University Awards First-Ever Global Freedom of Expression Prizes

Georgette Jasen
March 24, 2015

Columbia awarded its first Global Freedom of Expression Prizes to courts in Turkey and Zimbabwe and to a U.K.-based legal services organization in recognition of their contributions to free speech and a free press. The awards are part of a new University initiative to encourage the adoption of international norms for the free flow of information.

“Censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere,” said President Lee C. Bollinger in opening remarks at the conference, noting that the right to freedom of expression is under siege in many parts of the world. “It is important that a university like Columbia, which has a great international tradition in a great global city, dedicate itself to working on these issues.”

The awards came at the end of a two-day conference at Columbia on March 10-11 that attracted free speech activists, scholars and lawyers from more than 20 countries. The conference and the awards are part of the global free expression initiative that Bollinger established in 2014.

“We have to understand the tremendous issues that we know exist all over the world: the environment, climate change, global governance, financial regulation, infectious disease and more,” Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, said at the awards ceremony in Low Library. “Openness, information, the ability to talk freely about these issues is absolutely imperative.”

The Constitutional Court of Turkey was recognized for three judgments in 2014 that lifted bans on Twitter and YouTube; invalidated a law that restricted access to the Internet; and limited the authority under which the government could restrict access to social media. The Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe was cited for its 2014 decision striking down a law that made defamation a crime punishable by two years in prison.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, which represents independent media, journalists and bloggers around the world, was recognized for its role in a Burkina Faso case before the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights that ended with a judgment that no journalist should be imprisoned for defamation. The ruling is expected to have a big impact on the right to freedom of expression across Africa.

Related Links
Columbia's Lee Bollinger on Free Speech, WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, June 4
Columbia University’s inaugural Global Freedom of Expression Prizes, Columbia News, March 11

Focusing on the role of judicial systems is just one way to address issues involving freedom of expression worldwide, said Agnès Callamard, an internationally known human rights advocate who was appointed by Bollinger last year to direct Columbia’s Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression and Information project.

“There is a fairly established body of knowledge,” said Callamard, noting “soft norms” for freedom of expression in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. “How it is embodied in different countries and courts is a challenge. We have to understand freedom of information from a global standpoint.”

In addition to the awards and the conference, which will be annual events, the project is developing a website that will analyze more than 140 court decisions in 2014 and update that list every year.

At the conference, titled Justice for Free Expression in 2014, panel discussions about legal developments related to free expression in Europe, Asia, Africa and the U.S. Technology and the Internet were discussed as a way to disseminate information but also as a factor in government surveillance.

“We can learn from each other, that’s why we are all here,” said Dirk Voorhoof, a professor of media law, copyright law and journalism ethics at Ghent University in Belgium, who participated in a panel on the role of regional courts.

In the News
Americans only figured out free speech 50 years ago. Here’s how the world can follow our lead.The Washington Post, February 12

Among Columbia faculty members who attended, Kent Greenawalt, University Professor at the Law School, led the discussion of court developments in the U.S. Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at the Journalism School, chaired a panel on “the right to be forgotten,” which focused on a European Court of Justice ruling that allows individuals to request information about them be removed from the Internet. Mamadou Diouf, director of Columbia’s Institute for African Studies, chaired the panel on jurisprudence in Africa.

“In Uganda you would need police permission to have a meeting like this,” said Catherine Anite, chief legal officer at the Human Rights Network for Journalists in Uganda, who showed a short video of journalists arrested and beaten while doing their job. “But we are hopeful, the judiciary is becoming more open-minded.”