15 years of Media Defence: Student law clinic defending freedom of expression

15 years of Media Defence: Student law clinic defending freedom of expression

By Dr Paolo Cavaliere and Smita Shah

Jailed for taking photographs

Ngyuen Dang Minh Man (Minh Man) was a social justice activist and independent citizen blogger. In 2011, at just 27 years old, she was arrested and detained. Her crime was taking photographs of graffiti and fliers, and documenting the June 2011 anti-China protests in Ho Chi Minh City. In 2013, along with 13 other activists, she was charged with attempting to ‘overthrow the state’  under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. After an unfair trial, she was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Minh Man endured harsh prison conditions at Prison Camp No. 5 Yen Dinh, in Thanh Hoa Province. She was made to perform arduous physical labour, with inedible food and a lack of clean water, and she was placed in solitary confinement without justification.

Minh Man was also one of the first clients of the Freedom of Expression Law Clinic. When law students based at Zagreb University were first introduced to her case in 2014, she was on hunger strike in protest of her treatment in prison. The Freedom of Expression Law Clinic and Media Defence lodged a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary detention. The petition claimed that Minh Man was subject to arbitrary detention after an unfair trial, which violated her freedom of expression.

An innovative approach to human rights fighting for justice

We established the Freedom of Expression student law clinic out of a desire to bridge the gap between legal education and the actual practice of law. In 2013, lawyers at Garden Court Chambers had delivered a popular workshop on international litigation for participants of the Price Media Law Moot Court, an international student moot competition. Both the moot court and the workshop gave law students an appreciation for how human rights could be used to achieve justice, but no practical experience of it. The clinic, therefore, was designed to inspire the next generation of human rights lawyers and defenders of freedom of expression. We piloted the clinic in 2014 at the University of Zagreb in collaboration with the University of Oxford. The clinic then migrated to the University of Edinburgh in 2015, where it remains to this day.

The Freedom of Expression Law Clinic is an example of clinical legal education. Law clinics exists in many law schools around the globe and becoming widespread across the UK. It is an innovative teaching model that strives for excellence in education as well as in promoting justice, fairness, and ethics. Most UK law clinics provide much needed pro bono legal assistance to people on topics such as employment law, social security and family law. However, the Freedom of Expression Law Clinic remains one of a kind, by offering pro bono legal assistance for violations of freedom of expression to international clients.

Petitions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

Third- and fourth-year law students at the University of Edinburgh work in groups of 14 to 21 to file two or three petitions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Their aim is to secure the release of their clients: journalists, bloggers or activists imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression. Citizen bloggers and journalists are often targeted for arrest and face raids on their offices and homes, where their equipment such as laptops and cameras are confiscated. Many are then subject to accusations of acting against the national interest or causing unrest, subject to unfair trials and given long, punitive sentences. Many have simply reported stories in the public interest, such as drawing attention to government corruption and maladministration.

Nguyễn Hữu Vinh, another law clinic client, exemplifies this plight. Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (aka Anh Ba Sàm) was sentenced to five years in prison for publishing articles on his blogs about alleged government corruption. His blogs, Chep Su Viet (“Writing Vietnamese History”) and Dan Quyen (“Civil Rights”), became key sources of independent information in Vietnam, attracting millions of views between 2012 and 2014. Nguyễn Hữu Vinh’s trial lasted only one day and he was also prevented from speaking in his own defence, calling witnesses or challenging the evidence against him. He was found guilty of blogging activities that ‘infringed upon the interests of the state’.  Why would anyone want to openly criticise the government, if this is the consequence?

Clinic petitions, filed on behalf of both Nguyễn Hữu Vinh and Minh Man before him, claimed that the conduct of the Vietnamese government violated the international right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, amounting to arbitrary detention. The clinic has represented clients from Vietnam, India and Cameroon The students receive academic lectures on the legal principles of freedom of expression and are supervised by highly experienced Scottish lawyers, as well as by the Legal Team at Media Defence.  The clinic has successfully filed 14 petitions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Media Defence, an essential component

The importance of Media Defence’s role in the law clinic cannot be overstated. Local lawyers working with Media Defence often identify potential clients who could benefit from the clinic’s assistance. However, before the client and their case can be allocated to the clinic, Media Defence  asses the risk to the client, their families and the local lawyers. Media Defence also obtain consent from the local lawyer and the client, or a family member of client, for the clinic to represent them. It is important to secure informed consent, explaining the potential risks family members may face as a result of this support. In the case of Minh Man, her family was subject to intimidation, and a local police officer tried to dissuade them from seeking legal representation. Her family, however, were determined to raise as much awareness as possible about her case internationally.  Media Defence remain involved, briefing the students on the case and acting as a conduit between the client, the local lawyers and the clinic.

Moreover, Media Defence, along with clinic supervisors, share their professional skills. They support and guide the students in developing a range of fundamental legal skills such as analysis, research and drafting, strategic deployment of the options of litigation, and recognising and resolving ethical dilemmas. Media Defence provide feedback to the students and ultimately submit the petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Defending freedom of expression

In 2016 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared that Minh Man had indeed been subject to arbitrary detention and called for her immediate release. In 2019, when Minh Man was finally released from prison, she was one of Vietnam’s longest serving political prisoners.  Students who had worked on her case in Zagreb University told us they were deeply affected by her case: she was close to them in age and in another time and place, it could have been them. At the University of Edinburgh, students are enthusiastic, commenting in course evaluations that ‘Clinic style course was interesting and taught more practical skills than the usual seminar courses’ (2019/20).  The clinic is an opportunity to work on real-life cases, under the supervision of experienced professionals, to develop first-hand knowledge of the strategic and ethical dimensions of the legal profession and to acquire practical legal skills. For some students it has been transformative and set them on the path of developing a career in human rights.

For Media Defence, and local lawyers, it is an extra pair of hands working on their docket of cases. In recent times, the attacks on media outlets and news reporting, journalists and citizen bloggers have been increasing. In the face of fake news, having access to accurate, fact-checked, independent news coverage and investigative journalism remains vital. There simply are not enough lawyers able to take on the work of defending journalists and citizen bloggers who face violations of freedom of expression.

Lastly, it is vital for the client that the clinic is there, willing and able to take their case before an international human rights body.  It is comforting to them that someone outside of the prison cell walls cares about what is happening to them and is helping in their fight for justice.

Future of the law clinic

For the foreseeable future, the Freedom of Expression Law Clinic will remain at the University of Edinburgh Law School. Ultimately, the role of the law clinic and the ambition of Media Defence in the long-term is to inspire students to consider a career in media law and human rights. This creates pipeline of future human rights lawyers and defenders of freedom of expression.



By Dr Paolo Cavaliere, Senior Lecturer in Media Law at Edinburgh University, and Smita Shah, a former Trustee of Media Defence and non-practising barrister at Garden Court Chambers.


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