decision Date: December 7, 2022
The United Kingdom Supreme Court unanimously held that clause 5(2)(a) of Northern Ireland’s Abortion and Safe Access Zones Act is compatible with the rights of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the right of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Attorney General of Northern Ireland had challenged the Act before the Supreme Court on the grounds that clause 5(2)(a) disproportionately violated the rights of anti-abortion protesters by prohibiting and punishing with a fine of £500 any protest in the so-called “safe access zones” near clinics where abortions are performed. The Supreme Court held that the restriction on the anti-abortion protesters’ rights to freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and right of assembly was lawful, pursued the legitimate aim of protecting women’s privacy, and was necessary in a democratic society because it was not disproportionate. The Court held that the protests of anti-abortion demonstrators are permitted outside of “safe access zones” and that the restriction safeguards the “compelling social need” to avoid interference and intrusion into the private lives of women who choose to have abortions and health care workers who perform abortions. Further, the Court held that the £500 penalty for violators of clause 5(2)(a) of the Act is not unreasonable or disproportionate.

R. v. Brown
Decision Date: January 14, 2022
The England and Wales Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) upheld a conviction for public nuisance against James Hugh Brown —who glued himself to the top of a plane at London City Airport as an act of protest— while quashing his 12 months’ imprisonment sentence and substituting it for a four months one. The defendant considered that he was wrongly prosecuted for public nuisance (a common law offence) when his conduct fell squarely in the scope of other less severe statutory offenses, such as aggravated trespass. Brown also considered that his sentence was disproportionate. The Court considered that the defendant’s conduct sought to cause major disruption and that it was correct to charge him with public nuisance. When analyzing the sentence’s duration, the Court took into consideration that although the defendant’s behavior was reprehensible, it took place amidst peaceful protests, which justified a shorter punishment. The Court also bore in mind the defendant’s visual disability to reduce the sentence.

R v. the Chief Constable of South Wales Police
Decision Date: August 11, 2020
The Court of Appeal Civil Division unanimously held that the South Wales Police’s use of Automatic Facial Recognition Locate technology, both in a general manner and specifically on 21 December 2017 and 27 March 2018, violated the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Kingdom Data Protection Act and the Public Sector Equality Duty. The petitioner, Mr. Edward Bridges, appealed the judgment of the Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division on the grounds that the use of Automatic Facial Recognition Locate technology violated Article 8 ECHR right to privacy and has the potential to produce discriminatory and deterrent effects on freedom of expression and the right of assembly. For its part, the South Wales Police argued that the use of the technology was within its powers, that it was lawful and that notice of its use was given to members attending public events. The Court of Appeal Civil Division held that the use of Automatic Facial Recognition technology did not meet the legality requirement under the right to privacy in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights by allowing excessive discretion to the South Wales Police. Furthermore, the Court held that the South Wales Police could not demonstrate that the use of such technology would not have a detrimental effect on other rights of the public or that it did not have the potential to produce discriminatory effects.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Right
Williams v. Zimbabwe
Decision Date: February 25, 2021
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACmHRP) held that Zimbabwe was responsible for violating the applicants’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, personal liberty, non-discrimination, and equal protection. The petitioners were members of an organization called Women of Zimbabwe Airse (WOZA) and were systematically harassed, intimidated, threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and prevented from engaging in public demonstrations and peaceful protests. The Commission found that all these were unlawful restrictions because they were not necessary in a democratic society and served no legitimate aim, such as protecting national security, public order, public health, or morals. The Commission ordered Zimbabwe to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for the human rights violations; provide redress for prejudices suffered by the victims; and carry out human rights training to police and public officials.

United States
Deray Mckesson v. John Doe
Decision Date: November 2, 2020
The Supreme Court of the United States held in a per curiam decision that the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit should not have adopted a novel “theory of personal liability” with First Amendment implications without seeking a “certified question” from the Louisiana Supreme Court in a case where the organizer of a protest was successfully sued for damages caused by an unknown third party to whom he was related only by mere participation in the protest. Petitioner Deray Mckesson appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit which had rejected his argument that he could not be liable under the First Amendment for damages made in the context of a social protest by an unknown third party when he led protesters to occupy the highway. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that Mckesson was not protected by the First Amendment for the “downstream consequences” of the unlawful obstruction of a highway that he allegedly directed. The Supreme Court of the United States held that under the unusual circumstances of this case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit should not have ventured into such a novel and uncertain area of tort liability with First Amendment repercussions without seeking guidance on the issue from the Louisiana Supreme Court. Accordingly, the Supreme Court of the United States vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and ordered it to decide the case after making certified questions to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Teaching Freedom of Expression Without Frontiers

This section of the newsletter features teaching materials focused on global freedom of expression which are newly uploaded on Freedom of Expression Without Frontiers.

2023 Joint Declaration on Media Freedom and Democracy
The Declaration, adopted by the specialized mandates tasked with protecting Freedom of Expression at the UN, OAS, OSCE, and African Commission, was drafted in cooperation with ARTICLE 19 and the Centre for Law and Democracy. The Declaration “outlines the interrelationship and interdependency of media freedom and democratic values, and the critical role of media freedom in enabling and sustaining democratic societies.” In the three sections that follow, the Declaration focuses on the role of states, calling for state actors to protect journalists and media diversity, refrain from press freedom violations, and provide economic support to the media. In its recommendations for online platforms, the Declaration emphasizes human rights standards, transparency, risk mitigation, and fair compensation. Finally, it addresses the media sector and stresses the importance of professional and ethical conduct. 

Post Scriptum

In case you missed it:

A Conversation on Disinformation and Democracy. On April 27, Columbia GFoE hosted a three-panel conference, in cooperation with The University of Alabama School of Law, on the threats that disinformation poses to democracy and the best responses to them. Speakers in Panel 1 framed the problem and discussed approaches to governmental regulation of dis- or misinformation. Panel 2 focused on dis- and misinformation in social and traditional media. And Panel 3 explored non-governmental organizations and civil society entities, discussing their role in checking the proliferation of dis- and misinformation. The event’s recording is available here.

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