Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
Closed Contracts Expression
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On June 28, 2019, the Kirov Regional Court of Yekaterinburg City shut down administrative proceedings to add a satirical newspaper article to Russia’s unified registry of prohibited content. In 2017, the newspaper “Oblastnaya Gazeta” published a satirical article about bribery. The Russian authorities ordered the newspaper to take down the article for allegedly disseminating unlawful content. The newspaper complied. The authorities then sought to add the article to the country’s registry of prohibited content. The first instance court granted the order despite the humorous nature of the article and absence of the newspaper’s representatives at trial. On appeal, the newspaper proved that its procedural rights were violated and the case was sent to retrial. During the retrial, the court ruled that since the newspaper took down the article there was no issue to litigate over, and shut down the proceedings.
In 2017, “Oblastnaya Gazeta,” a newspaper in Saratov region, South-Eastern Russia, published a satirical article titled “How to give bribes and not get caught” on its website. The article included jokes such as:
“It’s unfortunate! Very unfortunate that I cannot help you! Although I can! But I cannot. Or Can I? What do you think?; You have a hell of an interesting case! My hands itch, that’s how much I can help you. Especially my right hand. What do you think this means?; I wanted to have a car with a license plate 1,000,000. But I got one with 100. But I want 1,000,000. Do you have it?”
In October 2017, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s information regulatory body, ordered the newspaper to take down the article because it contained information about unlawful activities. The newspaper complied.
Following this, the Prosecutor of Khvalynsk City sought a court order add the article and its hyperlink to the country’s unified registry of prohibited content. Doing so would ensure that all re-posts and mirrors of the articles would be subject to blocking. Olga Voronova, a lawyer from the Mass Media Defense Center who represented the newspaper, commented that “The article satirizes a common topic, but the authorities lost their sense of humor. The lawsuit is absurd. Linguist experts confirmed that the article does not include calls or advocacy for unlawful activities.” However, on December 8, 2017, the Volsk Regional Court of Kvalynsk satisfied the Prosecutor’s request. The trial was held in the absence of the newspaper’s representatives, who were not notified of the proceedings. The court accepted the expert assessment that the article contained instructions on how to give bribes. The court completely ignored the satirical nature of the publication. The court then recalled that bribery was a criminal offense in Russia, and thus the article contained information about unlawful activities. Further, the court noted that article 17 the Convention on the Rights of the Child and article 4 of Russia’s Constitution obliged the State to limit children’s access to harmful content. The article targeted a general audience, which included children. Accordingly, it spread information that was harmful to children in violation of Russia’s international and constitutional obligations. These facts were enough to meet the criteria established in article 10 of Russia’s Federal Law of Information to add the article in question to Russia’s unified registry of prohibited content.
“Oblastnaya Gazeta” appealed the Volsk Regional Court’s ruling on the ground that its procedural rights had been violated. The newspaper alleged that it was not notified of the first instance trial and could not defend its interests. On April 29, 2019, the appellate court ruled for the newspaper. It explained that a court order prohibiting online content touched on the rights and interests of website owners. Further, courts adjudicating such issues must respect the rights and freedoms of citizens and individuals. Procedural rights and principles, including equality before the law, must be respected. Russia’s Code on Civil Procedure requires parties to the case to be notified. Here, the authorities knew the identity of the owners of “Oblastnaya Gazeta” but failed to notify them, violating Russia’s Code on Civil Procedure. Accordingly, the appellate court struck down the first instance judgment and ordered a re-trial.
The Kirov Regional Court of Yekaterinburg City held the retrial on June 28, 2019. Representatives of Roskomnadzor and the Prosecutor of Khvalynsk City did not attend the trial. However, representatives of “Oblastnaya Gazeta” were present.
According to the complaint submitted by the prosecutor’s office, the publicly accessible article titled “How to give bribes and not get caught” instructed individuals on how to give and receive bribes, but failed to mention anywhere that bribery was unlawful, and thus incited the public to commit unlawful acts.
“Oblastnaya Gazeta” argued that the article was satirical and ridiculed bribery, and thus did not contain unlawful speech. The newspaper noted that the article had been taken down in 2017. Further, the newspaper requested the court to assess the legality of the article’s content to allow its re-dissemination.
The court ruled that since the article was already taken down, the legal conflict no longer existed. The court implied that the take down was voluntary since the page where the article should have been produced a 404 Error and did not include any language that the take down was per a court order. Lastly, the court dismissed the newspaper’s request to assess the legality of the article’s contents, since the article was no longer accessible. Accordingly, the court closed the administrative proceedings.
The court shut down.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
Although the Kirov Regional Court of Yekaterinburg City closed the proceedings, the case still contracted expression, as the court failed to address the government’s unlawful restrictions to freedom of expression. Roskomnadzor forced “Oblastnaya Gazeta” to take down a satirical article and the newspaper was never given an opportunity to present its argument that the article did not contain unlawful information. The article was never re-published and thus the newspaper’s freedom of expression remains violated.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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