UNESCO & Columbia University collaborate on case law on freedom of expression in context of COVID-19

The global pandemic has required restrictions on certain freedoms to save lives, but some governments have used it as an excuse to enact repressive measures in the name of national security and public health. Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, in partnership with UNESCO, has been tracking how courts around the globe have responded to these measures. We were relieved to find that the news is not all bad and many Courts have pushed back against executive overreach, balanced competing rights, and upheld international standards to protect freedom of expression, access to information and privacy during the crisis.

Hawley Johnson, Associate Director of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression

The 15 legal rulings in this collection represent court decisions that protected, and in some cases, expanded freedom of expression while preserving public welfare during emergency health measures. Seminal court judgements among these have been translated into French and Spanish, covering themes ranging from public broadcasting, arbitrary arrests, disinformation and misinformation, and other restrictions related to the pandemic.

In the face of a trend of increasing risks to fundamental rights observed during the pandemic, it is essential to provide for judicial actors, such as judges, prosecutors and lawyers, from all over the world examples of jurisprudence that upholds the fundamental right of freedom of expression.

Guilherme Canela, Chief of Section, Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists, UNESCO

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, UNESCO has issued guidelines for judges and courts to serve as references to apply theoretical frameworks of international standards to protect freedom of expression. The production of the guidelines followed a webinar series (available in English, French and Spanish) on legal challenges to freedom of expression in relation with the COVID-19 pandemic, organized in June 2020.

Moreover, case analyses of 24 landmark rulings on freedom of expression issues from around the world have been translated from the English database into French, and published on the newly launched French webpage of the database. These court decisions pertain to the themes of freedom of expression, access to information and safety of journalists, intersecting with related issues such as digital rights, content regulation, censorship, hate speech, data protection and privacy.

Columbia Global Freedom of Expression is a centralized online database of case law and international and regional standards providing a global perspective on jurisprudence related to freedom of expression. It was created with the mission to survey, document, and strengthen free expression, and engages a global network of legal experts and scholars to analyse national, regional and international court cases.

This collaboration on online case law related to COVID-19 received support from the Open Society Foundations.

UNESCO is the specialized UN agency with a mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollaries, press freedom and access to information. This partnership with Columbia Global Freedom of Expression enters the framework of UNESCO’s Judges initiative, which aims to reinforce the knowledge and expertise of judicial actors on issues related to freedom of expression.

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