China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Tibet
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Freedom of Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Supporting the CCP, criticizing the Dalai Lama, and “not creating and spreading rumors” were some of the major requirements Tibetans had to fulfill to apply for jobs and receive access to government benefits.
Media reports in October noted that advertisements for teaching positions within the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted this permission.
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. In April the Shannan Newspaper, a daily newspaper in Lhoka City, TAR, included in a listing for new positions the requirement that employees “resolutely implement the party’s line, principles, policies, and political stance, fight against separatism, and safeguard the motherland’s unity and ethnic unity.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2019 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation. In addition, authorities banned some writers from publishing and prohibited them from receiving services and benefits such as government jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan-language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.
In February, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and win the online antiseparatist battle.”
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its March conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In May police detained Sonam Lhundrub, a Tibetan university student in Lanzhou City, Gansu, after he wrote an essay criticizing the government. His essay noted the lack of government job positions available to Tibetans in the province and the difficulty of competing with Han Chinese applicants for jobs.
In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan living patterns and customs and accelerated forced assimilation through promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, and weakening Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are the official languages of the TAR. Both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
Financial and subsistence aid is sometimes tied to a reeducation program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland,” a program that continued to expand since its inception in 2017. In areas where this program was in place, state subsidies and incentives were given only to Tibetans who could demonstrate support and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and phrases of past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Chinese, disadvantaging Tibetans who could not speak or read Chinese.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structure, with party members exercising control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. This requirement included geographic residency limitations on who can attend each monastery. In August monks from prominent Tibetan monasteries attending a government training were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society” and that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama “would not be affected by the Dalai Lama’s separatist clique.”
PRC law states “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to officially approved Tibetan-language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious education, particularly computers, physical education, arts, and other “modern” subjects.
The country’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced government intimidation and arrest if they protested official policies or practices.
In March and July, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu received official warnings not to organize certain gatherings, including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
PRC law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports. Tibetans without local residency were turned away from many Tibetan areas deemed sensitive by the government.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from leaving the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Some Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. Such restrictions not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but they also made it difficult to visit family, conduct business, or travel for leisure. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to Han Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a PRC passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to conduct only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel.
Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. In some instances the government refused to issue passports to Tibetans. Many Tibetans who possessed passports were concerned authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist and therefore did not travel. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. According to local observers, travel agents in the cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell overseas package tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6). Travel restrictions also increased around Chinese National Day (October 1).
The government strictly regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity of the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, international visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most foreign tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR a government-designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. As in prior years, authorities banned many international tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as during other periods the PRC government deemed politically sensitive. International tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR during such times.
The 2018 Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act defines open access to Tibet as meeting the following two criteria: that U.S. diplomats, journalists, and citizens can access Tibetan areas in the same way as other areas in China, and that no special permits or procedures are required to access Tibetan areas. During the year the PRC did not provide open access to Tibet based on either criterion. PRC authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Freedom of Expression section). The TAR government also frequently denied foreign diplomats’ requests for official travel. Although foreign officials were able to travel more freely in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, the People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus often subjected them to multiple checkpoints. Local government officials routinely limited diplomatic travel within Sichuan Province.
From February to April, the local government reportedly banned foreign tourists from visiting the TAR in advance of Tibet Uprising Day and the convening of the PRC’s national legislature.
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live in exile throughout the world. Tibetans live outside of China for many reasons, although policies enacted by the PRC government in Tibetan areas were frequently cited as the primary factor. Among those living outside of China are the 14th Dalai Lama and several other senior religious leaders who are not approved by the PRC government. These leaders were often unable to meet directly with their home monasteries and students.
The Tibetan overseas community is often subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. Individuals reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China.
In September media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of several leaders in the Central Tibetan Administration, the governance organization of the overseas Tibetan community, as well as officials in the Office of the Dalai Lama.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets. By law a person may be imprisoned for as long as five years for insulting the president.
In 2016 the Parliament amended Article 137 of the Criminal Code, originally passed in 2007 which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment, Article 137(1), also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.
In December 2018 authorities established a recommended list of 70 topics that state-run television stations were encouraged to analyze and criticize. The recommendations followed President Rahmon’s call in October 2018 for journalists to write more articles about problems facing society. According to media reports, the recommended topics for discussion included construction, education, water problems, garbage collection, factory malfunctioning, bad roads, obesity, extremism and radicalism in society, and land disputes, among others.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats on media outlets. Although some print media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding the banned IRPT.
Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”
On June 26, the Foreign Ministry denied video journalist Barotali Nazarov’s press accreditation during a meeting in Dushanbe between the Foreign Ministry and Nazarov’s employer, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajik service (Radio Ozodi). According to a statement from the news outlet, security services ordered the journalist’s credential temporarily revoked after Nazarov published stories mentioning the banned opposition party IRPT. In addition six employees of Radio Ozodi have been unable to renew their accreditation through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the year, a factor that effectively barred these individuals from working as journalists in the country. Three other accreditations for newly hired Ozodi journalists were pending, and the credentials of two other journalists expired on November 1, leaving Radio Ozodi with insufficient staff to continue functioning at its current level. In a July 3 press statement, the Foreign Ministry stated its analysis of Radio Ozodi content showed that instead of reporting important news, the broadcaster was instead engaging in the publication of “sensational and inaccurate information.” The statement also accused Radio Ozodi of acting as a “propaganda wing” for banned opposition groups such as the IRPT and the banned opposition movement Group 24. As of November 21, the Foreign Ministry had partially renewed accreditation for seven Radio Ozodi journalists, leaving 11 unaccredited.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Although the government decriminalized libel in 2012, state officials regularly filed defamation complaints against news outlets in retaliation for publishing stories critical of the government.
On January 11, the Khujand city court sentenced in absentia independent journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov, who resides outside of the country, to eight months in prison for “nonexecution of a previous court ruling” and unauthorized travel, after Mirsaidov left his place of residence without notifying the court. Mirsaidov told media he was forced to leave the country because he could not find a job to pay the fines and court-ordered restitution fees. Mirsaidov was sentenced in June 2018 to 12 years in a high-security penal colony, after the Khujand city court found him guilty of “embezzlement of public funds,” “forgery of documents,” and “dissemination of false information.” Following an appeal, the court in August 2018 released Mirsaidov and reduced the charges after he spent more than eight months incarcerated.
In June, Humayro Bakhtiyor, a prominent local journalist in self-imposed exile in Europe, wrote on social media that authorities were pressuring her to return to the country. She claimed that if she did not return, her 57-year-old father, Bakhtiyor Muminov, would be arrested. According to Bakhtiyor, police summoned Muminov on June 12 and told him that he had to convince his daughter to return to the country or he would lose his job as a schoolteacher. According to Bakhtiyor, police told her father that “he had no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.” The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called upon the authorities to investigate reports of Muminov’s harassment.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.
Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an excessively complex application process. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.
Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail. Nevertheless, libel judgments were common, particularly against newspapers critical of the government.
Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals, and used temporary full blackouts of internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.
There were sporadic government restrictions on access to internet websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Google, Google services, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Asia-Plus although some of the restrictions were lifted during the year. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.
In 2017 the Majlisi Milli, the upper house of parliament, passed a law giving law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet. According to the new law, the security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In June 2018 the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the lower house of the parliament adopted amendments to the Criminal Code, making those who use the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics subject to up to 15 years in jail. Members of Parliament amended Article 179 that provides, “Public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes and (or) publicly justifying terrorist activities,” adding “via the internet” to the second part of this article.
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.
Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months imprisonment. In addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing. In February librarian Malika Sanginova sued the Medical University of Tajikistan for dismissing her for wearing a headscarf. The university alleged she was fired for being rude to students and other issues.
A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than age 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.
The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.
The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. The ministry issued an amendment to the regulation this year which requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil Society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement as it allegedly violates the provisions of Articles 8, 10, 16 and 21 of the Law of Tajikistan “On Personal Data,” but the ministry has not yet responded.
There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.
The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.
On April 22, according to media reports, police forcibly confiscated signed petitions from more than 200 opponents of a proposed price hike for mobile internet usage.
The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities. In January President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs), which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and potentially imposes burdensome reporting requirements, according to civil society sources.
The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, nonsecular political parties became illegal.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at http://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to Article 14 of the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.
The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.
In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.
Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country without arbitrary restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.
Refoulement: The government in some cases forced asylum seekers or refugees to return to countries where they may face persecution or torture. There were eight refugee families (32 persons total) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation for alleged violation of Resolution 325, a law that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. The cases of revoked status exhausted all available local judicial remedies and were under appeal in regional court with the support of UNHCR. In July media reported that authorities transferred to Kabul 80 Afghanistan citizens who were serving their sentences in local prisons. These were mainly drug smugglers and violators of the state border of the country. Among those transferred to Kabul was a UNHCR “mandate refugee” who was serving his sentence after being convicted of theft.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum and granting of refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nevertheless, the process for making refugee status determinations lacked transparency, and administrative and judicial procedures did not comply with international standards. Although not required by law, government officials required refugees and asylum seekers to obtain a visa and a valid travel document before entering the country. Government officials without due process detained and deported individuals not in possession of a visa.
The government processed asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and granted applicants documents to regularize their stay and prevent deportation. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications. In some instances, when denying claimants asylum status, officials cited, in broad terms, a lack of evidence of persecution in the refugee’s home country or “malpractice” on the part of refugees applying to renew their status, such as violation of the prohibition of living in big cities, including Dushanbe.
The government continued to place significant restrictions on claimants, and officials continued to enforce a law decreed in 2000 prohibiting asylum seekers and refugees from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.
During the year the government brought an increased number of administrative cases against refugees and asylum seekers due to a regulation that prohibits refugees from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In many cases prosecutions to enforce this regulation–codified in Government Resolution 325–were carried out retroactively and due to the city of Dushanbe’s annexation of land that had previously fallen outside the definition for a major urban area.
Local law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check-in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country has 2,130 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghan.
Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to education and health services alongside local citizens. The Ministry of Education allowed Afghan parents to send their children to local schools without paying fees. UNHCR partners provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to these children. The law provides registered refugees with equal access to law enforcement, health care, and the judicial system, although in practice refugees did not always have equal access. Vulnerable refugee families received assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers face legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.
Durable Solutions: Following the amended Constitutional Law on Nationality adopted in 2015, the government removed provisions for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship.
The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners is 39,031 persons (11,622 men and 27,409 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Soghd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 33,062 persons, both adults and children. Some registered individuals, however, struggled to achieve a durable solution because they lived in remote areas and lacked the financial means to pay for transportation and fees associated with confirming their citizenship. As a result, UNHCR assisted a total of 6,841 individuals residing in remote districts in the three separate pilot areas in covering their legal fees and the administrative costs associated with nationality confirmation.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech but does not explicitly provide for freedom of the press. There were criminal penalties for libel.
Freedom of Expression: Public criticism of the government resulted in punitive action in some cases. Authorities used the Cybercrimes Act to bring criminal charges against individuals who criticized the government on a variety of electronic media. In March 2018 the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations became law, requiring the TCRA to certify all bloggers and operators of online forums through a licensing process.
On July 19, three students from Kampala International University in Tanzania were sentenced on counts of distributing pictures through WhatsApp groups showing President Magufuli wearing a hijab. The students were sentenced to four years in prison.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media on the mainland were active and generally expressed varying views, although media outlets often practiced self-censorship to avoid conflict with the government.
Registering or licensing new media outlets, both print and broadcast, continued to be difficult. Newspaper registration was at the discretion of the registrar of newspapers at the information ministry on both the mainland and Zanzibar. Acquiring a broadcasting license from the TCRA took an estimated six months to one year, and the TCRA restricted the area of broadcast coverage. The TCRA imposes mandatory registration and annual fees for commercial and community radio stations. The fee structure disproportionately disadvantages the existence and creation of small community radio stations.
On February 27, the government suspended publication of the Citizen newspaper and website for seven days, following the publication of a story titled “Closely Monitor Falling of Shilling, Experts Caution.” The director of information services alleged that the Citizen published false and misleading information about the devaluation of the country’s currency.
On August 22, Joseph Gandye, an investigative journalist for Watetezi television was arrested for “spreading fake news” after his story on police brutality in Iringa aired. On August 24, he was released on bail.
In 2017 the TCRA clarified a requirement that all broadcast stations receive approval from the Tanzania Film Board for locally produced content, including music videos, films, cartoons, and other video content. In June the government passed an amendment to the Films and Stage Plays Act (Amendment 3), providing the Tanzania Film Board the authority to regulate, monitor and determine if foreign and local motion pictures, television, radio and stage plays and performances are approved for exhibition.
The Zanzibari government-owned daily newspaper, Zanzibar Leo, had an estimated circulation of 25,000. There was one privately owned weekly newspaper with a much smaller circulation. The government of Zanzibar controlled content on the radio and television stations it owned. There were government restrictions on broadcasting in tribal languages, and broadcasts in Kiswahili or English were officially preferred. The nine private radio stations on Zanzibar operated independently, often reading the content of national dailies, including articles critical of the Zanzibari government.
Lack of access to information from government sources continued despite changes to the Statistics Act.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement authorities attacked, harassed, and intimidated journalists during the year. Journalists and media outlets have also begun to self-censor to avoid government retribution. Investigative journalist Erick Kabendera’s July 29 arrest was marked by irregularities, including denial of access to a lawyer in the early stages of his detention.
On September 27, the TCRA fined three online television channels–Kwanza Television, Millard Ayo Television, and Watetezi Television–five million TZS ($2,200 each and suspended Kwanza Television for six months. All three channels have been described as being critical of President Magufuli.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law authorizes police to raid and seize materials from newspaper offices and authorizes the minister of information to “prohibit or otherwise sanction the publication of any content that jeopardizes national security or public safety.”
According to Reporters without Borders, since President Magufuli came to office in 2015, the laws regulating media have been tightened, and there have been cases of newspapers and radio stations being suspended for “incitement.”
A September 3 Time Magazine article on the world’s most urgent cases threatening press freedom cited Erick Kabendera and Azory Gwanda among their examples.
A permit was required for reporting on police or prison activities, both on the mainland and in Zanzibar, and journalists needed special permission to cover meetings of the National Assembly or attend meetings in the Zanzibar House of Representatives. Anyone publishing information accusing a Zanzibari representative of involvement in illegal activities was liable to a fine of not less than TZS 250,000 ($110), three years’ imprisonment, or both. The government may fine and suspend newspapers without warning.
There were examples of the government repressing information, extending to online newspapers and journals. In June parliament passed amendments to the 2015 Statistics Act that lifted some restrictions on publishing statistical information. It now allows individuals and organizations to conduct surveys and collect research data; however, Amnesty International stated that under these amendments, authorities still maintain control over who is able to gather and publish information, as well as to determine what is factual. While the World Bank stated the amended Statistics Act is in line with international norms, many observers continued to self-censor because of possible personal and professional repercussions, including the government’s ability to use media services and cybercrime acts against individuals who publish or share data that does not align with the government’s messaging.
In March the EACJ ruled in favor of CSOs who challenged the country’s Media Services Act of 2016. Three NGOs, the Media Council of Tanzania, the Legal and Human Rights Center (LHRC) and the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) filed the case in 2017. The court found that sections on sedition, criminal defamation, and false news publication restrict press freedom and freedom of expression and thereby breach the EACJ Treaty.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides for arrest, prosecution, and punishment for the use of seditious, abusive, or derogatory language to describe the country’s leadership. Section 36 of the Media Services Act of 2016 makes defamation a criminal act. Defamation is defined as any matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.
In February, CHADEMA Member of Parliament (MP) Halima Mdee was called in for questioning related to a 2017 charge of insulting the president, for which she was detained for six days. The case is pending in court and is postponed until 2020. The court has expressed interest in dismissing the case due to a lack of cooperation from prosecutors.
On April 24, the Kisutu Resident Magistrates Court continued with the criminal case against opposition MP Zitto Kabwe. The case alleges that Zitto made several seditious remarks against the TPF, accusing it of killing more than 100 civilians in Kigoma. On October 23, the case was heard and adjourned until 2020.
On March 10, Minister for Home Affairs Kangi Lugola ordered regional police commanders throughout the country to arrest leaders of opposition parties who insult the president. On September 26, Lugola also warned CSOs against insulting the government.
National Security: In March 2018 the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations were passed, requiring online content providers to monitor and filter content that threatens national security or public health and safety.
The government restricted access to the internet and monitored websites and internet traffic. The Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations tighten control of internet content through registration requirements and licensing fees. Bloggers and persons operating online forums, including online television and radio streaming services, must obtain certification from the TCRA by submitting a license application requiring information such as the nature of services offered, estimated cost of investment, staff qualifications, and plans. In addition all online content providers must pay application and licensing fees totaling more than two million TZS ($880) in initial costs. Licenses are valid for three years and must be renewed annually for one million TZS ($440). Prohibitive costs led some citizens to stop blogging or posting content on online forums, including international social media platforms.
Under the regulations internet cafes must install surveillance cameras to monitor persons online. Online material deemed “offensive, morally improper” or that “causes annoyance,” is prohibited, and those charged with violating the regulations face a minimum fine of TZS five million ($2,200) or a minimum sentence of 12 months in prison. The Cybercrimes Act of 2015 criminalizes the publication of false information, defined as “information, data or facts presented in a picture, texts, symbol, or any other form in a computer system where such information, data, or fact is false, deceptive, misleading, or inaccurate.” Individuals who made critical comments about the government on electronic media were charged under the act, even when remarks reflected opinions or were factually true.
In 2018 Bob Wangwe appealed to the High Court of Dar es Salaam a Kisutu court conviction and sentence imposing a fine of five million TZS ($2,200) or a jail term of 18 months for publishing inaccurate information on Facebook. In March he won his appeal. The court ruled that the government would have to prove that the information posted online by Wangwe was authentic, and what its intent was.
On September 7, Sebastien Atilio was arrested for publishing false news and practicing journalism without accreditation under the Media Services Act in connection with messages he sent in a WhatsApp Group called Mufindi Media Group. The original bail hearing set for September 18 was postponed several times. On October 28, Atilio was released on bail and the judge instructed the public prosecutor to complete the investigation within 61 days or the judge would withdraw the case until the investigation is completed. The case remained pending as of December.
In June parliament passed amendments for the second time in two years to the 2015 Statistics Act, which had required individuals and organizations to obtain permission from the National Bureau of Statistics before conducting surveys, collecting research data, or publicizing results. The amendment removed the threat of prison for civil society groups if they publish independent statistical information. It also states people have the right to collect and disseminate statistical information, and puts a system in place for people who want to access and/or publish national data.
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including through bans decreed by authorities but not supported by law. The government requires organizers of rallies to obtain police permission. Police may deny permission on public safety or security grounds or if the permit seeker belongs to an unregistered organization or political party. The government and police continued to limit the issuance of permits for public demonstrations and assemblies to opposition political parties, NGOs, and religious organizations. The only political meetings allowed in principle are by MPs in their constituencies; outside participants, including party leaders, are not permitted to participate. Restrictions were also applied to nonpolitical gatherings deemed critical of the government.
The ruling CCM is the only party that may legally conduct public rallies. It uses the umbrella of the implementing party manifesto to inform members when it is time to register to vote.
Opposition political parties continued to be harassed and detained by law enforcement and have unsuccessfully sought redress in the courts. For example, on May 27, the former minister for tourism and natural resources Lazaro Nyalandu and two opposition members from CHADEMA were arrested in Itagi Ward in Sigida during a closed-door meeting. They were released on bail the next day, after being questioned by the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB) for more than two hours.
In July, Zanzibar police arrested Seif Hamad Sharif during a commemoration event for the 10th anniversary of political reconciliation in Zanzibar. The police questioned Seif before releasing him and canceling the event.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Thousands of NGOs and societies operated in the country. Political parties were required to register and meet membership and other requirements. Freedom of association for workers was limited (see section 7.a.).
According to The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the LHRC midyear report, the freedom of association for NGOs has been jeopardized by amendments of the NGO act, which reduces the autonomy of NGOs and provides for excessive regulation of the NGO sector. The registrar stated that the process of deregistering underscored the need for NGOs to comply with the law and provide for transparency and accountability in their activities. Under existing law, however, the registrar of NGOs is granted sweeping powers to suspend and deregister NGOs, leaving loopholes which could be used to obstruct opposition and human rights NGOs. For example, the registrar deregistered 158 NGOs in August. Community Health Education Services and Advocacy, Kazi Busara na Hekima (KBH Sisters), and AHA Development Organization Tanzania were deregistered for supposedly promoting acts in society which violate ethics and culture because they supported LGBTI protection and rights. Others that withdrew were Pathfinder Green City, Hamasa Poverty Reductions (Hapore), and Hope.
The law makes a distinction between NGOs and societies and applies different registration procedures to the two. It defines a society as any club, company, partnership, or association of 10 or more persons, regardless of its purpose, and notes specific categories of organizations not considered societies, such as political parties. The law defines NGOs to include organizations whose purpose is to promote economic, environmental, social, or cultural development; protect the environment; or lobby or advocate on issues of public interest. Societies and organizations may not operate until authorities approve their applications. In August the government began a verification exercise that required all NGOs to reregister. Registration of new NGOs was suspended until December 1.
The government rarely registered societies within the legally required 14-day period. In April the minister of home affairs stated that from July 2018 to March, the registrar of societies received 150 registration applications, 77 from religious institutions and 73 from CSOs. The registrar registered 69 applications: 38 CSOs and 31 religious institutions. Of the applicants, 81 were still working on their applications.
NGOs in Zanzibar apply for registration with the Zanzibar Business and Property Registration Agency. While registration generally took several weeks, some NGOs waited months if the registrar determined additional research was needed.
In July an NGO said Zanzibar has an outdated NGO policy and that local authorities are unable to catch up with the changing requirements of NGOs and operations countrywide. According to some NGOs, security and government organizations were interfering with the work of NGOs. As an example the Office of the Second Vice President suspended implementation of a project for youth, explaining it needed more time to examine the scope of the project. The government, however, views any youth group as the opposition organizing.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights; however, there were cases of political opposition leaders being barred from leaving the country.
In-country Movement: Refugees are confined to camps and are subject to arrest if they leave them. Under its more restrictive approach to hosting refugees, the government limited refugee movement and enforced its encampment policy more strictly during the year, including the arrest of refugees caught moving outside the camps without official permission. With permits more difficult to obtain and livelihood opportunities inside the camps heavily constrained, refugees compelled to leave the camps in search of work were apprehended by police and arrested. Usually these persons were prosecuted and sentenced in local courts to six months’ detention or payment of a fine.
Foreign Travel: On June 12, immigration officials in Zanzibar detained opposition leader and MP Zitto Kabwe, who was en route to Kenya for a retreat with leaders of his Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Party. Acting on instructions from the PCCB not to permit Kabwe to leave the country due to pending charges under the Media Services Act, immigration officials transferred Kabwe to police custody. The police later released Kabwe but confiscated his mobile phone and laptop.
In February the travel of migrant workers overseas for employment was temporarily suspended, ostensibly to allow time for the government to strengthen migrant-worker protection mechanisms.
Citizenship: There were no reports of revocation of citizenship on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis.
There were no reports of large numbers of internally displaced persons.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Despite government assurances that its borders remained open to refugees, during the year authorities closed the borders to new refugee arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi. In January 2018 the government withdrew from the UN’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, announced it would no longer provide citizenship to Burundian refugees, and stated it would encourage refugees to return home. At that time the government assured the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) it would respect the choice of refugees on whether or not to return to their country of origin. While nearly 75,000 Burundian refugees had been repatriated with assistance between September 2017 and September 2019, there were numerous accounts of refugees facing intimidation or pressure by Tanzanian authorities to return home. Some refugees who were pressured into returning to Burundi became refugees in other countries or returned to Tanzania.
In August, Minister of Home Affairs Lugola announced a bilateral agreement with Burundi to repatriate 2,000 Burundians per week, whether voluntary or not. Although the government of Tanzania subsequently restated its commitment to voluntary repatriation, UNHCR remained concerned about validating the voluntariness of the returns. In addition the government suspended livelihood options for refugees, including the closure of businesses operating inside the camps and common markets outside the camps where refugees and the surrounding communities could exchange goods. According to NGOs working in the camps, there has been an increase in gender-based violence and other concerns due to the loss of livelihoods.
Refugees apprehended more than 2.5 miles outside their camps without permits are subject by law to sentences ranging from a fine up to a three-year prison sentence. In addition there have been reports of refugees found outside the camps being detained, beaten, tortured, raped, or killed by officials or citizens.
On April 5, Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Hamad Yusuph Masauni reported that 13,393 illegal immigrants were arrested in the country. Of this number, 2,815 were charged for illegally entering the country, 117 paid fines, and 429 were sentenced to a jail term. Of those arrested, 6,316 were deported and 1,313 were released after confirming residency. The Department of Immigration is the lead agency in the government on identifying immigrant status and subsequent action. According to one report, 39 illegal farmers from neighboring countries were arrested in the Kagera region.
Sex- and gender-based violence against refugees continued, including allegations against officials who worked in or around refugee camps. UNHCR worked with local authorities and residents in the three refugee camps to strengthen coordination and address violence, including sexual violence, against vulnerable persons. The public prosecutor investigated, prosecuted, and punished perpetrators of abuses in the camp, while international NGOs provided assistance to the legal team when requested by a survivor. Local authorities and the public prosecutor handled most cases of refugee victims of crime and abuse outside the camp. Residents of the refugee camps suffered delays and limited access to courts, common problems also faced by citizens.
Refoulement: The government closed the last of the country’s official refugee reception centers in 2018, and during the year there were credible reports of push backs at the border as well as instances of obstructions to access for Congolese and Burundian asylum seekers following requests for international protection in the country. In addition the Burundian refugees who had been assisted by UNHCR during the year to return voluntarily to Burundi, but were forced to flee again and seek asylum for a second time, were unable to register with the authorities. This prevented them from being able to access humanitarian assistance or basic services.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The National Eligibility Committee is required to meet regularly and make determinations on asylum applications.
Despite the government’s strict encampment policy, authorities continued to permit a small population of urban asylum seekers and refugees to reside in Dar es Salaam; this group consisted principally of persons in need of international protection arriving from countries that are not contiguous as well as individuals with specific reasons for being unable to stay in the refugee camps in the western part of the country. While access to formal employment opportunities remained limited for urban refugees, they did enjoy access to government health services and schools. UNHCR continued to intervene in cases of irregular migrants in need of international protection following their arrest by authorities in Dar es Salaam or other urban centers to ensure that the migrants had access to national asylum procedures and were protected from forced return to their country of origin.
During the year the government and the IOM continued to support training for law enforcement officers on the use of biometric registration equipment intended to provide irregular migrants a basis for either regularizing their status or voluntarily returning to their places of origin.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: No policy for blanket or presumptive denials of asylum exists for applicants arriving from a “safe country of origin” or through a “safe country of transit.” All asylum applications are evaluated individually. The law provides that, unless the transit country is experiencing a serious breach of peace, an asylum claim can be refused upon failure to show reasonable cause as to why asylum was not claimed in the transit country prior to entry into Tanzania.
Freedom of Movement: Policy restrictions limiting refugee freedom of movement and access to livelihoods left the refugee population almost totally dependent on humanitarian assistance and vulnerable to a range of protection risks, including sexual and gender-based violence. Interpartner violence continued to be reported as the leading category of sexual and gender-based violence, accounting for approximately 75 percent of incidents. Observers attributed this level of violence to the difficult living conditions in refugee camps, split-family decisions resulting from government pressure to return and substance abuse; closure of larger markets, which undermined women’s self-reliance; and restrictions on freedom of movement, which placed women and girls in a precarious situation when they left the camps to collect firewood and seek other foods to diversify their family’s diet.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government focused on repatriation and did not support local integration as a durable solution. The government maintained pressure on Burundian refugees to return to Burundi, promoting repatriation as the only durable solution for Burundian refugees. UNHCR continued to assist voluntary returns under the framework of a tripartite agreement between the governments of Burundi and Tanzania and UNHCR, stressing that conditions inside Burundi were not yet conducive for large-scale returns because many Burundian refugees remained in need of international protection. Nonetheless, in August the government increased pressure on Burundian refugees to sign up for returns, agreeing with the government of Burundi to return 2,000 Burundians a week, but also saying that all Burundian refugees would be returned by the end of the year. The government implemented measures to make life more difficult for refugees, including closing the shared refugee and host community markets in February and restricting camp exit permits.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, from July 2018 to March 28,h a total of 662 Burundian refugees repatriated voluntarily. According to UNHCR, nearly 75,000 Burundian refugees have returned with assistance since 2017. The government granted 162,000 former Burundian refugees citizenship in 2014-15. During the year, 1,350 refugees from the DRC and 82 from other countries were resettled in other countries.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. This right, however, was restricted by laws and government actions. For example the government imposed legal restrictions on criticism of the government and monarchy, favored progovernment media organizations in regulatory actions, harassed antigovernment critics, monitored the media and internet, blocked websites, and used criminal defamation laws to limit freedom of expression, including for the press.
Although laws and regulations that could restrict media freedom remained in effect prior to the March election, there was a significant increase in criticism of the junta during the pre-election period, continuing a trend that started in early 2018 when the junta began loosening some civil restrictions. While government stations and pro-junta media had a large presence in the period before the election, neutral and opposition media operated with considerable freedom.
On July 9, Prime Minister Prayut lifted 76 orders instituted under NCPO rule, including ones that effectively prohibited criticism made with “malice” and “false information” intended to “discredit” the NCPO or the military. Press restrictions still in place include orders that give military personnel the authority to prohibit the propagation of any publication that was likely to “cause public alarm” or which “contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding” that could potentially threaten national security; and that allow authorities to shut down media critical of the military regime.
Freedom of Expression: The lese majeste (“royal insult”) prohibition makes it a crime–punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense–to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against one other. On June 11, political activist Srisuwan Janya filed a petition asking the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to probe whether Future Forward Party member of parliament and spokesperson Pannika Wanich had posted certain photos to her Facebook page nearly a decade earlier that were insulting towards King Rama IX.
The government continued to conduct lese majeste trials from previous years in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the alleged offenses’ contents. International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste prohibition’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
According to the local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, as of September, 98 lese majeste cases had been filed since the 2014 coup, 67 of which have been concluded. In some of these cases, the accused committed the alleged offense prior to the 2014 coup, but authorities only filed charges afterwards. According to current-year statistics from the Department of Corrections, approximately 65 persons were awaiting trial or imprisoned on lese majeste charges as of August.
Two long-standing lese majeste cases saw new developments during the year. On June 11, the Bangkok Military Court allowed Siraphop Kon-arut, a political activist and writer, to be released on bail after five years’ detention on lese majeste and computer-crime charges. On July 17, former pop singer and actor Thanat Thanawatcharanon, also known as Tom Dundee, was granted a royal pardon after serving a five-year prison sentence for a lese majeste offense.
Human rights activists reported that while lese majeste prosecutions declined, the government increasingly turned to computer-crime and “sedition” legislation to restrict free speech and silence critics. Prosecutors brought a growing number of cases against members of the Organization for Thai Federation, whom authorities accused of trying to alter the country’s current political arrangement. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, local authorities initiated 11 cases against 20 individuals accused of sedition, being members of a secret society, and violating computer-crime and public-assembly laws.
In October the Fourth Army Region of the Internal Security Operations Command covering the southern provinces filed a police complaint against 12 persons–including several opposition-party leaders and academics–accusing them of sedition for their remarks during a September 28 forum on resolving the conflict in the southern part of the country. At the center of the complaint are comments by Chalita Banthuwong, a lecturer at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, who, in discussing possible solutions to the southern insurgency, allegedly proposed amending the section of the 2017 constitution that affirms Thailand as a unitary state. The complaint alleges the panel members violated legislation barring sedition and carrying a jail term of up to seven years. The seven accused opposition-party leaders responded by defending their right to free speech and filing a counter complaint accusing two army officials of defamation and giving false information to the authorities.
New regulations on constitutional court procedures effective as of October empower the court to take legal action against individuals deemed to have unfairly criticized its decisions. The new regulations prohibit distortion of facts, laws, or verdicts related to the court’s adjudication of cases; dishonest criticism; and sarcasm or mockery of the court, according to OHCHR. In August the court summoned an academic to give statements following his criticism of the court’s decision to suspend FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit but not 32 other members of parliament similarly accused of illegal media shareholding. Some human rights activists conveyed concern that the court’s new posture could restrict free speech.
There were numerous reports of security forces harassing citizens who publicly criticized the military government, including by visiting or surveilling their residences or places of employment. Prior to the March election, Pheu Thai Party parliamentary candidates in the country’s northeast claimed that security personnel made visits to their homes, seemingly to intimidate them.
From March through June, three prominent antigovernment critics were physically assaulted in several incidents by unidentified armed assailants. On March 31, two unidentified men broke into the house of Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich and beat him. On May 25, he was attacked again when riding his motorcycle by six assailants who knocked him off his bike, rammed their motorcycles into his back, and beat him with metal bars. Ekachai Hongkangwan was hospitalized May 13 for three days after being beaten by three men as he emerged from a public bus in front of the Bangkok Criminal Court, where he was to give testimony in a sedition case against him for organizing a protest demanding the government hold elections; this was reportedly the tenth time Ekachai was the victim of a physical assault or property crime since March 2018. Sirawith “Ja New” Serithiwat was attacked on June 2 and June 28, with the second ambush seriously injuring his eye and leaving him hospitalized in intensive care. After public outcry by human rights and civil liberties activists over the failure of authorities to make arrests in any of these cases, Prime Minister Prayut called on police to step up their investigations but as of September, the cases remained unsolved.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but faced significant impediments to operating freely. The outgoing NCPO government lifted several orders restricting press freedoms.
On February 12, however, prior to the March election, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) ordered a 15-day shutdown of the opposition television channel Voice TV for airing the “Wake Up News-Tonight Thailand” program. The station carried what the government called biased content that could instigate political unrest.
In April the government invoked an order to waive the terms of all digital television operators’ license payments at a combined cost of 13.6 billion baht (THB) ($453 million). This action raised questions about the government’s subsidy approach, which could be interpreted as a benefit for progovernment media organizations and indirect intervention in freedom of press.
The 2017 constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media organizations to be citizens. Government entities owned and controlled most radio and broadcast television stations.
In August writer and academic Sarinee Achavanuntakul was summoned by the Election Cases Division of the Supreme Court after she was accused of contempt of court for publishing an article in the Krungthep Turakij newspaper commenting on the court’s handing of parliamentarians’ media shares. The court dropped the case after Sarinee published a subsequent article clarifying her characterization of the court’s decision, which she acknowledged may have been misleading. Also in August, Kovit Wongsurawat, a Thammasat University political science professor, was summoned to the constitutional court for a tweet criticizing the court for suspending FFP Leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for owning media shares while declining to suspend other parliamentarians who held media shares. He apologized to the court and posted a tweet clarifying his intent before the court found him guilty of contempt, although no penalty or punishment was imposed.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: An NCPO order remains in effect empowering the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the government. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press. Local practice leans toward self-censorship, particularly regarding anything that might be critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family.
The Emergency Decree in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news considered a threat to national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of THB 200,000 ($6,660) and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians.
On August 28, poultry firm Thammakaset dropped its civil-defamation case against human rights activist Sutharee “Kratik” Wannasiri, but the company continued pursing criminal-defamation charges against her that carry a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to THB 200,000 ($6,670). Thammakaset had demanded THB five million ($167,000) in compensation for comments Sutharee made on Twitter in 2017, arguing her social-media posts damaged the company’s reputation and seeking an apology. Thammakaset dropped the case after Sutharee made a statement in court saying she “felt sorry” if some of the content in the posts was “inaccurate.” Criminal-defamation charges still pending are scheduled for a hearing in February 2020.
National Security: Various NCPO orders issued under the interim constitution, later extended by the 2017 constitution, continue to provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security even with the new government in place.
The government continued to restrict or disrupt access to the internet and routinely censored online content. There were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the law, the government can impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a THB 100,000 ($3,330) fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and some penalties were too harsh.
In February parliament approved the Cybersecurity Act; it came into force in May. Civil society groups expressed privacy and surveillance concerns about the act, citing its vague language and lack of safeguards. In September human rights groups and information-technology industry advocates called on lawmakers to make numerous amendments to the act to limit the virtually unchecked power they said it conferred on the government to monitor online media.
On November 1, the government’s new “anti-fake news center” began targeting disinformation and misinformation, particularly on social media. The center issued arrest warrants for content deemed to negatively impact society. After identifying an instance of “fake news,” the center, which operates under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, urges related ministries and government offices to retract and correct the information. The center tackles four main categories of false information: disasters; economic, banking and equity issues; health issues and illegal health products and services; and news and information with national-security, social and moral risks. Civil society groups have expressed concern that the center might be used as a tool to stifle legitimate political discourse.
The government actively monitored social media and private communications.
As reported by Freedom House, the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) endorsed surveillance policies, including a centralized social media watch center to determine whether social media content is “inappropriate”; the purchase of enhanced surveillance technology; and restricting anonymity on the internet by mandating the collection of biometric data when registering new SIM cards.
Individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, although there were numerous restrictions on content, including lese majeste, gambling, and criticism of the NCPO when it was in power.
Civil society reported the government used prosecution or the threat of prosecution under computer-crimes legislation as a tool to suppress speech online. On October 1, however, the Office of the Attorney General decided not to proceed with charges earlier filed against FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and two party executives for breaching the law by “importing false information into a computer system” when they accused the pro-junta Phalang Pracharath Party of “poaching” members of parliament during a live speech on Facebook in June 2018.
The government closely monitored and blocked thousands of websites critical of the monarchy. Prosecutions of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public-comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The NBTC also lobbied foreign internet content creators and service providers to remove or locally censor lese majeste content. Human rights contacts reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.
Prior to its dissolution in July, the NCPO intervened to disrupt academic discussions on college campuses, intimidated scholars, and arrested student leaders critical of the coup.
During the year university authorities reported the regular presence of military personnel on campus, monitoring lectures and attending student events. There were numerous accounts of authorities arresting students for exercising freedom of speech and expression. Universities reported self-censorship continued after the installation of the new government.
In September, Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University and Khon Kaen University separately reversed earlier agreements to allow FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to speak at their campuses on the topic of constitutional reform, citing a mandate for non-partisanship. Both universities were reportedly pressured by government officials to cancel the events. In August, however, FFP leaders were able to hold similar events at Chiang Mai University and Prince of Songkhla University.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The 2017 constitution grants the freedom to assemble peacefully, subject to restrictions enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals, or to protect the rights and liberties of others.” In December 2018 the NCPO government repealed many of these restrictions, including the bans on political gatherings of five or more persons and political party campaigning, in advance of the March national election.
The government continued to prosecute prodemocracy and other human rights activists for peaceful protests prior to the repeal. On September 20, a criminal-court judge acquitted six prodemocracy activists of sedition charges that carried seven-year sentences for organizing a demonstration in February 2018 urging the junta government to hold the overdue national election. The activists behind the “People Who Want Elections” campaign–Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, Arnon Nampha, Chonthicha “Kate” Jangrew, Sukrit Phiansuwan, Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, and Kan Phongpraphaphan–continue, however, to face charges in six other cases stemming from the series of pro-election demonstrations they organized in 2018.
In February, two student activists–Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak of Thammasat University and Tanawat Wongchai of Chulalongkorn University–were charged with violating the law for holding a peaceful protest at Government House urging Prime Minister Prayut to resign after he challenged the public to “oust me if you dare.” The two were charged with violating the law requiring protest organizers to notify authorities 24 hours in advance, and later released after each paid a fine of THB 2,000 ($67).
The 2017 constitution grants individuals the right to free association subject to restrictions by law enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals.”
The law prohibits the registration of a political party with the same name or logo as a legally dissolved party.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government enforced some exceptions which it claimed were for “maintaining the security of the state, public order, public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
In-country Movement: The government restricted the internal movement of members of hill tribes and other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards and who were registered as stateless persons. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home provinces without permission from the district chief. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported that police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one province to another.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minorities, to seek permission from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior for foreign travel.
Despite the NCPO government’s repeal of most overseas travel bans in December 2018 and the dissolution of that government in July, travel restrictions remained in effect for some individuals as a condition of bail agreements dating back to the NCPO government. Critics maintained these restrictions were politically motivated; the exact number of these cases was unknown.
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of November, 271 Rohingya individuals remained in detention, 108 in IDCs and 163 in shelters. From 2013-2015, including during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015, 64 individuals arrived in the country irregularly. The other 207 individuals arrived in the country irregularly since 2016.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived in urban areas and who do not have valid visas as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Authorities permitted bail only for certain categories of detained refugees and asylum seekers, such as mothers, children, and persons with medical conditions. Authorities applied the criteria for allowing bail inconsistently.
Humanitarian organizations reported concerns that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers faced overcrowded conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, limited freedom of movement, and abusive treatment by authorities in the immigration detention centers (IDCs).
As part of an overall policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. As of August there were approximately 320 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs, and 49 Uighurs have been detained in the country since 2015.
Refoulement: Persons from Burma, if arrested without refugee status or legal permission to be in the country, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities sometimes provided preferential treatment to certain Burmese ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Shan individuals, allowing them greater leeway to remain in Thailand without formal authorization. Outside IDCs, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. If caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. One Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern, however, was forcibly returned to Cambodia in February. Human rights NGOs alleged that in January, Thai authorities collaborated with Vietnamese security officials to return forcibly to Vietnam blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who had publicly expressed a desire to register with UNHCR.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government did not establish a system for providing protection to refugees. On December 25, the government published a new regulation (referred to as the “National Screening Mechanism” by UNHCR and NGOs) that provides individuals whom the government determines to be protected persons with temporary protection from deportation, access to health care, and access (for children) to education. The regulation does not provide for work permits to protected persons. The regulation will go into effect 180 days from the publication date.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the IDCs to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. Authorities generally allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance. Access varied, reportedly depending on the preferences of each IDC chief. Authorities at IDC Suan Phlu in Bangkok, for example, restricted access by UNHCR, IOM, and other NGOs during the second half of the year, claiming a need to expand health facilities.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of, and pursue solutions for, approximately 95,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement to five countries for more than 2,200 Burmese refugees from the camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement unless they were included in a 2015 verification process or had serious medical or protection concerns. Separately, the government coordinated with Burmese authorities to document and return to Burma registered camp residents who elected to participate in a voluntary repatriation program. As of August, 1,039 registered refugees had voluntarily returned to Burma in four tranches under the program since 2016.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement outside of their camps. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation. Authorities sometimes allowed camp residents limited travel outside of the camps for activities such as medical care.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during their trial and up to two years (with possible extensions) after the end of their trial involvement. Work permits must be linked to a specific employer. For certain victims of trafficking, including Rohingya, identifying suitable employment opportunities for the issuance of work permits remained a challenge. Registration, medical check-up, and health-insurance fees remained a deterrent for prospective employers of victims of trafficking.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban-refugee and asylum-seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Three NGOs funded in part by the international community provided or facilitated primary and mental health-care services. A UNHCR-led health panel coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to support camp-based community organizations to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to partially coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own unofficial schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government continued to protect from deportation the majority of Rohingya migrants detained by authorities, including those who arrived in the country irregularly during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015. During the year, authorities also placed more than 200 Rohingya detained while transiting Thailand into Ministry of Social Development and Human Security-run shelters and protected them from deportation. UNHCR had access to these provincial shelters while authorities conducted formal screenings of the migrants’ eligibility for benefits as victims of trafficking. These Rohingya migrants, however, were in most cases confined to shelters and did not have freedom of movement or access to work permits.
The government continued to identify stateless persons, provide documentation to preclude statelessness, and open paths to citizenship for long-time residents and students. An estimated 470,000 persons, mainly residing in the northern region, were likely stateless or at risk of statelessness, including ethnic minorities registered with civil authorities and previously undocumented minorities. The authorities excluded Muslims from Burma, including individuals whose families had lived in Mae Sot near the Burmese border for multiple generations, from the statelessness recognition process.
A government resolution to end statelessness and provide a pathway to Thai nationality for approximately 80,000 stateless children and young adults covers persons born in the country, whose parents are ethnic minorities, who are registered with the government, and who have resided in the country for a minimum of 15 years. It also applies to stateless youths certified by a state agency to have lived in the country for 10 years whose parentage is unknown. In April the government enacted an amendment to the Civil Registration Act providing a pathway for foundlings to apply for a birth certificate and obtain a Thai national identification card. If the person proves continuous residence in the country for 10 or more years and meets other qualifications, the person is eligible to apply for Thai nationality.
Birth within the country does not automatically confer citizenship. The law bases citizenship on birth to at least one citizen parent, marriage to a male citizen, or naturalization. Individuals may also acquire citizenship by means of special government-designated criteria implemented by the Ministry of Interior with approval from the cabinet or in accordance with nationality law (see section 6, Children). Recent amendments to the law allow ethnic Thai stateless persons and their children, who meet the added definition of “displaced Thai,” to apply for the status of “Thai nationality by birth.”
By law stateless members of hill tribes may not vote or own land, and their travel is restricted. Stateless persons also may not participate in certain occupations reserved for citizens, including farming, although authorities permitted noncitizen members of hill tribes to undertake subsistence agriculture. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing credit and government services, such as health care. Although education was technically accessible for all undocumented and stateless children, it was usually of poor quality. School administrators placed the term “non-Thai citizen” on these students’ high school certificates, which severely limited their economic opportunities. Stateless persons and those considered illegal migrants were not permitted to enroll in tertiary education.
Without legal status, stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse including threat of deportation (see section 6, Children and Indigenous People).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although government officials acknowledged a Ministry of Justice effort to review and revise the 1968 code of criminal procedures (CPP) and the 1913 Penal Code to comply with the 2014 constitution, activists and members of civil society expressed concern with the slow pace of reforms. Apart from a few discrete modifications to sections governing rape and pretrial detention, no changes have been made to the penal code since the country became a democracy, leading authorities to enforce provisions of the penal code that appear to contradict with the rights and freedoms protected in the constitution. For the CPP, however, the government has introduced notable changes, including the introduction of alternatives to incarceration and probation, reorganization of Judicial Police and moving the Office of the Judicial Police under the authority of the Ministry of Justice and a more refined definition of flagrante delicto, obvious offense. As of October the independent committee of experts in charge of amending these two criminal codes submitted revisions to the CCP to the Justice Ministry, enabling the ministry to prepare the draft law to parliament for review and adoption. The penal code project remained under review.
Civil society activists continue to cite the lack of a constitutional court as hindering efforts to align existing legislation with the 2014 constitution and international human rights norms, particularly legislation pertaining to individual freedoms and fundamental rights.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government mainly respected this right, although there were constraints. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system contributed to an environment generally conducive to this freedom. Some media outlets and civil society expressed concerns about occasional government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few political parties or families.
Freedom of Expression: Public speech considered offensive to “public morals” or “public decency,” terms undefined in the law, continued to be treated as criminal acts. Provisions of the penal and telecommunications codes, for example, criminalize speech that causes “harm to the public order or public morals” or intentionally disturbs persons “in a way that offends the sense of public decency.”
HRW issued a statement on October 15 asserting, “Tunisian authorities are using laws on criminal defamation, ‘spreading false information,’ and ‘harming others via public telecommunications networks’ to prosecute people for their online commentary.” HRW cited the example of Yacine Hamdouni, a civil servant who was sentenced to six months in prison for having accused a senior security official of corruption in several social media posts. The Tunis First Instance Court that heard Hamdouni’s case convicted him on June 6 for having disseminated “false information,” accusing officials of wrongdoing without providing proof, and “harming others via public telecommunication networks.” The court sentenced him originally to one year in prison, but this sentence was reduced to six months on appeal. According to HRW, Hamdouni remained detained in the Mourneguia prison as of October.
In another example, in December 2018, the First Instance Court of Kairouan sentenced a civil society activist to three months in prison for insulting the president. The activist allegedly wrote an insulting message on a public wall in Kairouan.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Activists expressed concern about government interference in media and the concentration of media ownership. NGOs stated the penal code and military justice codes, were used to target journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists. The codes criminalize defamation, false allegations against members of an administrative or judicial authority, and attacks against the “dignity, reputation, or morale of the army.”
On March 14, the investigative judge for the First Instance Court of Tunis prevented the dissemination of two television shows investigating a public-health scandal. The judge ruled these shows would impede an ongoing investigation, but critics characterized the injunction as a violation of free speech.
Violence and Harassment: Violence and harassment against journalists continued, according to human rights organizations. In its annual 2019 report, the Tunisian Union of Journalists (SNJT) warned of an increase in incitement and threats against journalists from citizens who hold media responsible for the deteriorating economic and social situation. Between February 2018 and April 2019, the SNJT reported 139 incidents of verbal, physical assaults, and intimidation against journalists. The SNJT cited public-service employees as primarily responsible for these incidents, followed by security forces and government officials. The SNJT reported an additional 39 instances of physical aggression against journalists between July and September, with the majority of these instances taking place during the September 15 elections with heads of polling stations forcibly removing media from polling stations or otherwise limiting their access to report on the electoral process.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized individuals who published items counter to government guidelines or who published items deemed to defame government officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Various civil society organizations expressed concern about the use of criminal libel laws to stifle freedom of expression. The 2017 adoption of decree laws maintaining the separation between protection of freedom of expression and regulation of the communications and media sector rolled back the prerevolution regime of censorship and secrecy; however, many media actors and activists expressed concern that these decree laws did not go far enough to protect press freedoms and freedom of expression and did not comply with the country’s international obligations.
In August 2018 authorities charged blogger Amina Mansour with violating Article 128 of the penal code and Article 86 of the telecommunications code. The former refers to accusing public officials of crimes without providing proof of their guilt, while the latter covers “willfully and knowingly harming others or disturbing them via public telecommunications networks.” Mansour had posted a message on her Facebook page accusing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of promoting “criminals in the customs agency.” The court sentenced Mansour to a suspended sentence of two months in prison. She appealed the ruling, and as of September her appeals case continued.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without legal authority. There was no censorship of websites, including those with pornographic content, with the exception of websites linked to terrorist organizations.
There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect the right of association. The state of emergency law grants the government the right to limit the right of assembly, although the government rarely applied this law during the year.
A 2018 law mandated the establishment of a more comprehensive business registration system, including the creation of a National Center for Business Registry (CNRE), with the aim to combat terrorism finance and money laundering that also included requirements for nonprofit associations to submit financial data to a newly created registry. Formally established on February 5, the CNRE is responsible for collecting and maintaining the financial and administrative data of all “economic actors,” including nonprofit associations. The center also ensures implementation of the new law and reinforces intelligence tools to eliminate economic crimes. There are CNRE offices in Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, and Nabeul that serve as independent institutions under the Prime Minister’s Office. Since February the CNRE has trained professional associations that support companies and civil society organizations to comply with the new business registration system requirements. The deadline for economic actors to register with this new system was September 10.
The law provides for the right of freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it. A 2011 law on associations eliminated penalties in the previous law, as well as the prohibition on belonging to, or serving in, an unrecognized or dissolved association. The law eased the registration procedure, reducing opportunities for government entities to hinder or delay registration. According to the 2011 law, only the judiciary has the authority to suspend or dissolve an association. Several independent monitoring organizations asserted, however, that the government delayed registration of associations through unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, at times for political reasons, a practice counter to the law.
On June 24, UN Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly Clement Nyaletsossi Voule presented the findings from an official visit to the country in September 2018, noting his concern that the inclusion of civil society organizations in the National Enterprise Registry created an unfavorable environment for civil society by imposing a new registration system on civil society organizations. The report noted there were more than 21,500 registered associations in the country.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Following the April clashes in Tripoli, the government allowed the free movement of Libyans and other nationals crossing into Tunisia.
In-country Movement: In 2018 local NGO Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (ODL) estimated that more than 100,000 individuals were on a border-control order list known as “S17.” Originally created as an “advance consultation” watch list, the S17 procedure identifies individuals requiring additional screening at border checkpoints on security-related grounds. Although the list was established to inform border agents of these individuals’ potential travel outside of the country, civil society groups report that the Ministry of Interior continued to restrict some individuals’ internal travel as well.
Based on feedback from citizens and civil society organizations, the Ministry of Interior prepared new guidelines at the end of 2018 for the application of the S17 procedure to ensure it complies with the constitution and is not used to restrict internal travel. During a February 7 parliamentary hearing, the Director General of Human Rights for the Ministry of the Interior, Mohamed Ali Khaldi, stated the judiciary reviewed 800 cases related to the application of this border-control measure and that 51 individuals successfully appealed to remove their names from this list. Khaldi also noted the ministry adopted new procedures to address concerns by individuals who believe they were mistakenly included on the list.
Amnesty International reported the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures led to improvements in in-country movement. According to the ODL, however, despite a court order to the contrary, the Ministry of Interior refused to grant individuals access to the orders that led them to be included on the S17 list. Even in the case of a court-mandated suspension or lifting of the travel restrictions, some individuals have remained on the list.
Foreign Travel: The law requires that authorities promptly inform those affected by travel restrictions or who have had their passports seized of the reasons for these decisions. In addition the law provides that the affected individuals have the right to challenge the decision and sets a maximum of 14 months during which their travel can be restricted before requiring another court order. Human rights groups noted that authorities did not consistently apply the law and that security forces did not always respect court decisions to reverse travel restrictions. Amnesty International reported, however, that the Ministry of Interior’s efforts to improve its S17 procedures enabled some individuals on the S17 list to obtain their passports and travel internationally with a court order.
Access to Asylum: The country does not have a law for granting asylum or refugee status. The Ministry of Interior noted it coordinated regularly with UNHCR in spite of the absence of this legal framework. Pending the creation of a legal framework, UNHCR is the sole entity conducting refugee status determination. UNHCR provided assistance to registered refugees for primary medical care and, in some cases, basic education. The government granted access to schooling and basic public-health facilities for registered refugees. UNHCR reported that as of September it registered 1,489 newly registered asylum seekers and refugees, bringing to 2,729 the total of persons of concern in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators.
On December 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism highlighted fewer instances of network shutdowns but the continuation of blocked access to several news and citizen journalism websites, as well as increasing self-censorship.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information Technologies Institution (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($8,500 to $85,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In August the BTK announced it would block access to 135 web addresses. The action targeted opposition news portals and public media accounts–notably the Twitter account of HDP Istanbul member of parliament Oya Ersoy and accounts that posted updates about the continuing Gezi trial. The BTK stated the move was “to protect national security and public order, prevent crime or protect public health.” Domestic and international media organizations and activists condemned the decision.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, were required to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked an additional 54,903 domain names during 2018, bringing the total number of blocked sites to 245,825. Of the new domain names that were blocked, 95 percent were blocked through a BTK decision.
Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for more than two years on the basis of national security concerns. In May, following two years of a state-imposed ban against the Wikipedia website, the Wikipedia Foundation brought a case against the country in the ECHR. In July the ECHR decided to expedite the case, due to its public importance. The Constitutional Court began deliberations on the website’s appeal of the ban in September and in late December ruled the government’s ban was a violation of the freedom of expression.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 6,073 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content, the highest number of such requests worldwide.
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace, constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Following the high court’s verdict, as of November lower courts acquitted 486 academics, and 336 cases remained pending. Most academics who were acquitted were not reinstated to their previous positions.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The state-run broadcaster TRT banned songs from the airwaves and defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law that forbids the broadcast of content encouraging persons to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” In September prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint against 18 rappers who took part in the #SUSAMAM project, a 15-minute rap video that examined a wide spectrum of social issues.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 962 demonstrations. As many as 2,800 persons claimed they faced beating and inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests. In July students at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University were confronted by police spraying tear gas before being forcibly removed. The students had set up tents to protest the cutting of trees for the construction of a new state dormitory on campus.
On March 8, police used tear gas to break up an International Women’s Day march of several thousand demonstrators near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. President Erdogan claimed some participants continued their protest during the call to prayer, which he said constituted an insult to religion (a crime according to domestic law). Progovernment media extensively covered the events with columnists widely condemning the demonstrators and largely echoing Erdogan’s criticisms, although some in progovernment media criticized his use of religion in this way. The women’s committee in charge of organizing the event issued a statement denying the accusations and asserting police used excessive force against the demonstrators.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were admitted to observe one hearing.
The government also selectively restricted gatherings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government selectively banned many demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government. In September-October, Ankara police prevented mothers of military cadets sentenced to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt from gathering outside the AKP headquarters building in Ankara. In contrast, during the same period, police did not prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, instead requiring the group to hold the weekly gathering on a nearby side street. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu previously accused the group of exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
The governors of Kayseri and Istanbul banned an academic conference hosted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in their respective provinces. The conference was the sixth in a series of similar events across the country. In a press statement, the group said the conference was a legal action taken directly in line with its government-approved foundational charter and did not violate the sections of law pertaining to assemblies and demonstrations.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, in January police prevented HDP lawmakers from holding a press conference in support of HDP member of parliament Leyla Guven’s hunger strike in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters. Police also violently disrupted a February demonstration in Van on the same topic.
In contrast with previous years, labor rights activists and political parties participated in largely peaceful marches throughout the country on May 1 (Labor Day). Turkish authorities detained 127 marchers in Istanbul who attempted to gather in Taksim Square (which the government specified as off limits).
The governors of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Gaziantep, and Mersin issued bans on public activities by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons during the year. In May and June, police broke up public events related to Pride Month using batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in Izmir and Istanbul. In Izmir groups reported police detained 16 persons for several hours, and police in Istanbul reportedly detained three to five individuals. Police in Ankara also responded to similar events with tear gas despite court rulings that the governorate’s blanket ban on public events by LGBTI groups was not legal. Activists reported that despite the court’s ruling, the government continued to impose individual bans on events and assemblies.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent from reopening associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security. In July the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures announced the government had closed 1,750 nongovernmental associations and foundations under state of emergency measures. Of those, the government allowed the reopening of 208 groups. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. In December the government closed Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association, alleging the association was providing training without the requisite permissions. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In February the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it would seek life imprisonment for philanthropist Osman Kavala, the former editor in chief of opposition-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, and 15 other journalists, artists, and human rights activists for “attempting to overthrow the government” by “organizing and financing” the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Human rights groups criticized the 657-page indictment as not containing “a shred of evidence” of criminal activities. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in prison since 2017. Hearings in the trial began in June. Defendants asserted the evidence presented by the prosecutor did not amount to a crime, contained inaccuracies, and made conclusions based on supposition rather than fact.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued. The defendants were charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop entitled, Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. A court had released Kilic under judicial control in August 2018 while his case continued. In November the prosecutor recommended conviction for Kilic and five other defendants on terror-related charges and requested acquittal for the remaining five. The case continued at years’ end.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In March authorities lifted passport restrictions for 57,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. The government declared Hakkari Province a “special security zone” and limited movement into and out of several districts in the province for weeks at a time, citing the need to protect citizens from PKK attacks.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allowed severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained that the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security.
For those barred from travel, some chose to leave the country illegally. In October a boat carrying 19 citizens seeking to flee the country capsized in the Aegean Sea, killing seven, including five children.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring displaced residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria. The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. In Nusaybin the government built and distributed 778 housing units to residents whose homes were destroyed in antiterror operations.
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were displaced Syrians. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. The Directorate General for Migration Management reported 414,313 “irregular migrants” were apprehended as of November. UNHCR reported 185,000 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. Some 89,000 were deported to their countries of origin. Most of these individuals were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to UNHCR. Reports of larger-scale detentions of individuals, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 144 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans during the year. There were reports that Turkish border guards intercepted or summarily deported Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum. In the days immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s announcement of stricter enforcement of refugee registration requirements in Istanbul, UNHCR confirmed that a small number of Syrian refugees had been involuntarily returned to Syria. Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum seekers at the border (see section 1.a.). During the offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib in June and July, there were reports of displaced Syrians in Turkey being forced to return back across the border into Syria (also see Refoulement).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian, medical, and family reunification cases since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for two nights and resulted in the destruction of several Syrian businesses. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
In certain districts of Istanbul, NGO staff members reported receiving verbal threats and harassment from residents of host communities, urging them not to help Syrians.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations have taken place during the year. The government increased efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children and some specialized medical cases and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. During the year the government also increased enforcement in major cities, such as Istanbul, against those who were either unregistered or registered to live in another province. In one instance an operation in July in Istanbul apprehended 6,122 individuals, including 2,600 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians, who either did not have valid registration to reside in Istanbul or who did not have registration at all.
The Ministry of Interior stated that all refugees of nationalities other than Syrian apprehended during these operations were sent to “repatriation centers.” Multiple refugee advocacy and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reported the refoulement of some Syrians throughout the summer, during active conflict in Idlib, and the fall. While some deported Syrians acknowledged they were living unregistered when they were apprehended and deported, others said they were living outside their city of registration or claimed to have been carrying valid government documents guaranteeing their ability to reside in Turkey. One international human rights group reported that 23 Syrians claimed they were forcibly repatriated although they had not been willing to sign a “voluntary return form” or signed only after being coerced or misinformed. The government contended all returns were voluntary.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to millions of Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some contacts expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM). Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,000 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36.9 percent remained out of school as of September. According to UNICEF, nearly 526,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 100,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: Turkey adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In 15 provinces the DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond newborns and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care. By year’s end the DGMM had closed all but seven camps in five provinces. Residents of these camps numbered 63,443 at year’s end, according to authorities.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2018, 74,939 Syrians held valid residence permits; 2019 figures were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December there were at least 405,500 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government did not respect this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law characterizes any opposition to the government as treason. Citizens publicly criticizing the government or the regime face intimidation and possible arrest. The law requires political parties to allow representatives of the Central Election Committee and Ministry of Justice to monitor their meetings. The government warned critics against speaking with visiting journalists or other foreigners about human rights problems.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government financed and controlled the publication of books and almost all other print media and online newspapers and journals. The quasi-independent weekly newspaper Rysgal continued to operate, although its stories were largely reprints from state media outlets or reflected the views of the state news agency. The government maintained restrictions on the importation of foreign newspapers except for the private, but government-sanctioned, Turkish newspaper Zaman Turkmenistan, which reflected the views of the official state newspapers, and Atavatan-Turkmenistan, a Turkish journal.
The government controlled radio and domestic television, but satellite dishes providing access to foreign television programming were widespread throughout the country. Channels including BBC World News and the Turkmen language version of RFE/RL were widely available through satellite dishes. Citizens also received international radio programs through satellite access.
The government continued its ban on subscriptions to foreign periodicals by nongovernmental entities, although copies of nonpolitical periodicals appeared occasionally in the bazaars. The government maintained a subscription service to Russian-language outlets for government workers, although these publications were not available for public use.
There was no independent oversight of media accreditation, no defined criteria for allocating press cards, no assured provision for receiving accreditation when space was available, and no protection against the withdrawal of accreditation for political reasons. The government required all foreign correspondents to apply for accreditation. It granted visas to journalists from outside the country only to cover specific events, such as international conferences and summit meetings, where it could monitor their activities.
Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported July 29, and credible sources confirmed, that former RFE/RL journalist Soltan Achilova was still banned from traveling abroad. In July she received a letter from the State Migration Service dated July 16 and signed by the deputy chairman of the state migration service that confirmed her travel ban was official and not lifted. Her daughter was also banned from foreign travel. The government reported, as of September 1, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accredited 23 foreign journalists.
Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists critical of its official policy to surveillance and harassment. There were reports law enforcement officials harassed and monitored citizen journalists who worked for foreign media outlets, including by monitoring their telephone conversations and restricting their travel abroad.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits censorship and provides for freedom to gather and disseminate information, but authorities did not implement the law. The government continued to censor newspapers and prohibit reporting of opposition political views or any criticism of the president. Domestic journalists and foreign news correspondents often engaged in self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
To regulate domestic printing and copying activities, the government required all publishers, printers, and photocopying establishments to register their equipment. The government did not allow the publication of works on topics that were out of favor with the government, including some works of fiction. The government must approve the importation, publishing, and dissemination of religious literature. Importation of the Quran and the Bible is prohibited.
The government continued to monitor citizens’ email and internet activity. Reports indicated the Ministry of National Security controlled the main internet access gateway and that several servers belonging to internet protocol addresses registered to the Ministry of Communications operated software that allowed the government to record Voice over Internet Protocol conversations, turn on computer cameras and microphones, and log keystrokes. The authorities blocked access to websites they considered sensitive, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as to some virtual private network (VPN) connections, including those of diplomatic missions and international businesses; it severely restricted internet access to other websites. VPNs, however, were widely used by the general population, with users often having to switch to new VPNs after a VPN was blocked. Qurium Media Foundation reported that authorities blocked 133 of the most popular worldwide websites.
The government did not tolerate criticism of government policy or the president in academic circles and curtailed research in areas it considered politically sensitive, such as comparative law, history, ethnic relations, and theology.
The Ministry of Culture censored and monitored all public exhibitions, including music, art, and cultural events. The government strictly controlled the production of plays and performances in state theaters, and these were severely limited. Authorities also strictly controlled film screenings and limited viewings to approved films dubbed or subtitled in Turkmen and Russian, unless sponsored by a foreign embassy.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. During the year authorities neither granted the required permits for public meetings and demonstrations nor allowed unregistered organizations to hold demonstrations. Unregistered religious groups were not allowed to meet, according to the country’s religion law. Groups that defied the law and attempted to meet in private homes faced intimidation and scrutiny from security forces.
Although the constitution and law provide for freedom of association, the government restricted this right. The law requires all NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice and all foreign assistance to be coordinated through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unregistered NGO activity is punishable by a fine, short-term detention, and confiscation of property. The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice and sets out a schedule of fines for religious activity conducted by unregistered groups.
The government reported that, as of August 23, 122 NGOs were registered in the country, including four international NGOs. Of the registered NGOs, international organizations recognized only a few as independent. NGOs reported the government presented a number of administrative obstacles to NGOs that attempted to register. Authorities rejected some applications repeatedly on technical grounds. Some organizations awaiting registration found alternate ways to carry out activities, such as registering as businesses or subsidiaries of other registered groups, but others temporarily suspended or limited their activities. Although the law states there is a process for registering foreign assistance, NGOs had difficulty registering bilateral foreign assistance in practice due to the 2013 decree requiring such registration.
Sources noted a number of barriers to the formation and functioning of civil society. These included regulations that permitted the Ministry of Justice to send representatives to association events and meetings and requirements that associations notify the government about their planned activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law do not provide for full freedom of movement.
In-country Movement: The law requires internal passports and residency permits. Persons residing or working without residency permits face forcible removal to their place of registration. A requirement for a border permit remained in effect for all foreigners wishing to travel to border areas.
Beginning in February police began a campaign of harassment of female drivers. On numerous occasions police confiscated women’s licenses and cars for ostensibly minor reasons, such as lacking an item in the legally required first-aid kit.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to bar certain citizens from departing under its Law on Migration. The law states that Turkmen citizens may be denied exit from the country “if their exit contravenes the interests of the national security of Turkmenistan.”
Prove They Are Alive! reported that any of the country’s law enforcement bodies can initiate a travel ban on a citizen and that travelers in various categories may be denied departure, including young men obliged to military service; persons facing criminal and civil charges or under probationary sentence; relatives of persons reportedly convicted and imprisoned for the 2002 alleged assassination/coup attempt; as well as journalists, civil society activists, and their family members. The group estimated that 20,000 individuals were subject to a travel ban based on political grounds.
Unless the program was specifically approved in advance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government routinely prevented citizens from travelling abroad for programs sponsored by foreign governments. Migration officials often stopped nonapproved travelers at the airport and prevented them from leaving.
The law provides for restrictions on travel by citizens who had access to state secrets, presented falsified personal information, committed a serious crime, were under surveillance, might become victims of trafficking, previously violated the law of the destination country, or whose travel contradicts the interests of national security. In some cases, the law provides for time limits on the travel ban as well as fines for its infraction. Former public-sector employees who had access to state secrets were prevented from traveling abroad for five years after terminating their employment with the government. The law allows authorities to forbid recipients of presidential amnesties from traveling abroad for a period of up to two years.
Exile: The law provides for internal exile, requiring persons to reside in a certain area for a fixed term of two to five years.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: While formally there is a system for granting refugee status, it was inactive. In 2009 the government assumed responsibility from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for making refugee status determinations, but it has not granted refugee status since. UNHCR had observer status at government-run refugee-status determination hearings. No new asylum seekers have officially registered in the country since 2005. UNHCR reported that as of October 2017, 22 UNHCR mandate refugees resided in the country. Each of these had been individually recognized under UNHCR’s mandate between 1998 and 2002. Mandate refugees are required to renew UNHCR certificates with the government annually.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The country had a significant population of former Soviet Union citizens who became stateless due to the breakup of the Soviet Union. UNHCR’s last calculation in 2015 estimated there were 7,111 stateless persons or persons of undetermined nationality in the country. The number of stateless persons who were also refugees was not available. Citizenship is derived primarily from one’s parents. The requirement that applicants for citizenship prove they are not citizens of another country impeded efforts to establish the nationality of undocumented persons. According to UNHCR, however, in the past 10 years, the government granted citizenship to an estimated 18,000 stateless persons. In September President Berdimuhamedov signed a decree granting citizenship to 863 stateless persons.
The law allows stateless persons to reside in the country legally and travel internationally with government-issued identification and travel documents. Undocumented stateless persons did not have access to public benefits, education, or employment opportunities.