It was only the second time that the New York based Columbia University gave out the award. Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger established it in 2014 to honour support the fostering of freedom of expression and legal norms that contribute to this. The prize is given to outstanding judicial decisions which contributed to the strengthening of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
In the category “Significant Legal Ruling”, this year’s award was given to the Supreme Court of Norway for the ruling in the case of Norwegian filmmaker Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen and the Association of Norwegian Editors against the Norwegian Prosecution Authority.
Subject of the case was video material that Rolfsen had produced for a documentation on the recruitment of foreign citizens by members of the Islamic State (IS). As his footage included an anonymous interview with a Norwegian citizen who was under police surveillance and suspected to be an Islamist, Rolfen’s video material was seized with permission of the Oslo District Court in June 2015. Usually, Section 125 of the Criminal Code grants the right to protect sources, but the case at hand was seen as an exception for the sake of the national security.
Five months later, the Supreme Court of Norway changed the decision to the benefit of Rolfsen: The content of his video material did not justify a seizure, as it was not of “vital significance” to the investigation against the Norwegian terror suspect portrayed in the film. Furthermore, the court ruling referred to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which secures the freedom of expression), stating that the filmmaker’s duty to protect his sources – which is vital for investigative journalism – should in this case not be neglected in the interest of public prevention of serious crimes.
A decision for investigative journalism
Dirk Voorhoof, member of the ECPMF Executive Board and professor for media law at Copenhagen University, held the awarding speech that honoured this ruling as outstanding judicial decision in support of freedom of expression and freedom of the press:
In contrast to the widespread intentional tendency to sacrifice freedom of expression in times of crisis, this ruling recognizes the crucial importance of a free press and investigative journalism, relying on confidential sources.”
Furthermore, Voorhoof stressed that the Norwegian Supreme Court and its judgement stands as extraordinary example to other judicial authorities. The court proved its independence, applied European law (the European Convention on Human Rights) in an excellent way and by its decision also emphasized the importance of investigative journalism:
[It is] a format of journalism under threat in the actual landscape of media working in highly competitive markets. This crucial format of journalism for a democracy and transparency on public affairs is by all legal means to be protected, instead of prosecuted, intimidated or harassed.”