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Columbia to Award First Annual Global Freedom of Expression Prizes at International Conference

Columbia University’s inaugural Global Freedom of Expression Prizes will go to the Constitutional Court of Turkey, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe and the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). The awards, established earlier this year by University President Lee C. Bollinger, recognize judicial decisions and legal representation around the world that strengthen freedom of expression by promoting international legal norms. President Bollinger presented the awards on Wednesday, March 11, at Columbia’s Low Memorial Library.  The awards ceremony was the concluding event at Columbia’s second annual Global Freedom of Expression and Information conference, “Justice for Free Expression in 2014.”  The March 10-11 conference featured presentations from leading scholars, lawyers and other experts from around the world.

MLDI garnered its award in the category of “Excellence in Legal Services,” which honors lawyers, academics, or NGOs for a legal brief, amicus brief or an academic article that contributes to the defense of freedom of expression. Decisions of the Constitutional Court of Turkey and the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe were recognized in the “Significant Legal Ruling” category. Both award categories seek to recognize legal reasoning drawing from international and regional standards, and all three award winners met this primary criterion.

Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). The brief of MLDI led to a decision by the African Court of Human and People’s Rights that directs the nation of Burkina Faso to reform the criminal defamation laws under which Lohe Issa Konate, editor of the newspaper L’Ouragan (The Hurricane), was imprisoned for a year after he published a story accusing a prosecutor of corruption. MLDI’s brief advocated for the African Court to build upon freedom of expression law and principles established by the European and Inter-American human rights courts. The African Court’s judgment provided an authoritative interpretation of the African Charter ratified by 36 countries and will have a large impact on the right to freedom of expression throughout the continent.

Constitutional Court of Turkey. Protected online freedom of expression by striking down legislative amendments to an Internet law that were enacted in February 2014. The amendments would have permitted Turkey’s Telecommunications Authority to block websites and conduct surveillance of online activity without first obtaining a court order. Separately, the Constitutional Court overturned a ban on Twitter and YouTube. The Turkish Constitutional Court’s opinions in these three cases quoted extensively from the judgments of the European Court for Human Rights.

Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe. Overturned on constitutional grounds the criminal defamation convictions of two journalists at the newspaper, The Standard, who had been found guilty of defaming Munyaradzi Kereke, a member of the ruling political party and senior advisor to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. In this decision expertly applying global standards and international judgments supporting the right of free expression, the Constitutional Court ruled that criminal defamation is unconstitutional, thereby significantly mitigating the chilling effect of Zimbabwe’s criminal laws on free speech.

President Bollinger will present the awards on Wednesday, March 11, at Columbia’s Low Memorial Library. The awards ceremony will be the concluding event at the second annual Global Freedom of Expression and Information conference, “Justice for Free Expression in 2014.” The March 10-11 conference will feature presentations from leading scholars, lawyers and other experts from around the world.

Conference participants will discuss trends over the past 12 months in jurisprudence and litigation regarding freedom of expression in the Middle East, Africa (with special focus on North Africa), Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas. The conference also will identify cases to watch in the coming year. The conference’s closing session will focus on the debate over the “right to be forgotten,” now in force in the European Union and several nations.

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