Global Freedom of Expression
Global Freedom of Expression

In Conversation with Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov, Global Freedom of Expression & Information

Anuj Agrawal

Earlier this year, Columbia University launched an online database of court rulings on freedom of expression. Covering judicial decisions emanating from 65 countries, the database is curated by the Global Freedom of Expression and Information project.

In an e-mail interview with Bar & Bench’s Anuj Agrawal, the project’s Program Officer Bach Avezdjanov talks about FoE trends, the global FoE report published in March this year, and much more.

Anuj Agrawal: It has been over a year since the Global Freedom of Expression was launched. Can you share some of the significant learnings made so far?

Bach Avezdjanov
Bach Avezdjanov

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov: There is so much to share and most of it could be found in the Global Trends in Freedom of Expression Jurisprudence Report, which is available on our website. We produce the report annually. The 2014 report was published in March of this year, and we are beginning work on the 2015 report.

The 2014 analysis was based on 150 cases from all over the world and identified that courts are reducing the scope and extent of freedom of expression by interpreting domestic, regional, and international standards more strictly. National security has been and still remains one of the biggest causes of judicial encroachment on freedom of expression.

We have identified a growing use of military or special tribunals to handle free speech cases, which has led to severe punishments, even the death penalty, for participating in protests. Egypt and Saudi Arabia exemplify this trend.

I want to note that Columbia Global Freedom of Expression is not involved only in legal analysis. We also produce other research and host events to better understand, protect and celebrate freedom of expression. Actually, we have just opened the nominations process for the Second Annual Global Freedom of Expression Prizes. There are two prizes: one is for a significant legal ruling and another for excellence in legal service. If you know anyone who you think should receive the prize, please nominate them!

Anuj Agrawal: Could you tell us a bit about the organisational structure of the project? How was the team of staff and researchers built? Who takes a call on whether a decision requires analysis or not?

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression has three full time staff, over a dozen researchers, and close to 60 experts who contribute to the initiative in various capacities. We held a recruitment drive to find our researchers. We also receive unsolicited CVs and hire some researchers on the basis of language need.  The researchers are practicing lawyers or law students, and speak at least two languages.

As for adding cases to the Global Freedom of Expression Legal Database, we follow the following process:

  1. Case Monitoring: several of our researchers, staff and experts continuously monitor freedom of expression jurisprudence.  The legal database seeks to be a crowd-sourced project, so we also welcome unsolicited case research suggestions. Our hope is to have at least five cases from each country in the world.
  2. Case assignment: once a case is identified by our monitors, it is then assigned to one of our international researchers. Researchers are assigned cases on the basis of their language knowledge and areas of legal expertise.
  3. Case research: researchers look for information on the facts of the case, applicable laws, the court’s reasoning, and anything else that could be helpful in the analysis of the case.
  4. Case analysis: after collecting all the relevant information on the case, researchers then determine its effect on freedom of expression: whether the case expands, contracts, or has a mixed effect on freedom of expression.
  5. Editorial and quality control: once researchers complete their work, the case is submitted to an editor who ensures that the case satisfies our specific stylistic requirements for content and format.
  6. Case publication: if the editor finds the case research to be satisfactory, the case is then published. If it is not satisfactory, the case is sent back to the researcher, who must address whatever gaps the editor highlighted.

Anuj Agrawal: Your team of researchers is truly global in nature. Are you looking for more people to contribute?

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov: Thank you for noticing our global team of researchers! They represent ten countries and all speak at least two languages. The Global Freedom of Expression Legal Database seeks to be a crowd-sourced project, so its growth is dependent on continuous contributions from people from all corners of the world.

Contributions can be in the form of suggestions on case research, blog pieces, or simply comments on our work. If you have an interest in freedom of expression, please contribute!

We also receive CVs from individuals interested in doing research, and if they fit our needs, we get them involved right away. So, do not be shy! Email us or follow us on twitter!

Anuj Agrawal: This may seem too broad a question but do you see an increasing tolerance when it comes to media freedom? 

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov: Unfortunately, our research is showing that States are curtailing the powers and freedom of journalists, often citing national security and fear of extremism as the reasons for the curtailment. For example, an independent newspaper in Kazakhstan was shut-down because of an article on the war in Eastern Ukraine, which the Kazakh government determined to have been propaganda of war.

In another case, from Angola, a court ruled that journalist Rafael Marques de Morais committed criminal libel against Angolan Generals, despite an out-of-court settlement between the General and the journalist. One can easily imagine the chilling effects of such a decision on journalists reporting on human rights violations in Angola.

Thankfully, there are some positive court decisions this year. In September, a court in Thailand dismissed charges of defamation brought by the Thai Navy against two journalists who wrote an article in which they alleged the Thai Navy’s involvement in human trafficking. The court’s judgment was based on two factors. First, the journalists’ report was based on reliable information gathered by the Reuters News Agency. Second, the report had no detrimental effect on national security or public peace.

Anuj Agrawal: Last question, what drew you to this project? 

Bakhtiyor Avezdjanov: I was born in Uzbekistan, and freedom of expression or human rights are not widely enjoyed there. But, when I lived there, I cared little about that. I had my games, books, and friends and was content. One day, I think I was in 3rd or 4th grade, in an environmental studies class, I, in a very childish manner, said that the Uzbek government is stupid because it does not care about the environment.

I said that and forgot about it until I got home where my father scolded me. He told me that my teacher called him, and complained that I criticized the government, and that my statement might get our family arrested.

There was probably no real risk of anything happening to me or my family, but my teacher and my father were afraid of the government, so much that a silly statement of a child generated a reaction. Now, it’s not as if my classroom statement was some great revelation, but how could a nation develop if its young minds are told not to be critical of the status quo?

My childish rendezvous with censorship has not directly led me to become a freedom of expression activist, but I did pursue a career in human rights and humanitarian work, and more often than not, freedom of expression was central to all I did.

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