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.

● SAVE THE DATE: Global Webinar on The Freedom to Speak | Part 2: A Case Study Analysis – September 21, 2023. Don’t miss the second webinar of the two-part webinar series on emerging threats to freedom of expression hosted by the International Senior Lawyers Project (ISLP) and Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression. The webinar will include panel sessions “Precedent in the Balance: Imagining a world without Sullivan (New York Times v Sullivan, 1964)” and “Key emerging trends on the threats to free expression and democracy” – both to be followed by Q&A discussions. The speakers are noted experts in the field and will highlight how local advocates around the world may draw from international law and comparative experience to complement and enhance their advocacy. September 21 at 13:00 UTC / 09:00 EDT / 14:00 WAT / 15:00 CAT / 16:00 EAT. Register here

● Stop Denmark’s New Blasphemy Ban. An open letter, published by Persuasion, calls on the Danish government to withdraw the recently proposed bill that criminalizes “improper treatment of objects of significant religious importance to religious communities.” The offense could be punished with up to two years in prison. The undersigned believe the bill is a return to “a ban on blasphemy” and a significant blow to freedom of expression. The letter states, “Laws that restrict freedom of speech in the name of preventing offense inevitably undermine the democratic ideals they claim to protect, and they legitimize oppression at home and abroad.” Read the full letter here

● Assessing the Problem of Disinformation. The latest episode of The Sunday Show, a podcast of Tech Policy Press, discusses disinformation from two angles: AI’s ability to produce propaganda and technology companies’ reports under the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation. In the first segment, Dr. Shelby Grossman tackles the question, “Can AI Write Persuasive Propaganda?” Recent research confirms it can. Having surveyed GPT-3, researchers found the propaganda it produced convincing; given that, Grossman admits ChatGPT will perform even better. In the podcast’s second segment, Dr. Kirsty Park and Stephan Mündges unpack the recently published report they co-authored. The report assesses how big technology companies – Google, Meta, Microsoft, TikTok, and Twitter (X) – provided information under the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation. The assessment found that companies generally “hover[ed] around adequate” in their reports’ quality but tended to undersupply the necessary data.

 COMING SOON: 2024 Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prizes. Nominations will open next week for the 2024 Global Freedom of Expression Prizes. The Prizes celebrate judicial decisions and legal services around the world that strengthen freedom of expression by promoting international standards. At a time when freedom of expression is threatened globally, there is a particular need to celebrate victories in defense of this fundamental right. Prizes are awarded in two categories: Excellence in Legal Services and Significant Legal Decision. Anyone can nominate court decisions or legal services that have had a recognizable impact on freedom of expression. Nominations for decisions handed down between 2022-2023 will be given priority. Please consider nominating your colleagues, or even yourself!

Decisions this Week

European Court of Human Rights
Rogalski v. Poland
Decision Date: March 13, 2023
The First Section of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the applicant’s right to freedom of expression, as protected under Article 10 of the Convention, was violated when he faced disciplinary sanctions for submitting an unsubstantiated criminal complaint as a lawyer. The Court emphasized that lawyers, as intermediaries in the administration of justice, have a responsibility to contribute to the proper administration of justice while maintaining public confidence. It noted that disciplinary actions against whistleblowers should only be justified in exceptional circumstances, and in this case, the applicant had not acted with malicious intent, and the authorities had not thoroughly examined the evidence provided. The Court concluded that the disciplinary authorities had not provided sufficient reasons for their decision and had exceeded their margin of appreciation, leading to a violation of Article 10. Thus, the Court awarded the applicant EUR 535 for pecuniary damage and EUR 9,750 for non-material damage, covering emotional distress and reputational harm.

TVF v. State
Decision Date: March 6, 2023
The High Court of Delhi declined to quash a First Information Report (FIR) filed against the creators of the web series “College Romance,” produced by TVF Media Ltd., in response to complaints about explicit content, allegedly violating provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Information Technology Act (IT Act). The petitioner, TVF Media Ltd., faced complaints regarding explicit content in Episode 05 of Season 01. Initially, the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (North), Rohini District Court, New Delhi ordered the registration of a FIR under multiple sections, but the Additional Sessions Judge (ASJ) later limited it to Section 67A of the IT Act. The High Court considered whether a prima facie case existed under Sections 67 and 67A of the IT Act and found that the content indeed contained explicit material, violating public decency standards. The court emphasized the importance of maintaining language standards and complying with IT Rules, concluding that the web series did not meet the test of public decency and upheld the ASJ’s order.

The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States 
SERAP v. Federal Republic of Nigeria (Case of Agba Jalingo)
Decision Date: July 9, 2021
The Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) determined that Nigeria violated Articles 5 and 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights by subjecting journalist Agba Jalingo to arbitrary detention for 34 days and acts of torture during his imprisonment. Jalingo, a journalist and publisher, was subjected to arbitrary detention and torture following his exposé on corruption within a government agency. This case was brought to the regional Court by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a Nigerian Non-Governmental Organization. While the Court did not accept the allegations of a violation of Jalingo’s freedom of expression due to insufficient evidence, it ruled in favor of Jalingo on the unlawful arrest and torture claims, noting that Nigeria failed to contest or dispute these allegations. The Court ordered the Nigerian government to pay Jalingo a lump sum of thirty million naira (N30,000,000/approx. USD39,735) as compensation. Furthermore, the Court directed the government to provide a report within three months outlining the steps taken to implement the Court’s orders, underlining the significance of upholding human rights and accountability in the region.

State v. Muhhammad Mubarak Bala
Decision Date: April 5, 2022
The High Court of Kano State in Nigeria convicted and sentenced Muhammad Mubarak Bala, a self-identified atheist, to 24 years in prison for blasphemy and breach of public peace. Bala was arrested for posting messages on his Facebook page in March 2020 that were deemed blasphemous and potentially disruptive to public peace. He was arrested in Kaduna State, his neighboring state, in April 2020, following a petition by a group of lawyers. Bala spent a year in detention without charges before finally being arraigned in February 2022. Two years after his arrest, he changed course and he pleaded guilty to 18 amended charges in April 2022. The Court, in its decision, noted that Bala did not provide sufficient reasons to avoid conviction, leading to his sentencing to 24 years in prison for the offenses.

Commissioner of Police v. Yahaya Shariff Aminu
Decision Date: August 10, 2020
The Upper Sharia Court sitting in Hausawa, Kano State of Nigeria convicted a gospel singer of blasphemy and sentenced him to death. The singer had posted audio in a WhatsApp group with statements accusing prophet Muhhamad of bringing “an unforgivable sin to the world”. The Court accepted that the individual had posted the statements in error, but held that the blasphemous statements could not be excused regardless of his plea citing mistake, and that as he was “of sane mind,” he was guilty of the offence. The case is currently before the Supreme Court after the individual’s appeal failed to result in a discharge of the case against him and had found that the Sharia Law under which he was convicted was constitutional.

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.

Communiqué by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media On the Use of Digital Surveillance Technology on Journalists
The Communiqué underscores the significant negative impact surveillance technology can have on media freedom within the OSCE region, in particular as it relates to privacy and the chilling effect on journalism. Specifically,”[t]he Representative concluded that the implementation of stringent measures is vital. This includes mandating effective and binding prior authorization of any surveillance on a journalist granted by an independent authority under judicial control. Additionally, such surveillance must be limited in duration and scope, and applicable only to the most severe offenses. Utilizing digital surveillance technology should be carefully justified and integrated into a robust rule-of-law framework, accompanied by a meaningful redress mechanism.”

Post Scriptum

● Q&A: The EU’s Digital Services Act Rewrites the Internet’s Rulebook, by Jem Bartholomew. The article is an interview with Suzanne Vergnolle, Technology Law Professor at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris, for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. Bartholomew and Vergnolle discuss the Digital Services Act (DSA), its design, strengths, critiques, and possible future influence. Referring to Columbia Law professor Anu Bradford, Vergnolle brings up the so-called Brussels Effect: “the idea that the EU has a lot of [global] influence” due to its big market, democracy, and transparent legislative procedures. To Vergnolle, because of those reasons, the DSA can serve as an inspiration for legislators globally. Yet, Vergnolle acknowledges, “[I]t’s going to take more time than just in one second everything being safer.”

● Why are Youth Dissatisfied with Democracy? by Gerardo Berthin. The article, published by Freedom House, argues that even though traditional political participation metrics indicate young people are disengaged from politics, today’s youth stays active in expressing their dissatisfaction with democracy. Berthin draws from Freedom House reportsthe World Values Survey, and the UN World Youth Report, and those, indeed, show that young people vote less and reject membership in political parties. Some of the explanations for such disengagement are high unemployment levels, gaping economic inequality, and exclusion from government decision-making. Despite that, to Berthin, young people keep contributing to political debates, choosing alternative ways to do so – advocacy, community leadership, and street protests among others – and in support of a stronger democracy, they need to be heard.

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