Freedom of Expression in the News: Weekly round-up 25 February – 2 March 2012

USA: Tobacco health labels violate free speech, judge rules

A U.S. federal court judge has ruled that regulations requiring large graphic health warnings on cigarette packaging and advertising violate free-speech rights under the U.S. Constitution. Cigarette companies successfully challenged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s rule requiring them to label cigarette products with images of rotting teeth, diseased lungs and other images that illustrate the dangers of smoking.  The government argued that the public interest in conveying the dangers of smoking outweighed the companies’ free speech rights.  The government is appealing the ruling. 

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Iran turns the screws on dissidents ahead of elections, report finds

Amnesty International published a report this week accusing Iran of using increasingly repressive measures to shut down dissent since February 2011, including arrests targeting lawyers, students, journalists, activists and their relatives. The report stated that the situation has worsened in the run-up to the March 2 parliamentary elections.  Electronic and social media have been increasingly targeted. 

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Ecuador President Correa pardons paper in libel case

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has pardoned the three owners and a journalist at El Universo newspaper, who each faced 3-year jail terms and $40m (£25m) total in damages for libelling him. President Correa brought the libel lawsuit against them after an article published in El Universo criticizing the decision to deploy an army squad to rescue him from a violent protest by striking police officers in September 2010.  Human rights groups had denounced the libel case and the severity of the sentences imposed on El Universo.  President Correa defended his battle against Ecuador’s private media, stating that it was a fight for justice against the “dictatorship of the media.”

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 Chinese ‘netizens’ inundate Obama’s Google+ page

U.S. President Obama’s page on Google’s social network site “Google+” has been inundated with messages by Chinese Internet users this week after restrictions on the page were lifted.  Google+ is normally blocked in China along with other social media that the authorities deem unacceptable. 

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South Africa: Free media a requisite to development

At the 7th regional (southern Africa) meeting of the African Caribbean and Pacific-European Union (ACP-EU) Joint Parliamentary Assembly from 22-24 February 2012, member states affirmed the link between media freedom and development. The final communique reads: “Members recognised that the media are shaping public opinion, mediating the debate between the state and civil society, but also acting as a watchdog over public processes, against private gain. Free media are a prerequisite to development in the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance.”

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Pakistan: Firdous brushes aside media curb speculations

In the face of recent criticism that her party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is implementing new policies to curb media freedom, Federal Information and Broadcasting Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan issued a statement on Saturday (February 25) reassuring the public, “The government does not intend to curb media freedom as democracy and media independence go hand in hand.” The Minister stated that proposed changes to media rules by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) had all been created in consultation with stakeholders and were aimed at facilitating and not muzzling the media.

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Taiwan: Activist accuses MOI of censuring

Taiwan’s Ministry of the Interior has sent a letter to the Taiwan Association for Justice of Urban Renewal (TAJUR) asking it to stop distributing information on its website under the name “Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal,” and threatening to disband the group if it continues to do so.  The letter stated that not using the organization’s officially registered name online violated the Civic Group Act.  Peng Lung-san, founder and chairman of TAJUR, expressed that this was a breach of his organization’s right to freedom of expression on the Internet.  Mr Peng said he had attempted to register his organisation as Taiwan Alliance for Victims of Urban Renewal two years ago but his application was turned down.  The Ministry’s Department of Social Affairs said the letter was sent because of complaints received from the public.

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Australia: Palm Island rioter’s media ban lawful

The High Court ruled unanimously on February 29 that parole conditions prohibiting a parolee from communicating with the media and attending public meetings on Palm Island were constitutional. 

Lex Wotton, jailed in 2008 for his role in riots after the death of a man in police custody in 2004, was released on parole in July 2010 under a media ban.  In his appeal of the parole conditions, supported by the Human Rights Law Centre, his legal team argued that the ban unlawfully violated his implied constitutional right to free speech.  But the High Court dismissed the appeal, saying the terms of Queensland’s Corrective Services Act, which authorised the parole conditions, were “reasonably appropriate” and “adapted to serve a legitimate end.”

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USA: Free-Speech Argument in Appeal of Disbarred Lawyer’s Sentence

Lynne F. Stewart, a disbarred lawyer from New York State known for defending unpopular clients and causes, was convicted in 2005 of five counts of providing material aid to terrorism and of lying to the government. A jury found that she had broken the rules to help a client communicate with an Egyptian organisation with a history of terrorist violence. The length of her 10-year sentence was determined in part on the basis of public statements she had made which federal prosecutors argued demonstrated a lack of remorse.  In appealing her 10-year sentence before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on February 29, her lawyer argued that taking into account the out-of-court statements in sentencing put the principle of freedom of expression “to a very great test.”

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