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International Human Rights Advocates project Freedom of Expression

March 08, 2013

Project Leader: Stephanie Shyu

Penn Law International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA) is a Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) student pro bono project. IHRA volunteers working on the Freedom of Expression project this year collaborated with the London-based organization, Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), on a number of research initiatives. MLDI’s mission is to defend the rights of journalists and media outlets around the world to promote media freedom. The organization provides legal aid to detained journalists and independent media by paying legal fees or connecting journalists with attorneys in regions where the threat of legal action against outspoken criticism is high and access to affordable, high-quality legal defense is unavailable.  MLDI also works proactively with human rights lawyers, donors, foundations and advisors to expand freedom of expression from a policy and regulatory perspective, such as contesting publishing bans.

Research questions taken on by the organization include not only media-specific issues, such as defamation, the registration and licensing of media outlets, and legal liability of internet platforms and search providers, but also broader human rights issues that inevitably affect free speech, such as the availability of local remedies, existing judgments and standards set by national and international human rights courts, and soft law standards set by the UN and UNESCO.  Our role as Penn Law volunteers was to research and write memos to facilitate MLDI’s objectives.

This school year, we looked into two issues and drafted reports discussing our findings.  The first group researched and briefed cases brought before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights between 1988 and 2012 of violations of the African Charter. We were then tasked with analyzing which of these claims constituted a “serious or massive violation of human rights” under Article 58 of the Charter that warranted a referral to the African Court and identifying any substantive facts and trends that would give rise to such a referral.  Many of these cases inevitably dealt with plaintiffs who were tortured, imprisoned, deported, killed or otherwise silenced for voicing or publishing their political opinions.

The second group also looked into the caselaw of the African Commission and African Court but examined claims of human rights violations that were under the guise of counter-terrorism measures.  The relevant Charter article was Article 27(2), which allows restrictions on speech for purposes of national security and public safety.  For context, this group compared the body of law under the Commission and the Court to that of the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations.

For the rest of the semester, we are looking to take on an additional research topic for MLDI, preferably one that examines specific censorship legislation or recent reforms to media law.

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