Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to HRW, however, sedition and criminal defamation laws were sometimes used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or opposed state policies. In certain cases local authorities arrested individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. Freedom House, in its most recent report, asserted that freedom of expression was eroding in the country noted the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. In some instances the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from outlets that criticized the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship. According to media watchdog The Hoot, media freedom continued to deteriorate in the first quarter of the year. Between January and April, The Hoot detailed three journalists killed, 13 attacks on journalists, 50 instances of censorship, seven defamation cases, and more than 20 instances of suspension of internet services, as well as the taking down of online content. In 2017 reporting by The Hoot detailed 11 journalists killed, 46 alleged attacks on journalists, 77 internet shutdowns, and 20 sedition cases against 335 individuals.
On July 2, Tamil Nadu police registered a case against a human rights activist and a documentary filmmaker following the launch of a trailer for her upcoming documentary Orutharum Varala (“No one came”), which focused on the plight of victims of Cyclone Ockhi, a storm that hit Tamil Nadu in November 2017. Police charged her for promoting enmity between groups and insulting the national flag. According to media reports, police personnel searched her house without a warrant. At year’s end she remained under conditional bail.
In September 2017 Akhil Gogoi, a right to information activist and president of the anticorruption organization Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, was arrested in Assam on charges of sedition and labelled a Maoist by the government a day after he gave a speech criticizing various policies of the ruling BJP party. In December 2017 Guwahati High Court ordered Gogoi’s release.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.
According to a number of journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were a number of reports, including from journalists and NGOs, that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment/attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, and encouraging frivolous lawsuits.
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index identified physical attacks on journalists and online “trolls” as major areas of concern, noting, “with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.” The report also noted at least three journalists were killed in 2017 in connection with their work, as well as three in March. The report highlighted the use of Section 124a of the penal code, which includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment, to gag journalists.
The Editors Guild of India claimed the government limited press freedom by exerting political pressure and blocking television transmissions. In January Chandigarh-based The Tribune reported on privacy and security flaws in the government’s Aadhaar identity program, leading to the subsequent firing of its editor in chief Harish Khare after government pressure reportedly was brought to bear on the newspaper. Starting in January, Tamil Nadu media reported state-run Arasu Cable Network blocked several television channels’ live coverage of antigovernment protests for periods varying from a day to several months, and on May 22, it blocked coverage of police firing on protesters at a demonstration against the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were some accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books due to material that government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. A 2017 report by the Press Council of India highlighted that at least 80 journalists had been killed since 1990 and only one conviction had been made.
In March, Sandeep Sharma, a News World channel reporter investigating illegal sand mining in Madhya Pradesh, was run over by a dump truck shortly after filing an intimidation complaint against a police officer whom he accused of being in league with local criminal organizations. In July, Ahmedabad police beat DNA India photographer Praveen Indrekar while he was reporting on a police crackdown on illegal liquor sales.
Reporters were also attacked while covering elections. On April 9, Biplab Mondal, a photojournalist with the Times of India, and Manas Chattopadhyay, a reporter with regional television channel ETV Bharat, along with several other journalists, were assaulted by alleged Trinamool Congress loyalists while covering the process of filing nomination papers for local elections in West Bengal.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape. On May 22, Rana Ayyub, a Mumbai-based independent journalist, wrote in the New York Times that after she criticized the prime minister’s policies towards minorities and lower-caste groups, she was targeted by “a coordinated social media campaign that slut shames, deploys manipulated images with sexually explicit language, and threatens rape.”
In September 2017 senior journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was shot and killed by three assailants at her home in Bengaluru. At year’s end 16 individuals were arrested in connection with the case, without formal charges being filed, and the investigation continued.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In August internet news portal The Wire reported the government disrupted the broadcast signal of ABP News and pressured the outlet into sidelining several of its journalists, including its editor in chief, in response to a story that claimed inaccuracies in one of the prime minister’s speeches. ABP anchor Punya Prasoon Vajpai and editor Milind Khandekar resigned, and the Editors Guild of India demanded action against officials for “throttling media freedom.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media. The NGO Freedom House noted that more than 20 individuals were detained for online comments about religion or political issues ranging from a water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to the government’s demonetization policy. In August a 24-year-old was arrested for posting “abusive” comments against Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy on social media.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. In August numerous outlets reported that the Indian Department of Telecom was seeking the views of telecom companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders on how to block mobile apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram, “in cases where national security or public order are under threat.”
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, and censorship of online content. There were also reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directions for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information.
In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of information technology law that restricted content published on social media, but it upheld the government’s authority to issue orders to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In August 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced new rules allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.”
According to media reports, as of August central and state governments temporarily shut down the internet in different locations across the country 95 times, the highest figure recorded and more than the total figure for 2017. Internet access and services were frequently curtailed during periods of violence and curfew in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally in other parts of the country, particularly Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Bihar. According to HRW, authorities sometimes failed to follow legal procedures and in some instances ordered shutdowns unnecessarily.
Requests for user data from internet companies continued to rise, and according to Facebook’s Transparency report, the government made 22,024 data requests in 2017, a 61.7-percent rise from 2016. Google also highlighted an increase in government requests for user data in its 2017 Transparency Report, receiving 14,932 user-data disclosure requests. Twitter reported 576 account information requests from the government during the same period.
In July the government announced that as many as 1,662 defamatory websites had been blocked on social media platforms following requests from law enforcement agencies. Officials stated the government blocked 956 sites on Facebook, 409 on Twitter, and 152 on YouTube, among others. The number of blocked URLs has grown annually, with more than double the number of URLs blocked in 2017 compared with previous years.
Freedom House, in its 2018 India Country Report, rated the country “partly free” with respect to internet user rights. The report documented arrests of internet users and group administrators for content distributed on social media accounts, including WhatsApp, and stated officials detained more than 20 individuals for online comments about religious or political issues.
The Central Monitoring System (CMS) continued to allow governmental agencies to monitor electronic communications in real time without informing the subject or a judge. The CMS is a mass electronic surveillance data-mining program installed by the Center for Development of Telematics, a government-owned telecommunications technology development center. The CMS gives security agencies and income tax officials centralized access to the telecommunication network and the ability to hear and record mobile, landline, and satellite telephone calls and Voice over Internet Protocol, to read private emails and mobile phone text messages, and to track geographical locations of individuals in real time. Authorities can also use it to monitor posts shared on social media and track users’ search histories on search engines, without oversight by courts or parliament. This monitoring facility was available to nine security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The law governing interception and monitoring provides an oversight mechanism to prevent unauthorized interceptions. Punishment for unauthorized interception includes fines, a maximum prison sentence of three years, or both.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government occasionally applied restrictions on the travel and activities of visiting foreign experts and scholars. Academics continued to face threats and pressure for expressing controversial views. In July, The Wire reported the Delhi University administration canceled a magazine launch and panel discussion by Delhi University students on the freedom of expression allegedly due to pressure from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a Hindu right-wing student association.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.
Security forces, including local police, often disrupted demonstrations and reportedly used excessive force when attempting to disperse protesters. On May 22, Tamil Nadu police opened fire on protesters who were demanding the closure of the Sterlite copper smelting plant at Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, killing 15 individuals. The Tamil Nadu government claimed the police only fired on individuals who used logs and petrol bombs to set fire to vehicles during the protests.
There were sometimes restrictions on the organization of international conferences. Authorities required NGOs to secure approval from the central government before organizing international conferences. Authorities routinely granted permission, although in some cases the approval process was lengthy. Some human rights groups claimed this practice provided the government tacit control over the work of NGOs and constituted a restriction on freedoms of assembly and association.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government required “prior approval” for some NGOs to receive foreign funds, suspended foreign banking licenses, or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without the proper clearances or that mixed foreign and domestic funding, and in other instances canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations. On April 3, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiran Rijiju informed the lower house of parliament that the government had canceled the registration of more than 14,000 NGOs in the last four years, although some of the cancellations reportedly pertained to defunct organizations. Some human rights organizations claimed these actions were sometimes used to target specific NGOs.
Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by Ministry of Home Affairs officials who they said were purportedly under pressure to demonstrate strict enforcement of the law. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on nonpublic investigations by the Intelligence Bureau. On June 1, the Ministry of Home Affairs launched an online tool to facilitate real-time monitoring of foreign funds deposited into NGO bank accounts. On June 5, it announced NGOs found in violation of FCRA provisions would be assessed a civil fine instead of having their licenses canceled or suspended. The rules, however, were not applicable retroactively. Some NGOs reported the new rules would severely affect smaller organizations that would be unable to pay the steep penalties–amounting to 10 percent of their total funds–and that did not have the compliance expertise, leaving only large entities able to maintain their FCRA licenses.
Some NGOs alleged they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues like human rights or environmental activism. The Center for Promotion of Social Concerns (CPSC) and its partner program unit People’s Watch continued court proceedings against the nonrenewal of their FCRA license. A September 12 report by the UN secretary general cited the use of FCRA regulations to “restrict the work of NGOs cooperating with the United Nations, for example by a refusal to renew or grant licenses, including for the CPSC.”
On October 25, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), a government agency that investigates financial crimes, raided the premises of Amnesty International India’s Bengaluru office and froze its bank accounts on suspicion that it had violated foreign funding guidelines. Aakar Patel, Amnesty International India’s executive director stated, “The Enforcement Directorate’s raid on our office today shows how the authorities are now treating human rights organizations like criminal enterprises, using heavy-handed methods that are commonly found in repressive states. Our staff have been harassed and intimidated.” The searches came days after the ED searched the premises of environmental nonprofit Greenpeace India in Bengaluru on October 12, also for allegedly violating foreign funding rules. Greenpeace India refuted the allegations stating, “This seems to be part of a larger design to muzzle democratic dissent in the country.”
In February the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a public-health advocacy group, was placed in the “prior permission” category, requiring the organization to seek permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs each time it wanted to receive and use funds from foreign sources. The Ministry of Home Affairs indicated the center and state governments would review PHFI’s use of foreign funds quarterly and that the investigation into PHFI’s alleged FCRA violations would continue.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. In 2015 the implementation of a land-boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh enfranchised more than 50,000 previously stateless residents, providing access to education and health services.
The country hosts a large refugee population, including 108,005 Tibetan refugees and approximately 90,000 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allows the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased challenges regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits. Rohingya refugees were registered by UNHCR but not granted legal status by the government.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees like any other foreigners. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to forced returns and abuse.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor exploitation. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. Gender-based violence and sexual abuse were common in camps for Sri Lankans. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
UNHCR and NGOs observed an increase in antirefugee (specifically anti-Rohingya) rhetoric throughout the year in advance of state and 2019 national elections, which reportedly led to an increased sense of insecurity in refugee communities. On October 4, the Supreme Court rejected a plea to stop the deportation of seven Rohingya immigrants from Assam. The court noted the individuals, held in an Assam jail since 2012, were arrested by Indian authorities as illegal immigrants and that Burma was ready to accept them as their nationals. According to media reports, the nationality of the immigrants was confirmed after the Burmese government verified their addresses in Rakhine State. Rights groups said the government’s decision to deport them placed them at risk of oppression and abuse. According to HRW, the government deported the seven ethnic Rohingya Muslims to Burma where “they are at grave risk of oppression and abuse.” HRW further noted, “The Indian government has disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders.”
In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from the state of Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed in the state, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: On July 31, the government of Assam published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a document intended to define individuals with a claim to citizenship in a state that experienced an influx of foreigners in 1971. In 1985 the government declared that anyone who entered Assam without proper documentation after March 24, 1971, would be declared a foreigner. The names of four million residents were excluded from the final draft list, leading to uncertainty over the status of these individuals, many of whose families had lived in the state for several generations. Individuals will be required to go through an appeals process to have their names included in the final list of Indian citizens. The Supreme Court is overseeing the process, and four million individuals were given 60 days from September 25 to file a claim or objection. On September 24, ruling BJP party president Amit Shah called Bangladeshis who may be in Assam “termites” who will be struck from the list of citizens.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS
Authorities located IDP settlements throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. The 2018 annual report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center asserted 806,000 individuals were displaced because of conflict and violence as of December 2017, with 78,000 new displacements due to conflict in 2017. Estimating precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence was difficult, because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).
National policy or legislation did not address the issue of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs, but they had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
NGOs estimated Gotti Koya tribe members displaced due to prior paramilitary operations against Maoists numbered 50,000 in Chhattisgarh and 27,000 in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In October 2017 the Hyderabad High Court directed the Telangana government not to displace the Gotti Koya tribal members or demolish their dwelling units.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The government detained Rohingya in many of the northeastern states of the country. For example, after serving the allotted time for illegal entry into the country, the government obtained travel permits for seven Rohingya refugees from Burmese authorities and, according to media reports on October 4, the seven Rohingya were transported from prison to the border town of Moreh in Manipur state to be deported.
In July, Minister of State Kiren Rijiju informed the lower house of parliament that the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The Ministry of Home Affairs directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations. The government advocated for the return of Rohingya migrants to Burma.
Access to Asylum: Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited, however. The government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but it did permit asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.
The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state. The central government approved the extension of funding to run the camps until 2020.
Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized identity (Aadhaar) card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. The government allowed UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers to apply for long-term visas that would provide work authorization and access to higher education, although the rate of renewal for long-term visas slowed significantly. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
The government did not fully complete a 2012 Ministry of Home Affairs directive to issue long-term visas to Rohingya. It has reportedly slowed renewals for those with long-term visas significantly, limiting access to formal employment in addition to education, health services, and bank accounts.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
Government services such as mother and child health programs were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained Indian citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at an Indian consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities can also confer citizenship through registration under specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years. Tibetans reportedly sometimes faced difficulty acquiring citizenship despite meeting the legal requirements.
The Assam state government began a process to update the NRC to determine who has legal claim to citizenship in the country, and who is determined to have migrated illegally per a 2014 Supreme Court order. According to official reports, the government has excluded an estimated four million persons from the NRC draft list published on July 30. The central and state governments indicated that all persons not listed were able to file claims and objections for 60 days from September 25. The future legal status of those excluded is not clear. Many individuals may be declared citizens at the end of the process, while others may be at risk of statelessness.
According to UNHCR and NGOs, the country had a large population of stateless persons, but there were no reliable estimates. Stateless populations included Chakmas and Hajongs, who entered the country in the early 1960s from present-day Bangladesh, and groups affected by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. In September 2017 the central government stated it would appeal to the Supreme Court to review its 2015 order to consider citizenship for approximately 70,000 Chakma and Hajong refugees. Media quoted Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju saying the Supreme Court order was “unimplementable.”
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While Indian birth certificates alone do not entitle refugees to Indian citizenship, refugees may present Indian birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship. According to the Organization for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation, approximately 16,000 of 27,000 Sri Lankan refugee children born in the refugee camps have presented birth certificates to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai. According to UNHCR, the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission issued 2,858 birth certificates during the year.
UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 90,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu were “hill country” Tamils. While Sri Lankan law allows “hill country” refugees to present affidavits to secure Sri Lankan citizenship, UNHCR believed that until the Sri Lankan government processes the paperwork, such refugees were at risk of becoming stateless.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained the main source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, could constrain freedom of expression.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were murdered or subject to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) due to their reporting. This limited media’s ability to investigate and report, since many of the reporters who were killed covered crime, corruption, and local politics. According to the NGO Article 19, as of December 5, nine journalists had been killed because of their reporting.
Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity. According to Article 19, as of August the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99.7 percent. In 2017 there were 507 attacks against journalists, according to Article 19. Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists (FEADLE), a PGR unit, won only eight convictions, and none for murder, in the more than 2,000 cases it investigated. On August 25, FEADLE won its first conviction in the new justice system, obtaining a sentence against Tabasco state police officers for illegally detaining a journalist because of his reporting.
Government officials believed organized crime to be behind most of these attacks, but NGOs asserted there were instances when local government authorities participated in or condoned the acts. According to Article 19, in the last five years, 48 percent of physical attacks against journalists originated with public officials. Although 75 percent of those came from state or local officials, federal officials and members of the armed forces were also suspected of being behind attacks against journalists.
In April 2017 the government of Quintana Roo offered a public apology to journalist Pedro Canche, who was falsely accused by state authorities of sabotage and was detained for nine months in prison. In May the PGR detained a police officer, Tila Patricia Leon, and a former judge, Javier Ruiz, for undermining Canche’s freedom of expression through arbitrary detention in retaliation for his critical reporting about state government authorities.
There were no developments in the March 2017 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent.
In March, two police officers, Luigi Heriberto Bonilla Zavaleta and Jose Francisco Garcia, were sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of Moises Sanchez, a newspaper owner and journalist in Veracruz. Sanchez was kidnapped in 2015 and found dead three weeks after his disappearance. The local mayor, accused of ordering the murder, remained a fugitive.
In 2005 journalist Lydia Cacho wrote a book exposing a pedophile ring in Cancun. She was arrested in December 2005 and driven 20 hours to Puebla, during which time police threatened her and forced a gun down her throat. On August 8, a federal court in Quintana Roo upheld the October 2017 decision that found Puebla state police officer Jose Montano Quiroz guilty of torture. In the 2017 sentence, the judge recognized Cacho was tortured psychologically and physically and that the torture inflicted was in retaliation for her reporting.
Between 2012 and June 2018, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received 301 requests for protection for journalists. According to Article 19, there had been 62 requests as of October.
On July 24, Playa Del Carmen-based journalist Ruben Pat became the third journalist killed while under protection of the mechanism. Pat had been arrested, threatened, and allegedly tortured by municipal police in Quintana Roo on June 25, according to the OHCHR. Pat was the second journalist killed from the Seminario Playa news outlet in one month. His colleague Jose Guadalupe Chan Dzib was killed on June 29.
A June joint report from IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza and UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye stated journalists in Mexico lived in a “catastrophic” situation given the number of journalists killed since 2010. The report claimed vast regions of the country were “zones of silence” where exercising freedom of expression was dangerous. Observers noted that journalists were often required to publish messages at the behest of organized criminal groups.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported some state and local governments censored the media.
Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of the media and newsrooms, and threats or retributions against their families, among other reasons. There were reports of journalists practicing self-censorship due to threats from criminal groups and government officials, especially in the states of Tamaulipas and Sinaloa.
According to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report, the federal government and some state governments used advertising expenditures to influence the editorial policies of media outlets. Article 19 reported in March the government had a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies.
Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander, but there are state criminal laws in eight states. In Guanajuato, Nuevo Leon, Baja California Sur, Nayarit, Michoacan, and Yucatan, the crime of defamation is prosecuted, with penalties ranging from three days to five years in prison, and fines ranging from five to five hundred days of minimum salary for committing defamation or slander, both considered “crimes against honor.” Slander is punishable under the criminal laws of the states of Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Nuevo Leon, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Colima, Michoacan, Campeche, and Yucatan, with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison, and monetary fines. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.
In May the Supreme Court struck down a law in the state of Nayarit penalizing slander. The court ruled the law violated freedom of expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized criminal groups exercised a grave and increasing influence over media outlets and reporters, threatening individuals who published critical views of crime groups. Concerns persisted about the use of physical violence by organized criminal groups in retaliation for information posted online, which exposed journalists, bloggers, and social media users to the same level of violence faced by traditional journalists.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns about illegal surveillance practices in the country and violence against online reporters.
NGOs alleged provisions in secondary laws threatened the privacy of internet users by forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for two years, providing real-time geolocation data to police, and allowing authorities to obtain metadata from private communications companies without a court order. While the Supreme Court upheld those mechanisms, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access users’ metadata.
There were no developments in the criminal investigation the government stated in 2017 that it had opened to determine whether prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and anticorruption activists were subjected to illegal surveillance via a sophisticated surveillance program, “Pegasus.” PGR officials acknowledged purchasing Pegasus but claimed to have used it only to monitor criminals. In May a Mexico City district judge ordered the victims’ evidence be accepted in the PGR’s ongoing investigation. According to a November report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, 24 individuals were targeted with Pegasus spyware.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 64 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were some reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws that restrict public demonstrations.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
The government and press reports noted a marked increase in refugee and asylum applications during the year. According to UNHCR statistics, there were 9,900 asylum applications during the first half of the year, compared with a total of 14,596 applications in all of 2017.
At the Iztapalapa detention center near Mexico City, the Twenty-First Century detention center in Chiapas, and other detention facilities, men were separated from women and children, and there were special living quarters for LGBTI individuals. Migrants had access to medical, psychological, and dental services, and the Iztapalapa center had agreements with local hospitals to care for any urgent cases free of charge. Individuals from countries with consular representation also had access to consular services. Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) and CNDH representatives visited daily, and other established civil society groups were able to visit the detention facilities on specific days and hours. Victims of trafficking and other crimes were housed in specially designated shelters. Human rights pamphlets were available in many different languages. In addition approximately 35 centers cooperated with UNHCR and allowed it to display posters and provide other information on how to access asylum for those in need of international protection.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The press and NGOs reported victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials. Government and civil society sources reported the Central American gang presence spread farther into the country and threatened migrants who had fled the same gangs in their home countries. An August 2017 report by the independent INM Citizens’ Council found incidents in which immigration agents had been known to threaten and abuse migrants to force them to accept voluntary deportation and discourage them from seeking asylum. The council team visited 17 detention centers across the country and reported threats, violence, and excessive force against undocumented migrants. The INM responded to these allegations by asserting it treated all migrants with “absolute respect.”
There were media reports that criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from migrants’ relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on their behalf.
A November 2017 Amnesty International report highlighted the dangers Central American LGBTI migrants faced in Mexico. Citing UNHCR data, the report stated two-thirds of LGBTI migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who applied for refugee status reported having been victims of sexual violence in Mexico.
According to a July 2017 report from the NGO Washington Office on Latin America, of the 5,824 reported crimes against migrants that occurred in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Sonora, Coahuila, and at the federal level, 99 percent of the crimes were unresolved.
In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of migrants, including by kidnappings and homicides.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) attributed the displacement of 10,947 people in 2018 to violence by government forces against civilians in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. Land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, local political disputes, religiously motivated violence, extractive industry operations, and natural disasters were other causes. The CMDPDH found 74 percent of displaced persons in 2017 came from the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Sinaloa. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.
During an October 2017 border dispute between two municipalities in the state of Chiapas, 5,323 Tzotziles indigenous individuals were displaced. Violence between the communities resulted in women, children, and the elderly abandoning their homes. By January, 3,858 had returned, and the rest remained in shelters.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection, and the government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protection to refugees. At the end of 2017, the Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) had received 14,596 petitions, of which 2,400 were abandoned, 7,719 were pending, and 4,475 were resolved. The number of applicants withdrawing from the process dropped to 16 percent during the year, down from 36 percent in 2014. The refusal rate decreased from 61 percent to 37 percent over that same period. NGOs reported bribes sometimes influenced the adjudication of asylum petitions and requests for transit visas.
The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to asylum and the asylum procedure, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, and integration (access to school and work) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status. In October, the government announced the “You Are at Home” (“Estas en tu casa”) program to address the flow of migrants in so-called caravans from Central America transiting the country to seek asylum in the United States. The program offered migrants the opportunity to stay legally in the country with access to health care, employment, and education for children. Press reports indicated that 546 migrants had registered for the program as of November 11.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, a generally effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws and the Law on Antiterrorism permit authorities to restrict reporting on the security forces, prisons, and mental institutions.
In a March court judgment, Vicki Momberg was convicted of “crimen injuria” (unlawfully, intentionally, and seriously injuring the dignity of another person) for repeatedly addressing black police officers with a racial slur. She was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment without parole. Many human rights groups applauded the ruling–the first of its kind–but the Afrikaner rights group AfriForum called it a case of “double standards… a white person who insults a black person goes to prison, while a senior officer in the defense force who says that white people’s eyes and tongues must be stabbed out is simply asked nicely not to repeat it.”
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
According to the South African Advertising Research Foundation, print media reached 49 percent of the adult population. Despite the number and diversity of publications, the concentration of media ownership in a few large media groups drew criticism from the government and some political parties, which complained print media did not always adequately cover their points of view.
The state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was criticized for violating its stated editorial independence in favor of progovernment reporting (see section 4, elections, and political participation). In January former independent television station (eNCA) presenter and journalist Chris Maroleng was hired as the SABC’s chief operating officer, and stated he was committed to promoting fair, balanced, and impartial coverage, to limit political interference, and to regain public trust in the SABC.
Nonprofit community radio stations played an important role in informing the mostly rural public, although these stations often had difficulty producing adequate content and maintaining quality staff. Community activists complained some community radio stations self-censored their programming because they were dependent on government advertising for revenue. Government broadcast regulators withdrew community radio licenses on a regular basis for noncompliance with the terms of issuance.
Talk radio broadcast in the country’s 11 official languages played a significant role in public debate, providing a forum for discussion by government officials, politicians, commentators, and average citizens.
Many in the public credited media with exposing corruption in former president Zuma’s administration and with his eventual resignation. For example, the online Daily Maverick’s investigative unit “amaBhungane and Scorpio” ran a series of stories exposing details regarding state capture by the politically connected Gupta family and the family’s level of influence on government officials and institutions.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists covering the ANC’s national elective conference reported security officers manhandled them to prevent their access to delegates. SABC journalists covering protests in North West Province reported being attacked and robbed by protesters. SABC journalists reported that soccer fans in Durban destroyed some of their media equipment. These incidents did not appear to be orchestrated attacks on media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political officials often criticized media for lack of professionalism and reacted sharply to media criticism, frequently accusing black journalists of disloyalty and white journalists of racism. Some journalists believed the government’s sensitivity to criticism resulted in increased media self-censorship.
Jacques Pauw, an investigative journalist and author of an expose of corruption in former president Zuma’s administration, was investigated by the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigation for allegedly using secret government documents as material for his book. The South African Revenue Service also filed charges against Pauw for violating confidentiality laws. Human rights activists charged that Pauw was targeted for exposing the corruption.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes state monitoring of telecommunication systems, however, including the internet and email, for national security reasons. The law requires all service providers to register on secure databases the identities, physical addresses, and telephone numbers of customers.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 56.2 percent of individuals used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Unlike in prior years, there were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right. According to SAPS, from April 2017 through March there were 11,058 peaceful protests and an additional 3,583 demonstrations that turned violent. Protest action was most common in Gauteng, North West, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for the right of association, and the government generally respected this right.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights. The government cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Nevertheless, refugee advocacy groups criticized the government’s processes for determining asylum and refugee status, citing large case backlogs, low approval rates, inadequate use of country-of-origin information, limited locations at which to request status, and susceptibility to corruption and abuse.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugee advocacy organizations stated that police and immigration officials abused refugees and asylum seekers. Xenophobic violence was a continuing problem across the country. Although no official data existed on this subject, Xenowatch, an open-source system for information collection and interactive mapping that allows crowd sourcing of xenophobia-related incidents, reported that 27 persons were killed, 77 persons were assaulted, 588 shops were looted, and 1,143 persons were displaced due to xenophobic incidents during the 18 months between February 2017 and August 31. According to Xenowatch, during that period xenophobic-related killings, assaults, and displacements declined, but the looting of foreign-owned or -managed shops increased.
Xenophobic violence occurred against foreign nationals, often refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They often owned or managed small, informal township grocery stores. In May, Durban police were on high alert after the North Region Business Association sent letters to foreign national shop owners advising them to shut down their businesses in Inanda, Ntuzuma, and KwaMashu townships.
Although the DHA had anticorruption programs in place and punished officials or contracted security officers found to be accepting bribes, NGOs and asylum applicants reported that immigration authorities sought bribes from those seeking permits to remain in the country, particularly in cases where applicants’ documentation had expired.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum and refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. According to local organizations, the DHA rejected the vast majority of refugee applications. There were more than one million refugees and asylum seekers at year’s end. An estimated 120,000 were granted refugee status. Government services strained to keep up with the caseload, and NGOs criticized the government’s implementation of the system as inadequate. According to UNHCR, the government registered 24,174 asylum seekers in 2017, a 46-percent decline from 2016.
The DHA operated only three processing centers for refugees but refused to transfer cases among facilities. The DHA thus required asylum seekers to return to the office at which they were originally registered to renew asylum documents, usually valid for only three months, which NGOs argued posed an undue hardship. During the year the government did not expand the number of reception centers, resulting in large backlogs. NGOs reported asylum seekers sometimes waited in line for days to access the reception centers.
Employment: According to NGOs, refugees and asylum seekers were regularly denied employment due to their immigration status.
Access to Basic Services: Although the law provides for access to basic services, including educational, police, and judicial services, NGOs stated that health-care facilities and law enforcement personnel discriminated against asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees. Some refugees reported they could not access schooling for their children. They reported that schools often refused to accept asylum documents as proof of residency.
One immigrant group stated the government would not recognize it as an official NGO because it did not have a bank account; however, no bank would issue an account to the group because its representatives lacked government-issued identification documents.
Temporary Protection: The government offered temporary protection to some individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government allowed persons who applied for asylum to stay in the country while their claims were adjudicated and if denied, to appeal.
United Arab Emirates
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the law prohibits criticism of national rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest; the government restricted freedom of speech and press.
Freedom of Expression: After the onset of widespread regional turmoil in 2011, authorities severely restricted public criticism of the government and individual ministers. The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities, calls for democratic reforms, criticism of or perceived insults against the government and government institutions, and, in rarer cases, criticism of individuals. In November the Supreme Court ruled that both online verbal and written insults are a prosecutable offense. In January the Federal Supreme Court upheld a 10-year jail sentence and 500,000 AED ($136,000) fine for a citizen who was found guilty of insulting and mocking one of the country’s leaders.
In other cases authorities brought individuals to trial for posting material on social media platforms. The material was considered a violation of privacy or personally insulting to acquaintances, colleagues, employers, or religions.
After the government severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, the General Prosecutor declared that showing any sympathy with Qatar or objecting to the government’s position against Qatar in written, visual, or verbal form, would be punishable by three to 15 years in prison or a minimum fine of 500,000 AED ($136,000). These restrictions continued to apply to social media users in the country. During the year there were no confirmed arrests under the declaration.
Press and Media Freedom: International NGOs categorized the press, both in print and online, as not free. Except for regional media outlets located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s free trade zones, the government owned most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. All media conformed to unpublished government reporting guidelines. The government also influenced privately owned media through the National Media Council (NMC), which directly oversaw all media content. Satellite-receiving dishes were widespread and provided access to uncensored international broadcasts. In March the NMC issued regulations for electronic media, including rules for publishing and selling advertising, print, video, and audio material. The regulations required those benefitting monetarily from social media advertising to purchase a license from the NMC. In April an Ajman Radio anchor was fired under orders from the crown prince of Ajman after being accused of insulting a caller on his morning talk show; the anchor stated that he was defending the country’s reputation.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: By law the NMC, whose members the president appoints, licenses and censors all publications, including private association publications. The law authorizes censorship of domestic and foreign publications to remove criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments. Statements that “threaten social stability,” and materials considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, or supportive of certain Israeli government positions are criminalized. In April the Dubai Appeals Court upheld a three-month prison sentence and 5,000 AED ($1,360) fine for an Indian man who was convicted of defaming Islam. The law also criminalizes as blasphemy acts that provoke religious hatred or insult religious convictions through any form of expression, including broadcasting, printed media, or the internet. In 2017 the government issued new regulations that require government and private institutions to obtain a license before publishing or broadcasting media or advertising content, or face penalties. The order applied to any media or advertising activity and to any person or entity that issues any type of publication, including clubs, associations, diplomatic missions, foreign centers, and movie theaters.
After severing diplomatic ties with Qatar, the government blocked Qatari-funded al-Jazeera’s website and most Qatari broadcasting channels.
Government officials reportedly warned journalists when they published or broadcast material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly as most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Authorities did not allow some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel and slander laws to suppress criticism of its leaders and institutions. The law criminalizes acts that defame others online or through information technology. In June an Arab man was fined 250,000 AED ($68,100) by the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court of First Instance on charges of defamation and violating cybercrime laws when he tweeted comments that were deemed insulting to a woman.
Those convicted of libel face up to two years in prison. The maximum penalty for libel against the family of a public official is three years in prison.
National Security: Authorities often cited the need to protect national security as the basis for laws that curb criticism of the government or expression of dissenting political views. For example, the country’s cybercrime laws include broad limitations on using electronic means to promote disorder or “damage national unity.” Human rights groups criticized these laws, particularly in statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council in January in response to the country’s Universal Periodic Review, for excessively restricting freedom of speech.
The government restricted access to some websites and monitored social media, instant messaging services, and blogs. Authorities stated they could imprison individuals for misusing the internet. Self-censorship was apparent on social media, and there were reports the Ministry of Interior monitored internet use.
The country’s two internet service providers, both linked to the government, used a proxy server to block materials deemed inconsistent with the country’s values, as defined by the Ministry of Interior. Blocked material included pornographic websites and a wide variety of other sites deemed indecent, such as those dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues; Judaism and atheism; negative critiques of Islam; testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity; gambling; promotion of illegal drug use; and postings that explained how to circumvent the proxy servers. International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained filtered content. The government also blocked some sites containing content critical of ruling families in the UAE and other states in the region. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was responsible for creating lists of blocked sites. Service providers did not have the authority to remove sites from blocked lists without government approval. The government also blocked most voice-over-internet-protocol applications. In late December 2017, the government blocked Skype and in January reportedly blocked an online petition protesting that move. Calling applications on WhatsApp and other voice-over-internet-protocols have also been blocked from use in country or with phone numbers registered in the country.
The Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes investigated criminal cases involving use of information technology, including the use of the internet with the intent to damage public morals, the promotion of sinful behavior, insults to Islam and God, illegal collections of donations, trafficking in persons, calling for or abetting the breach of laws, and the organization of demonstrations.
The law explicitly criminalizes use of the internet to commit a wide variety of offenses and provides fines and prison terms for internet users who violate political, social, and religious norms. The law provides penalties for using the internet to oppose Islam; to proselytize Muslims; to abuse a holy shrine or ritual of any religion; to insult any religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic group; to incite someone to commit sin; or to contravene family values by publishing news or photographs pertaining to a person’s private life or family. In April a man was sentenced to three months in prison and fined 5,000 AED ($1,360) for insulting key figures in Islam on Facebook.
The 2012 cybercrimes decree and the 2015 Antidiscrimination Law provide for more severe penalties for violations and include jail terms that reach life sentences and fines depending on severity and seriousness of the crime. In August the penalties for violating the cybercrimes law were strengthened, including an increase in the maximum fines to four million AED ($1,089,000). These laws added to existing online communication limitations on freedom of speech to include prohibitions on criticism or defamation of the government or its officials; insults based on religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic origin; insults directed at neighboring countries; and calls for protests and demonstrations. In April the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) warned residents that posting or spreading “fake news” on social media was punishable by imprisonment or fines up to one million AED ($272,000).
Abu Dhabi police reported in January that they had investigated 774 cybercrime cases in 2017, 206 of which were categorized as blackmail.
In March the National Media Council (NMC) began requiring social media influencers who accept payment in money or high-value goods and services in return for endorsing products to join a social media management agency or obtain an e-commerce license for 30,000 AED ($8,167) and a trade license, for which the price varies by emirate.
The International Telecommunication Union estimated in 2017 that 94 percent of households had access to the internet.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom, including speech both inside and outside the classroom by educators, and censored academic materials for schools. The government required official permission for conferences and submission of detailed information on proposed speakers and topics of discussion. This was also required at private schools for events on campus. Some organizations found it difficult to secure meeting space for public events that dealt with contentious issues.
Cultural institutions avoided displaying artwork or programming that criticized the government or religion. Self-censorship among cultural and other institutions, especially for content presented to the public, was pervasive and generally directed at preventing the appearance of illegal works, including those deemed as promoting blasphemy or addressing controversial political issues.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides limited freedom of assembly and the government imposed restrictions.
The law requires a government-issued permit for organized public gatherings. Authorities dispersed impromptu protests such as labor strikes and at times arrested participants. While there was no uniform standard for the number of persons who could gather without a permit, civil society representatives in the past have reported authorities could ask groups of four or more to disperse if they did not have a permit. The government did not interfere routinely with informal, nonpolitical gatherings held without a government permit in public places unless there were complaints. The government generally permitted political gatherings that supported its policies. Hotels, citing government regulations, sometimes denied permission for groups such as unregistered religious organizations to rent space for meetings or religious services.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides limited freedom of association. The government imposed some restrictions.
Political organizations, political parties, and trade unions are illegal. All associations and NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Community Development (formerly Social Affairs), and many that did received government subsidies. Domestic NGOs registered with the ministry were mostly citizens’ associations for economic, religious, social, cultural, athletic, and other purposes. Registration rules require that all voting organizational members, as well as boards of directors, must be local citizens. This requirement excluded almost 90 percent of the population from fully participating in such organizations. In Dubai volunteer organizations were required to register with the Community Development Authority (CDA) and were required to obtain approval from the CDA before conducting fundraising activities.
Associations must follow the government’s censorship guidelines and receive prior government approval before publishing any material. In Abu Dhabi exhibitions, conferences, and meetings require a permit from the Tourism and Culture Authority. To obtain a permit, the event organizer must submit identification documents for speakers along with speaker topics. The government denied permits if it did not approve of the topic or speaker. If the event or speaker continued without an approved permit, the government imposed fines.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law generally provided for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation. While the government generally respected these rights, it imposed certain legal restrictions on foreign travel. The lack of passports or other identity documents restricted the movement of stateless persons, both within the country and internationally. The government allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Foreign Travel: Authorities generally did not permit citizens and residents involved in legal disputes under adjudication, and noncitizens under investigation to travel abroad. Additionally, authorities sometimes arrested individuals with outstanding debts or legal cases while in transit through an airport.
At the sole discretion of emirate-level prosecutors, foreign nationals had their passports taken or travel restricted during criminal and civil investigations. Some individuals were also banned from foreign travel. These measures posed particular problems for noncitizen debtors, who in addition to being unable to leave the country, were usually unable to find work without a passport and valid residence permit, making it impossible to repay their debts or maintain legal residency. In some cases family, friends, local religious organizations, or other concerned individuals helped pay the debt and enabled the indebted foreign national to depart the country. According to media reports, the president pardoned 704 prisoners ahead of Eid al-Adha and pledged to settle financial obligations of released prisoners. Rulers across the emirates pardoned nearly 2,000 prisoners ahead of national day. In April a Dubai-based businessperson cleared the debts of 560 prisoners held across the country.
Travel bans were placed on citizens. For example, citizens of interest for reasons of state security, including former political prisoners, encountered difficulties renewing official documents, resulting in implicit travel bans. Authorities did not lift travel bans until the completion of a case in the judicial system.
In June 2017 the government and several other regional countries severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and enacted a blockade on air, sea, and land traffic to and from Qatar. Qatari citizens were given two weeks to leave the UAE and were banned from traveling to and transiting the UAE. Emirati citizens were banned from visiting or transiting through Qatar. The UAE Ministry of Interior established a hotline to assist blended Qatari-Emirati families, allowing them to remain in the UAE on a case-by-case basis. Qatar filed a case in the International Court of Justice against the UAE for having violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination when it ordered all Qatari citizens to leave the country. In July the International Court of Justice ruled that the government should take three provisional measures: ensure that all families that included a Qatari were reunited; give Qatari students who were studying in the UAE at the time of the expulsion the opportunity to complete their education in the UAE, or obtain their educational records if they chose to study elsewhere; and allow Qataris access to the UAE’s judicial system. In response the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a statement that the government had already taken those measures.
Custom dictates that a husband may prevent his wife, minor children, and adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by taking custody of their passports.
Citizenship: The government may revoke naturalized citizens’ passports and citizenship status for criminal or politically provocative actions.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
UNHCR lacked formal legal status in the country separate from the UN Development Program. The government nevertheless worked with UNHCR on a case-by-case basis to address refugee issues. The government did not formally grant refugee status or asylum to aliens seeking protection, but it allowed some refugees to remain in the country temporarily on an individual basis. This nonpermanent status often presented administrative, financial, and social hardships, including the need frequently to renew visas and the inability to access basic services such as health care and education for children. In June the government announced that citizens of war-torn countries who were living in the UAE and had overstayed their visas would be permitted to apply from August 1 to October 31 for a permit to legally remain in the UAE for a year. These applicants were to be exempted from immigration fines and their permits extendable, although the duration of the extension was unknown.
Refoulement: The family of Abudujilili Supi, a Uighur man from China legally residing in the UAE, reported to media that Supi was detained by local police in September after he left afternoon prayers at the Abdullah bin Rawaha mosque in Sharjah. Supi’s wife, who witnessed the arrest, was given no explanation why he was arrested. Supi called her from detention three days later informing her that he was told he would be forced to return to China involuntarily by UAE authorities. His whereabouts remained unknown.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government had not established a transparent, codified system for providing protection to refugees. While the government extended informal protection from return to refugees in some cases, any persons lacking legal residency status were technically subject to local laws on illegal immigrants, and authorities could detain them. In some cases authorities confined individuals seeking protection at an airport to a specific section of the airport while they awaited resettlement in another country.
Employment: Access to employment was based on an individual’s status as a legal resident, and persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.
Access to Basic Services: Access to education and other public services, including health care, is based on an individual’s status as a legal resident. As a result some families, particularly from Iraq and Syria, reportedly did not have access to healthcare or schools. The government provided or allowed access to some services on a case-by-case basis, often after the intervention of UNHCR representatives. Some hospitals were willing to see patients without the mandatory insurance, but required full payment up front.
Informal estimates suggested 20,000 to 100,000 Bidoon, or persons without citizenship, resided in the country. Government statistics estimated the population at 10,000. Most Bidoon lacked citizenship because they did not have the preferred tribal affiliation used to determine citizenship when the country was established. Others entered the country legally or illegally in search of employment. Because children derive citizenship generally from the father, Bidoon children born within the country’s territory remained stateless. Without passports or other forms of identification, the movement of Bidoon was restricted, both within the country and internationally. In recent years the government purchased a number of passports from Comoros and issued them to Bidoon. The documents conferred economic Comoran citizenship on the recipients and legalized their status in the UAE.
The government has a naturalization process, and individuals may apply for citizenship. Children of female citizens married to noncitizens do not acquire citizenship automatically at birth, but their mothers may obtain citizenship for the children after submitting an application, which a government committee reviews and generally accepts, once the child is 18 years old. A foreign woman may receive citizenship after 10 years of marriage to a citizen. Anyone may receive a passport by presidential fiat.
The committee that reviews mothers’ citizenship applications for their children also reviews citizenship applications from Bidoon who could satisfy certain legal conditions to be eligible for naturalization and subsequently could gain access to education, health care, and other public services. There were no reports, however, of stateless persons receiving Emirati citizenship.