MRA, SERAP Nominated for 2024 Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prizes

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Hawley Johnson, Associate Director, Global Freedom of Expression, Columbia University

Media Rights Agenda (MRA) and the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) have been nominated for the 2024 edition of the prestigious Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prizes, according to Global Freedom of Expression, an initiative of Columbia University in New York in the United States.

The two organizations were nominated for their 2021 litigation, along with others, at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice against the Federal Government resulting in a judgment by the court on July 14, 2022 in which it ruled that the indefinite suspension of access to Twitter in Nigeria by Federal Government in June 2021 was unlawful and violated the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Both organizations were informed of their nomination in the category of “Excellence in Legal Services” in a congratulatory message sent to them on December 6, 2023, by the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, which explained that the category aims “to recognize a legal brief, legal amicus brief or legal defense presented anywhere in the world that has advanced or strengthened a global understanding and international norms of Freedom of Expression and Information.”

Following the Federal Government’s indefinite suspension of Twitter on June 4, 2021, Abuja-based freedom of expression lawyer, Mrs. Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga, filed a suit at the ECOWAS Court, on behalf of MRA and four other non-governmental organizations, namely: Paradigm Initiative (PIN), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) now known as the Centre for Innovation and Journalism Development (CJID), the International Press Centre (IPC), and Tap Initiative for Citizens Development (TICD) as well as four journalists, Mr. David Hundeyin, Mr. Samuel Ogundipe, Ms Blessing Oladunjoye, and Mr. Nwakamri Zakari Apollo, challenging the suspension.

Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), had also filed a similar suit on behalf of SERAP and 176 Nigerians against the Federal Government, also challenging the suspension.

In its judgment on the suits, which were consolidated by the Court, it held that the indefinite suspension of access to Twitter in Nigeria was unlawful and violated the provisions of the African Charter and the ICCPR. Specifically, the Court ruled that the suspension of Twitter was in contravention of Article 9 of the African Charter and Article 19 of the ICCPR, and ordered the Government to take necessary steps to align its policies and other measures to give effect to the rights and freedoms enshrined in both instruments.

The Court further directed the Government to undertake legislative or other measures on its rules regarding Twitter to enable the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under the African Charter and asked the Government to guarantee a non-repetition of the unlawful ban of Twitter. In particular, the Court ordered Nigeria to ensure that the unlawful suspension of Twitter would not reoccur and to take necessary steps to amend its laws to conform with the rights and freedoms enshrined in the ACHPR and ICCPR.

The Global Freedom of Expression, housed at the Office of the President of Columbia University, was founded in 2014. It brings international experts and activists together with the University’s community to provide quick, easy, and reliable access to the best national and international standards to protect freedom of expression as well as to highlight legal developments in international and national courts on the most sensitive issues for the defense of freedom of expression.

The Global Freedom of Expression Prizes were established by the University a year later, in 2015, to recognize legal decisions and legal services worldwide that strengthen freedom of expression by promoting international legal norms for the protection of human rights.

According to the University, “The first of their kind, these prizes are unique for recognizing the remarkable achievements of those who protect and strengthen freedom of expression worldwide but also serve to inspire and promote the essential work they undertake.”

The prizes are awarded every two years and anyone from around the world can nominate “court decisions or legal services that have had a recognizable impact on freedom of expression and information” and the nominations are judged by an independent panel of experts in law, advocacy, journalism, and human rights.

Prizes for the 2024 awards will be given in two categories, namely “Significant Legal Ruling” and “Excellence in Legal Services”.

The Significant Legal Ruling category will recognize a judgment or decision rendered anywhere in the world that has advanced or strengthened a global understanding and international standards of Freedom of Expression and Information with priority given to recent decisions, most notably those rendered in 2022 and 2023, although decisions from any year may be nominated.

The Excellence in Legal Services category will recognize a legal brief, legal amicus brief or legal defense presented anywhere in the world that has advanced or strengthened a global understanding and international norms of Freedom of Expression and Information and, as in the Significant Legal Ruling category, although legal services from any year may be nominated, priority will also be given to recent legal services, most notably those rendered in 2022 and 2023.

The considerations for selecting winners are that the decision or legal service being awarded must:

• Demonstrate sound legal reasoning and have advanced the legal understanding of the issues under consideration.

• Make a significant contribution to the protection of freedom of expression or information.

• Demonstrate a global understanding of freedom of expression and information, which could be demonstrated by listing laws, standards, policies, or decisions regarding freedom of expression that have been referenced in the brief, amicus, or publication while the listed references may be international, regional, and/or originating from other jurisdictions.

In addition, all nominees in the Legal Service Category are required to have established a reputation for integrity and a commitment to human rights, rule of law, and legal excellence.

The winners will be announced in April 2024.