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Home Human Rights Archive for category "Freedom of Expression"

The Dissent in Bayev and Others v. Russia: A Window into an Illiberal World View

Published on July 7, 2017        Author: 

A previous post discussed the majority opinion in Bayev and Others v. Russia, where the ECtHR found that Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law violated the European Convention on Human Rights. I want to focus on the dissent. While the majority is important for its legal impact, the dissent is important for the window it provides into a non-Western world view. The previous post discusses the facts of the case, so I will dive right in.

One may dismiss a lone dissenter, especially one who decided in favor of the country he is from, but Judge Dedov shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly. Dedov didn’t dissent out of a bias in favor of his country, but from a fundamentally different world view than that of the Western judges. His world view isn’t isolated to Russia. I have been doing human rights work for the last few years in Armenia, and his views on LGBT people are shared by the majority in Armenia, if not by Eastern Europe generally. This view is part of the cultural divide between the “decadent West” and the “traditional East”. His dissent is significant because it may be the most thorough and rigorous articulation of the illiberal narrative. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Sermon from the Bench: Some Thoughts on the ECtHR Judgment in Bayev and Others v Russia

Published on June 27, 2017        Author: 

On 20 June 2017, the ECtHR rendered a judgment in the Bayev and Others v Russia. The judgment brought some much needed good news for LGBT rights. Against the backdrop of persecution of gay men in Chechnya and the steady deterioration of the position of LGBT people in Russia generally, the ECtHR showed its activist colours in ruling that Russia’s so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law violates human rights. The authors enthusiastically welcome and applaud the outcome. That being said, the Bayev judgment at times seems to leave the law ‘behind’ and strays from judicial decision to sermon, in a way that may ultimately undermine the efforts of the Court to move protections forward. Of note in this regard is the wording at times employed by the Court, and its understanding of the boundaries of its competence.

The Bayev case is the result of a challenge, brought by three gay activists, against what is often referred to as Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law. Read the rest of this entry…

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President Erdogan versus Jan Böhmermann: Do Bad Poems Make Bad Law? – Reforming the Defamation of Foreign Heads of States under German Criminal Law

Published on June 23, 2017        Author:  and

Note: Revised and translated version of a statement made before the Legal Committee of the German Bundestag at an expert hearing on 17 May 2017, further elaborating on questions that were raised by Veronika Bílková in her EJIL:Talk! post “Thouh shalt not Insult the (Foreign) Head of State?”, dated 28 April 2016 and commenting on subsequent developments.

1. Prologue

In 2016, after the Turkish government had requested the deletion of a satirical song about Turkish President Erdogan, aired on a German TV show, the Turkish Head of State became the subject of another, rather vulgar, satirical poem fittingly titled “Schmähkritik” (“defamatory critique”), recited by the German comedian Jan Böhmermann on his TV show in March, 2016. This in turn led to the initiation of a criminal investigation against the said German comedian, instigated both by the Turkish government, as well as by Turkish President Erdogan personally. Thereafter, President Erdogan also pressed civil charges against Böhmermann before German courts. As far as the criminal proceedings initiated by the Turkish government were concerned, a violation of Section 103 Criminal Code was claimed which currently still provides as follows:

Section 103 German Criminal Code
Defamation of organs and representatives of foreign states

(1) Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.

Section 104a German Criminal Code further provides that before any such criminal proceedings under Section 103 German Criminal Code may be initiated, the German government has to formally authorize such proceedings: Read the rest of this entry…

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Russia’s Supreme Court Rewrites History of the Second World War

Published on October 28, 2016        Author: 

Introduction and Background

On September 1 2016, exactly 77 years since the outbreak of the Second World War, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Perm resident Vladimir Luzgin under Article 354.1 of the Russian Penal Code ­- Rehabilitation of Nazism. Luzgin had the unpleasant distinction of being the first individual prosecuted under the new provision of the code criminalizing:

[1] Denial of facts, established by the judgement of the International Military Tribunal…, [2] approval of the crimes adjudicated by said Tribunal, and [3] dissemination of knowingly false information about the activities of the USSR during the Second World War, made publicly.

Two months earlier, Luzgin, a 38-years old auto mechanic, was fined 200,000 rubles (roughly €2,800) for reposting on the popular Russian social networking site vkontakte a link to an online article containing numerous assertions in defense of Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries that fought during the Second World War. The basis for Luzgin’s conviction lay in the statement that unlike the nationalists, “the Communists…actively collaborated with Germany in dividing Europe according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” and “Communists and Germany jointly attacked Poland and started the Second World War on 1 September 1939!”

In this post, we address some of the problematic aspects of this “memory law” and the Supreme Court’s decision with respect to freedom of expression in Russia; the Russian Constitution protects this fundamental right expressly, and through incorporation of international customary norms and rules embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), all of which the Supreme Court eschewed in its ruling. Prior to addressing the decision and its implications however, some words are in order on the drafting history of the law and its putative aims. Read the rest of this entry…

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Ecuador Turns Off Julian Assange’s Internet Access

Published on October 19, 2016        Author: 

The world is an awful, terrible place. But sometimes it gives us a nugget so glorious that it really has to be savoured and appreciated. One such nugget is today’s news item that Ecuador had made a ‘sovereign decision’ to restrict the Internet access of Julian Assange, for many years a guest in its London embassy (Guardian and BBC reports here; our previous coverage of various legal issues regarding Assange here). Note the reason Ecuador gave for restricting Assange’s Internet access (which I imagine they are paying for, in any event): respect for the principle of non-intervention. Here’s the Ecuadorian government’s official communique (via Twitter):

In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has published a wealth of documents, impacting on the U.S. election campaign. This decision was taken exclusively by that organization.

The Government of Ecuador respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. It does not interfere in external electoral processes, nor does it favor any particular candidate.

Accordingly, Ecuador has exercised its sovereign right to temporarily restrict access to some of its private communications network within its Embassy in the United Kingdom. This temporary restriction does not prevent the WikiLeaks organization from carrying out its journalistic activities.

Just consider, for a moment, how Assange, as a champion of the freedom of speech on the Internet, has found himself in cahoots with (likely) Russia – by any measure not the freest of societies – in actively influencing the forthcoming American elections, and how he is maintaining this activity from UK sovereign soil, protected by Ecuador’s unlawful grant of asylum. And then ponder the delicious irony of a state like Ecuador which, on the one hand, violated the principle of non-intervention vis-a-vis the UK by granting asylum to a fugitive from criminal justice, only to then invoke that very same principle vis-a-vis the United States in order to effectively limit Assange’s freedom of expression. Remarkable, isn’t it?

On a purely legal level, it is particularly noteworthy that a state has essentially expressed its opinio juris to the effect that the customary principle of non-intervention requires it to prevent a private actor operating from a place within its jurisdiction from interfering with the electoral process of a third state by leaking the content of a campaign official’s private emails. I, at least, am not aware that the principle of non-intervention has ever been invoked by an (arguably) intervening state against itself in this particular way, and indeed as part of justifying the interference with an individual’s human rights. But this is an excellent example of how an old legal principle can keep evolving in different circumstances.

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Beyond the Mantra, Towards the Granular: The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s Report on the Private Sector in the Digital Age

Published on July 5, 2016        Author: 

I. Introduction

“To what extent should the private sector be responsible for the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression?” This is the question at the heart of the latest report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Professor David Kaye (“Special Rapporteur”), which he presented at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council, which ended last week. The current report does not purport to offer comprehensive answers, but instead maps out the myriad of ways in which the private sector impacts upon freedom of expression in the digital age, the “regulatory ecosystem on the Internet”, and the legal and policy issues that deserve particular attention. Surprisingly, UN human rights bodies only began really grappling with the challenges of the Internet five years ago. In this period, there have been reports of the Special Rapporteur and his predecessor on encryption and anonymity tools, mass surveillance, and the Internet as well as a series of Human Rights Council and General Assembly resolutions on human rights on the Internet and the right to privacy in the digital age. Such texts have made the statement that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression” into a mantra. Against this backdrop, the current report is pioneering for several reasons.

II. Breaking new ground

First and foremost, the report is comprehensive in its mapping of the digital environment and related freedom of expression challenges. As the delegation of the Netherlands recognised, it is the “first full overview of all private actors in ICT whose actions impact freedom of expression and opinion”. The report disaggregates the “vast” and “overlapping” range of roles played by private sector actors in “organising, accessing, populating and regulating the Internet” and distinguishes certain pressing legal and policy issues, concerning content regulation, surveillance and digital security, transparency and remedies. In doing so, it identifies the array of private actors including telecommunications and Internet service providers, web hosting services, hardware firms, search engines and social media platforms, media companies, companies producing surveillance technologies and multi-stakeholder processes. It also, importantly, draws on examples from many countries around the world, including Sweden, Russia, Uruguay, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Tanzania, the UK and the US.   Read the rest of this entry…

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UN Human Rights Committee Finds that Ireland’s Abortion Ban Violates the ICCPR

Published on June 13, 2016        Author: 

Last week the UN Human Rights Committee delivered an important decision in Mellet v. Ireland, finding that, as applied to the claimant, the Irish ban on abortion violated several articles of the ICCPR. This was because the ban extended even to pregnancies, like the claimant’s, where the foetus was diagnosed with a fatal abnormality, so that it would either die in utero or shortly after delivery. The claimant was thus forced by Irish law to choose between carrying the baby to term, knowing that it would inevitably die in her womb or immediately after birth, or having to travel to the UK to get an abortion. The claimant chose the latter option, at great personal expense and with a lot of pain and indignity along the way, including having the ashes of her baby unexpectedly delivered to her by courier a few weeks after the abortion.

The Committee was unanimous on the bottom line of the case, which is that the abortion ban, as applied to the claimant, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of Article 7 of the Covenant, as well as a violation of her right to privacy under Article 17 of the Covenant. While the reasoning of the Committee is at times laconic (as is unfortunately the norm with its views), the basic idea behind the decision was essentially that even if the claimant’s rights were subject to an implicit or explicit balancing exercise, in light of the fact that her unborn child would inevitably die there was nothing to balance with the intrusions into her own interests. In other words, Irish law forced her to endure significant suffering for no real purpose, since the unborn child would die anyway.

The Committee’s views in this case are thus confined to its specific circumstances; it has not created a right to abortion on demand or asked Ireland to liberalize access to abortion fully, but to (at the very least) create an exception to its ban that would accommodate women in the claimant’s situation. The main problem here is that the Irish abortion ban stems from a constitutional provision, which was interpreted by the Irish Supreme Court as only allowing for an exception if there is real risk to the life, but not to the health, of the mother. Ireland can thus comply with the Committee’s recommendation only if the Supreme Court revisits the issue and carves out another exception, or if the Constitution itself is amended, which requires a popular referendum. In other words, this is one of those rare cases where domestic constitutional provisions as authoritatively interpreted by domestic courts are themselves violative of international human rights law; this does not change anything as a matter of international law, but clearly it creates specific political challenges for compliance (cf. the Sejdic and Finci judgment of the Strasbourg Court). See more on this point in this post by Fiona de Londras on the Human Rights in Ireland blog; this post by Mairead Enright has more analysis of the Committee’s decision.

Read the rest of this entry…

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Silencing the Canary: the lawfulness of the U.K. Investigatory Powers Bill’s secrecy provisions under the ECHR

Published on May 17, 2016        Author: 

Following the Snowden revelations in 2013 concerning the complicity of the tech industry in widespread electronic government surveillance in the U.S., tech companies have individually and collectively become increasingly active as advocates of privacy and free speech rights, culminating in legal challenges to government electronic surveillance.

Since the dropping by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) of its much publicised writ against Apple, which sought to compel Apple to hack the security key code system of the Apple iPhone 5, the battle between tech companies and the DOJ over privacy and encryption in the U.S. has taken another turn.  In April, Microsoft filed a suit in the District Court of Seattle against the DOJ challenging the ‘secrecy order’ provisions (a range of anti-tipping off and gagging powers) under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

With the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), which contains similar secrecy requirements, currently being debated before the U.K. Parliament, the U.S. case provides fair warning of possible human rights challenges tech companies may bring against the U.K. government. This post will consider the implications of the Bill’s secrecy provisions in light of the rights of tech companies under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The Microsoft – DOJ claim                                                 

In short, the ECPA allows a U.S. government agency to apply to the Court for a warrant requiring Microsoft, or any other internet company, to hand over their customers’ private data. In addition, an order can be made by the court preventing the company from publicising the fact that they have been required to disclose the data. Read the rest of this entry…

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Thou shalt not Insult the (Foreign) Head of State?

Published on April 28, 2016        Author: 

Earlier this month, a German prosecutor’s office confirmed that it was investigating TV comedian, Jan Böhmermann, for having read on his TV show, Neo Magazin Royal, a poem targeting the Turkish President Erdogan (see here or here). The poem, entitled “Schmähkritik” (“Defamatory”), accused Mr Erdogan of deliberately suppressing minorities such as Kurds and Christians. As the comedian himself admitted, the language used was deliberately offensive- it contained sexually explicit insults against the Turkish president (and was read in front of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mr. Erdogan).

The Böhmermann Case

The TV show stirred fierce criticism from the Turkish capital of Ankara. The Turkish Embassy in Berlin lodged a formal request with the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the prosecution of Mr Böhmermann. The prosecution could take place under Article 103 of the German Criminal Code entitled “Defamation of organs and representatives of foreign states”. This provision reads as follows:

 (1) Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.

Pursuant to Article 104a of the German Criminal Code, prosecution of this offence would require the following conditions to be met: the Federal Republic of Germany maintains diplomatic relations with the other state; reciprocity is guaranteed and was guaranteed at the time of the offence; a request to prosecute by the foreign government exists; and the Federal Government authorises the prosecution.

The first three conditions are clearly present in the Böhmermann case – Germany maintains diplomatic relations with Turkey; the combination of Article 125 (Insult) and Article 340 (Offences against the Head of a Foreign State) of the Penal Code of Turkey would allow for the criminal prosecution of persons who insult the German head of state in Turkey; and Turkey has requested the prosecution.

Originally, securing authorisation for the prosecution from the German Federal Government was less than certain. In some previous cases involving the alleged insult of Mr. Erdogan (the NDR Case), authorisation had been denied. In the current case however, the Government, after some initial hesitation, decided to grant it. Thus, the case will go forward alongside a civil lawsuit for defamation filed by Mr. Erdogan himself.

While interesting in itself, the case gives rise to a more general question relating to the level of protection provided to heads of state under current international law. Should heads of state, as is the situation with other public officials, be expected to withstand even harsh political criticism, thus being effectively subject to a lower level of protection than common citizens? Or on the contrary, should heads of state be granted a higher level of protection in so far as they represent the state and could therefore be considered one of its symbols? Read the rest of this entry…

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The Naked Rambler in the European Court

Published on October 30, 2014        Author: 

Readers may recall that a couple of years ago I wrote about the story of Stephen Gough, aka the Naked Rambler, a man who has been repeatedly incarcerated in British prisons since 2006 for his refusal to wear any clothing in public. Indeed, he has spent most of that time in solitary confinement, since he could not join the rest of the prison population while refusing to wear clothes. Gough’s behaviour is due to a strongly and sincerely held belief that there is nothing shameful about the naked human body. And while Gough certainly has been obstinate (and has for some unfathomable reason sacrificed his family and other relationships for the sake of this cause), he is not crazy – indeed, his psychiatric evaluations have been stellar.

This case is so interesting precisely because it juxtaposes the expressive interests of a single individual against the preferences of the vast majority of ordinary people, who disapprove of public nudity, and because of the way that the machinery of the state is used to enforce a societal nudity taboo. Indeed, Gough’s case now rambled all the way to Strasbourg. This week, a unanimous Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights rejected Gough’s claims that his freedom of expression and right to private life were violated by his convictions in the UK (app. no. 49327/11).

Read the rest of this entry…

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