Oct 212010

Two news items:

First, Reuters reports that the European Court of Human Rights fined Russia over $40,000 for banning gay parades.

The judgment is a limited victory for the humanitarian organizations supporting gay rights because the Court has no jurisdiction to force Russia to allow the parades to commence.   The Court may hear cases and fine a country held in violation of international law.  Therefore, Moscow will suffer the small fine and international criticism, but there is no guarantee that the Court’s judgment will result in Change in Moscow’s practices.

Second, you might be interested in the added tension as the UN Security Council meets to discuss Iran’s nuclear program next month because Iran has announced the trial of the three American hikers in Iranian custody for alleged “espionage and illegal entry” into Iranian territory. [All three will be tried even though one was previously released on bail.]  The trial is set to begin on November 6.  The New York Times covers the story.

Apr 262010

Several weeks ago, I began examining the international community’s responsibility to respect free expression under international law.  I examined guarantees provided by the United Nations, but a nation’s responsibilities extend beyond UN charters and conventions.

Obviously, free expression is guaranteed under domestic constitutions ranging from the United States and United Kingdom to former Soviet controlled nations such as the Republic of Uzbekistan (for example, see the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, part three, chapter fifteen).

Further, many European countries, including Russia, are signatories to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The charter protects free speech, and signatories have agreed to adjudicate such human rights violations before the Court.

The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guarantees the freedom of expression. Article 10 (1) states, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

However, for an issue to reach the ECHR, it must first be exhausted in the host nation’s legal system.  Further, if a nation is found to violate the Convention, the penalty is generally a fine, which often is not substantial enough to deter future violations.

Thus, while the ECHR theoretically protects free expression, in reality, it offers little protection in countries where the government systematically tramples their citizen’s fundamental rights.  This is especially a problem in countries like Russia where the government targets diverse opinions and the media.

The next entry in this series will focus on Russia, examining the country’s domestic and international responsibility to protect free expression as well as how they have failed to live up to the standard.

Mar 192010

With British Parliamentary elections looming, the UK has gone full force towards addressing defamation “success fee” reform.

England’s stringent libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, making British courts a desirable venue for defamation plaintiffs. Currently, solicitors may recover up to 100% of a client’s earnings in a successful “no win no fee” defamation case. Critics of the current rules say the burden and fee rules chill free speech by journalists and media outlets.  Reformed rules offered by UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw will cut attorney fees to 10%.   According to the Telegraph:

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said this has meant that legal bills had spiraled out of control”, deterring journalists and writers from publishing articles which are in the public interest, or forcing them to settle rather than defend defamation actions.

Both houses of Parliament must approve the rules.

There is opposition in Parliament, including a procedural threat by Lord Michael Martin.  [Here the Telegraph explains Lord Martin’s personal experience with Britain’s defamation law.]

Further, many legal groups oppose the reforms and are preparing legal challenges.  They claim that current defamation laws do not infringe free speech but allow claimants to bring cases when they would ordinarily not have the resources to do so.  They argue that the push to reform was instigated by politicians attempting to gain favor with the media.

England’s strict defamation laws place an undue on journalists, but can meaningful defamation reform happen in midst of the UK’s political system? The timing seems opportunistic. Stay tuned…

Also, Catherine Baksi provides an interesting take on the reform process in the Law Society Gazette blog.