Democratic Republic of the Congo
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government did not always respect this right. The press frequently and openly criticized public officials and public policy decisions. Individuals generally could criticize the government, its officials, and other citizens in private without being subject to official reprisals. Public criticism, however, of government officials and corruption sometimes resulted in intimidation, threats, or arrest. Provincial-level governments also prevented journalists from filming or covering some protests. Through June 30, the UNJHRO documented human rights abuses against at least 47 journalists and other media professionals. An HRW report in July stated that provincial-level officials were using the national state of emergency related to COVID-19 to restrict press freedoms and detain journalists and activists who criticized them or their policies.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits insulting the head of state, malicious and public slander, and language presumed to threaten national security. Authorities sometimes intimidated, harassed, and detained journalists, activists, and politicians when they publicly criticized the government, president, or SSF.
On July 9, Henri Maggie, the vice-president of the youth league for former president Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for contempt of President Felix Tshisekedi, under provisions of a 1963 ordinance that prohibits individuals from publicly insulting the head of state.
On May 9, in Lisala, Mongala Province, three activists–Peter Tetunabo, Taylor Engonga, and Yannick Mokanga–along with journalist Fabrice Ngani, were arrested when they delivered a note to the provincial parliament criticizing the governance record of Governor Crisbin Ngbundu Malengo. By June 8, all four had been released. According to Reporters without Borders, on June 17, provincial authorities revoked reporting credentials from Ngani and five other journalists.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law mandates the High Council for the Audiovisual and Communications to provide for freedom of the press and equal access to communications media and information for political parties, associations, and citizens. A large and active private press functioned in Kinshasa and in other major cities, and the government licensed a large number of daily newspapers. Radio remained the principal medium of public information due to limited literacy and the relatively high cost of newspapers and television. The state owned three radio stations and three television stations, and the former president’s family owned two additional television stations. Government officials, politicians, and to a lesser extent church leaders, owned or operated the majority of media outlets.
The government required newspapers to pay a one-time license fee and complete several administrative requirements before publishing. Broadcast media were subject to a Directorate for Administrative and Land Revenue advertisement tax. Many journalists lacked professional training, received little or no set salary, could not access government information, and exercised self-censorship due to concerns of harassment, intimidation, or arrest.
In November local NGO Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 116 cases of attacks on media from November 2019 to October and attributed 35 of these attacks to ANR and PNC agents. Another 48 were attributed to provincial and local political authorities. JED reported one journalist killed, one disappeared, nine incarcerated, and 31 detained for more than the legal limit of 48 hours without being charged. At year’s end the government had not sanctioned or charged any perpetrator of press freedom violations.
Violence and Harassment: Local journalists were vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the SSF.
HRW reported that on May 8, government security forces stopped three journalists working for Radio Fondation–Daniel Madimba, Serge Kayeye, and Jean-Baptiste Kabeya–at a roadblock on the outskirts of Mbuji-Mayi, Kasai Oriental Province. The two were accused of insulting Provincial Governor Jean Maweja Muteba and were subsequently assaulted. The following day, police arrested the radio station’s program director, Faustin Mbiya, interrogated him, and accused him of “contempt of authority” and “public insult.” On May 13, Mbiya was released without charge.
Local media reported that on July 4, PNC officers in Kinshasa detained Ange Makadi Ngoy, a journalist for the online news site 7sur7.cd, as she filmed protests. Ange stated the officers confiscated her press badge and equipment.
Local media also reported that on July 12, the ANR arrested Patrick Palata, director of the Tala Tala TV station in Matadi, Kongo Central Province, for having broadcast a report on the shooting death of a local woman. Authorities confiscated his recordings, which contained witness testimony alleging that guards of Governor Atou Matubouana killed the woman. On July 14, Palata was released without charge.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: While the High Council for Audiovisual and Communications is the only institution with legal authority to restrict broadcasts, the government, including the SSF and provincial officials, also exercised this power.
Media representatives reported they were pressured by provincial government authorities not to cover events organized by the opposition or report news concerning opposition leaders.
JED reported that on May 26, Crispin Ngbundu, governor of Mongala Province, ordered the closure of four radio stations: Radio Mongala, The Voice of Bumba, The Rural Radio of Bumba, and Radio Mwana Mboka. Ngbundu’s orders accused radio journalists of defamation and insulting provincial authorities. On June 17, Mongala provincial authorities issued an order for the immediate dismissal of six journalists from three of those stations: Fabrice Ngani, Victor Mbonzo, Tresor Emaka, and Jose Lingili from the Voice of Bumba; Olivier Peguy Yenga of Radio Mongala; and Benjamin Mondonga of Radio Mwana Mboka.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law does not consider the veracity of reported facts in the case of a defamation complaint. Instead, the judge is only to consider the damage to the accused from revelations in a journalist’s work.
The national and provincial governments used defamation laws to intimidate and punish critics. On April 24, according to HRW, police in Gemena, Sud Ubangi Province, arrested Alexandre Robert Mawelu, a reporter for Radio Liberte, after he had criticized the provincial governor in a social media forum linked to his radio show. On April 29, Mwelu was granted provisional release, but he still faced official charges of “contempt for a member of the government” and “defamatory statements” as of the end of July.
National Security: The national government used a law that prohibits anyone from making general defamatory accusations against the military to restrict free speech.
Nongovernmental Impact: IAGs and their political wings regularly restricted press freedom in the areas where they operated.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were some reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but government authorities restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, especially in Upper Uele, North Kivu, and Tanganyika Provinces. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government sometimes used this advance notification requirement to decline to authorize public meetings or protests organized by opposition parties or civil society groups critical of the government. During the COVID-19-related state of emergency, which lasted from March 24 through August 15, public gatherings of more than 20 persons were banned. The SSF beat, detained, or arrested persons participating in protests, marches, and meetings. The SSF also used tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times live ammunition, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.
Local media reported that on January 17, meetings called by opposition leader Martin Fayulu were banned in six cities. Protesters in Kinshasa and Kindu were violently dispersed.
The United Nations recorded 57 human rights violations committed by state agents related to the COVID-19 state of emergency. For example, on April 4, PNC officers arrested 14 members of the youth activist group LUCHA in Kinshasa as they were preparing to submit documentation to a COVID-19 working group. Police also beat some of them. The victims were accused of failing to comply with the state of emergency’s limit on gatherings of more than 20 individuals.
On July 9, local media also reported that police in Kinshasa broke up a street protest against the COVID-19-related closure of the Zando market. During the scuffle three persons were killed, two were electrocuted by downed power lines, and one was crushed by the stampeding crowd.
MONUSCO reported that the majority of human rights abuses during the state of emergency came from individual SSF agents taking advantage of the situation to mistreat, arbitrarily arrest, or extort victims. The UNJHRO reported that on April 4, PNC officers arbitrarily arrested a woman and her daughter in Nyaragongo, North Kivu Province, under the pretext that the provincial governor’s public health orders allowed police to arrest anyone caught chatting in the streets. The two women were forced to give police a bribe in order to be released.
The UNJHRO reported more restrictions on democratic space and human rights violations related to fundamental freedoms, compared with the same period in 2019. In the first six months of the year, the office documented 573 violations of democratic space, compared with 461 violations recorded during the same period in 2019. These included restrictions on freedom of assembly, the right to liberty and security of person, and of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Civil society organizations and NGOs are required to register with the government and may receive funds only through donations; they may not generate any revenue, even if it is not at a profit. The registration process was burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community, reported the government had denied their registration requests. Many NGOs reported that, even when carefully following the registration process, it often took years to receive certification. Many interpreted registration difficulties as intentional government obstacles for impeding NGO activity.
c. Freedom of Religion
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. The government sometimes restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: The SSF established barriers and checkpoints on roads and at airports and markets, both for security reasons and to track movement related to the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks. Travel was significantly restricted during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The SSF routinely harassed and extorted money from civilians for supposed violations, sometimes detaining them until they or a relative paid. The government required travelers to submit to control procedures at airports and ports during domestic travel and when entering and leaving towns. IAGs engaged in similar activity in areas under their control, routinely extorting civilians at checkpoints and holding them for ransom.
Local authorities continued to collect illegal taxes and fees for boats to travel on many parts of the Congo River. There also were widespread reports FARDC soldiers and IAG combatants extorted fees from persons taking goods to market or traveling between towns (see section 1.g.).
The SSF sometimes required travelers to present travel orders from an employer or government official, although the law does not require such documentation. The SSF often detained and sometimes exacted bribes from individuals traveling without orders.
Foreign Travel: Because of inadequate administrative systems, passport issuance was irregular. Officials accepted bribes to expedite passport issuance, and there were reports the price of fully biometric passports varied widely.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, including individuals displaced for longer than 12 months, there were 5.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including 3.2 million children, in the country. The government was unable to consistently protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. The government sometimes closed IDP camps without coordinating with the international humanitarian community. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.
Conflict, insecurity, and poor infrastructure adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. In August, UNHCR stated there were 1.7 million IDPs in Ituri Province; the agency had no access to certain zones in the region due to insecurity and inability to travel. Due to lack of funding, the humanitarian response plan for the country targeted only half of the persons in need in Ituri Province. Population displacements continued, particularly in the east. Many areas with IDPs continued to experience insecurity, such as North Kivu’s Beni Territory, Ituri Province, South Kivu’s Fizi Territory, and Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the east resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities.
Due to the remote location, weak civilian authority, and insecurity of the Kasai region, humanitarian access was difficult, and IDPs lived in poor conditions without adequate shelter or protection. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including gang rape. UNHCR representatives stated that 4,500 Congolese were forcibly repatriated from Angola in May and June. Seventy percent of returnees lingered along the DRC-Angola border, waiting to return to Angola if and when the situation there improved.
Combatants and other civilians abused IDPs. Abuses included killings, sexual exploitation of women and children (including rape), abduction, forced conscription, looting, illegal taxation, and general harassment.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government occasionally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
As of June 30, UNHCR reported 528,752 refugees in the country, primarily from seven adjacent countries, of whom approximately 214,000 were from Rwanda. Of the refugees in the country, 63 percent were children.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North and South Kivu, Ituri, Upper Uele, and Tanganyika Provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the regions, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. UNHCR reported Rwandan refugees in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu were subject to cyclical displacement as a result of FARDC and IAG operations and were forced to relocate to South Kivu Province.
Incursions by South Sudanese forces into areas of northern DRC affected security for asylum seekers, refugees and Congolese returnees, as well as local populations.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a rudimentary system for providing protection to refugees. The system granted refugee and asylum status and provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
As of June 30, there were 2,807 asylum seekers in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers with welfare and safety needs. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes by allowing their entry into the country and facilitating immigration processing. In establishing security mechanisms, government authorities did not treat refugees differently than citizens.
Durable Solutions: As of September, more than 1,100 refugees returned to the Central African Republic from the northern part of the country. COVID-19 restrictions prevented other voluntary returns.
The country did not invoke the cessation clause effective in 2013 for Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda before the end of 1998. In 2016 the government joined other refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR to commit to facilitating repatriation of Rwandans from countries of asylum. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees who opted to remain in the country. Refugees received long-term, renewable permits to remain in the country. The program included a path to citizenship. Conflict impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation, and between January and August it assisted in repatriating 499 Rwandan refugees.
In late December 2019, local media reported that 1,919 Rwandan refugees in South Kivu Province were repatriated following a FARDC offensive against IAGs in the area. The population included former combatants and their family members. Of this population, 529 were refugees registered with UNHCR. UNHCR was unable to meet with the refugee population prior to the event to ascertain whether their return to Rwanda was voluntary. The event was not in accord with the UNHCR-DRC-Rwanda Tripartite Agreement on refugee returns.
As of September 30, UNHCR reported 281 refugees voluntarily returned to Burundi.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to an undetermined number of individuals who may not qualify as refugees (see section 1.g.).
g. Stateless Persons
The country has a population of de facto stateless residents and persons at risk of statelessness, including persons of Sudanese origin living in the northeast, Mbororo pastoralists in the far north, forced returnees from Angola and former Angolan refugees, mixed-race persons who are denied naturalization, and Congolese citizens without civil documentation. There were no accurate estimates of this population’s size. The law does not discriminate in granting citizenship on the grounds of gender, religion, or disability; however, the naturalization process is cumbersome and requires parliamentary approval of individual citizenship applications. Persons whose names are not spelled according to local custom were often denied citizenship, as were individuals with lighter colored skin. Persons without national identification cards were sometimes arbitrarily arrested by the SSF.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
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 Speech: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to the HRW World Report 2020, sedition and criminal defamation laws were sometimes used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or state policies. In certain cases local authorities arrested or filed cases against individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. The harassment and detainment of journalists critical of the government in their reporting or social media messaging continued.
On August 14, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court convicted prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court for two tweets that criticized the chief justice and the role played by the Supreme Court in the past six years. Bhushan was also facing contempt charges on another case relating to his comments in 2009 alleging judicial corruption. He was required to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee and express contrition before the court. According to media, more than 3,000 retired judges, lawyers, and eminent persons supported Bhushan and sent a petition to the Supreme Court stating that Bhushan’s tweets did not amount to contempt.
AII’s report Jammu and Kashmir After One year of Abrogation of Article 370 documented 14 instances of detention, police interrogations, and assaults on journalists. The government also introduced a new media regulation policy in Jammu and Kashmir empowering local administration to determine “fake and antinational news” and to initiate related action against journalists.
On February 15, Karnataka police arrested three engineering students of Kashmiri origin on sedition charges. According to police records, Basit Ashiq Ali, Talib Majeed, and Ameer Mohiuddin Wani recorded a video of themselves chanting slogans supporting Pakistan and posted the video on social media. They were arrested after college officials reported them to police. On June 10, the students were released on bail.
On February 20, Karnataka police booked student activist Amulya Leona on sedition charges for shouting pro-Pakistan slogans in her speech at a rally in Bengaluru protesting the CAA. A local court granted her bail on June 11.
On April 1, a complaint was filed against the founding editor of the news website The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, for his tweet referencing a report that the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had insisted a religious gathering be held during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although a correction was issued, the complaint was filed under Sections 66D and 67 of Information Technology Act 2000, Sections 188 and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 54 of Disaster Management Act 2005 and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act 1897. Varadarajan was granted bail on May 15. On May 11, Gujarat state police detained the editor and owner of Gujarati news website Face the Nation, Dhaval Patel, for publishing a report suggesting Gujarat’s chief minister might be replaced due to criticism over rising COVID-19 cases. Patel was charged with sedition and with spreading false panic. Patel was granted bail on May 27.
On May 19, the West Bengal government temporarily stopped the broadcast of Bengali news channel Calcutta News, which questioned the state government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including allegations of underreporting coronavirus infection rates and death numbers and severe mismanagement of hospitals.
On May 20, Srinagar Police summoned The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah for covering an encounter between militants and security forces. Shah alleged police claimed his stories “maligned” police and subjected him to five hours of questioning. The Srinagar police summoned Shah again on July 9 and October 4 on the same matter.
NGOs reported the arrest and detention of political and human rights activists who criticized the policies of Manipur’s state government. While some faced charges of sedition, promoting communal disharmony, public mischief, and criminal conspiracy, others were booked under the National Disaster Management Act. United NGOs Mission Manipur reported that on April 12, the Manipur state government arrested Robin Rongmei, a social activist, under the act for posting a video on Facebook that showed shortages of essential items for children in a shelter home during the lockdown.
On May 25, Kolkata police summoned Anirban Chattopadhyay, editor of the leading Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, for interrogation. Police summoned him because his newspaper reported on the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for the staff of a hospital handling COVID-19 cases. On May 31, Chattopadhyay resigned his post as editor under pressure and to ease tensions with the government.
On June 5, Bengaluru police registered a case against former AII executive director Aakar Patel for a message he posted on Twitter that encouraged minority communities to emulate the racial justice protests abroad. Police booked Patel with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, and abetting commission of an offense by the public. Patel’s Twitter account was temporarily removed but remained visible outside the country following registration of the charge.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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, digital media platforms, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, at both the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement.
The Reporters without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index identified press freedom violations by police, political activists, criminal groups, and corrupt local officials. Physical attacks and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” against journalists were cited as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for female journalists. Journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions. According to the report, pressure on media to amplify government perspectives increased following the May 2019 national elections. Criminal prosecutions were often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, including the use of a section of the penal code that includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
In February the Kashmir Press Club stated security agencies had routinely deployed intimidation tactics such as threats, summonses, and physical attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 8, journalists Naseer Ganai and Haroon Nabi were summoned to the police facility, where they were questioned for reporting on a statement by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
In June the Jammu and Kashmir government released the Media Policy-–2020, which authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations to “examine” the content of print, electronic, and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or antinational activities” in the name of law and order. Under the new media policy, government action could range from legal proceedings against journalists for “indulging in fake news, unethical or antinational activities, or plagiarism” to withholding advertisements to any media that “incite or tends to incite violence, question sovereignty and the integrity of India, or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior.”
On June 13, Uttar Pradesh authorities charged Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a news report critical of the COVID-19 lockdown under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as well as under sections of the penal code regarding printing defamatory matter and negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Police also named the Mumbai-based editor in chief of Scroll.in in the first information report (FIR). On August 26, the Allahabad High Court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest in the case but allowed the investigation to continue.
On July 1, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay called for authorities to end “gunpoint censorship” and prosecute those responsible for the killing of Shubham Mani Tripathi, a journalist for the newspaper Kampu Mail. Tripathi died on June 19 when he was shot six times by two gunmen while on his way home in Uttar Pradesh. His killing was allegedly in retaliation for his investigative reports into connections between illegal sand mining and corruption allegations. The two assailants, along with a third individual, were arrested.
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 accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books that contained material government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
On March 6, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting placed a 48-hour ban on two Malayalam news channels for broadcasting footage of the February riots in New Delhi, allegedly in violation of the Cable Network Television Network Act. Hours after the ban was imposed, the ministry revoked its order and restored the transmission of both channels.
On April 24, Tamil Nadu police arrested Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the owner of a news platform, for reporting on alleged government corruption. A complaint was filed by a local government official who claimed the website was spreading false reports against the state government. A local court granted the media owner bail on April 28.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations reportedly being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported at least 79 journalists had been killed between 1992 and 2020. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, at least four journalists were killed in connection with their work as of December.
On March 3, unidentified assailants attacked Tamil Nadu-based journalist M. Karthi with an iron rod. In his police complaint, Karthi claimed the attack was related to his reporting on a dispute between two ruling party politicians in the region. On March 4, police detained two suspects for questioning in relation to the attack, including an official in Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.
On August 11, Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh, and a third unidentified female–all journalists for The Caravan magazine–were attacked by a mob while reporting in New Delhi. Tantray reported that after identifying him as a Muslim, “the mob beat [him], punched on [his] neck and back, and tried to strangle [him] with the camera strap.” The Caravan stated the female journalist was sexually harassed. Police did not file a FIR or make arrests.
In September, Parashar Biswas, a journalist from the daily newspaper Syandan Patrika in Tripura, was beaten by unidentified individuals after he criticized Chief Minister Biplab Deb’s comments made against media outlets for publishing stories of alleged state mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. The Tripura Assembly of Journalists condemned the attack and demanded the chief minister not further threaten reporters or media houses.
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 online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
On July 3, journalist Rana Ayyub shared screenshots of several death and rape threats received on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram after she spoke out against the killing of a 65-year-old Srinagar resident. In one screenshot the social media user asked Ayyub to recall Gauri Lankesh, a journalist shot and killed in 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
In February 2019 the minister of state in the Ministry of Communications told members of parliament the government had ordered the Department of Telecommunications to block 17,444 sites during the previous three years on the basis of recommendations of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, courts of law, and several other organizations.
On June 18, Uttar Pradesh filed a FIR against Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a report on the adverse effects of the COVID-19 lockdown in Varanasi. Police acted on a complaint filed by an individual Sharma interviewed about the lockdown, who alleged that Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity. Scroll.in denied the charges against Sharma and stood by her reporting. The media outlet alleged the FIR was an “attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism.” Local human rights activist Harsh Mander noted the FIR was part of a recent trend targeting journalists with legal actions. On June 18, Reporters without Borders said the charges were a “blatant attempt to intimidate one of India’s most resilient reporters.” According to reports, at least 55 journalists and editors were arrested or booked for reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown.
In 2018 the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology revealed that 14,221 websites had been blocked since 2010. Between January and October 2019, the ministry issued blocking orders for an additional 20 websites.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
On January 31, Karnataka police arrested the director of the Shaheen Primary and High School and a student’s mother for sedition after a school play was alleged to be critical of the CAA and “disrespectful” of Prime Minister Modi. On February 15, a district court released the two women on bail.
On April 18, police in Kashmir booked photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the UAPA for indulging in “antinational activities” on social media. In a statement police accused Zahra of “uploading antinational posts with criminal intention, uploading posts that glorify antinational activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.” Zahra maintained she was sharing archival images that had already been published in different local and international social media platforms. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On April 23, the Jammu and Kashmir cyber police filed a FIR against Kashmiri author and journalist Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir” through social media posts. The police statement said Geelani was “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platforms which [were] prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”
On May 18, Andhra Pradesh police arrested 66-year-old Ranganayaki Poonthota, following her Facebook post in which she questioned the government’s handling and police investigation of a styrene gas leak that killed at least 11 persons. She was arrested for making statements that create or promote enmity, indulging in wanton vilification, disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant, and criminal conspiracy. The NGO Human Rights Forum described the case as a “brazen attack on free speech” and demanded withdrawal of the case.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. The government banned more than 200 Chinese mobile apps because they were “prejudicial” to the sovereignty and security of the country.
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, censorship of online content, and 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 directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.
In January the Supreme Court declared access to the internet a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media but upheld the government’s authority 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 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced measures allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to the measures, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or the state level.
According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 106 times in 2019 and 76 times as of December 21. The center reported the longest shutdown occurred between August 4, 2019, and March 4 in Jammu and Kashmir. Authorities restored mobile 2G services in April and landline internet in August. Mobile 3G and 4G connections remained blocked as of December, although intermittent access was restored in certain districts.
AII documented 67 instances of government-enforced internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir between January 14 and August 4. NGOs and professionals from the education and medical fields reported that frequent internet shutdown and denial of access to 4G internet presented problems to online education and COVID-19 mitigation measures.
In January the Supreme Court ruled that the indefinite shutdown of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir was illegal.
In December 2019, in response to protests concerning the passage of the CAA, internet shutdowns were implemented throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used a section of the code of criminal procedure relating to riots and civil disturbances as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.
Government requests for user data from internet companies increased dramatically. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 49,382 data requests in 2019, a 32 percent increase from 2018. Google reported a 69 percent increase in government requests for user data in its 2019 Transparency Report, receiving 19,438 disclosure requests. Twitter’s Transparency Report indicated 1,263 account information requests from the government in 2019, a 63 percent increase from 2018.
In its Freedom in the World 2020 report, Freedom House noted the central government and state governments repeatedly suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted the legal threshold for internet shutdowns was low and shutdown regulations were applied unevenly by executive branch officials with little or no legislative or judicial oversight.
Press outlets frequently reported instances in which individuals and journalists were arrested or detained for online activity, although NGOs noted there was little information about the nature of the activity or if it involved criminal or legitimate speech. Police continued to arrest individuals under the Information Technology Act for legitimate online activity, despite a 2015 Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute as unconstitutional, and which experts claimed was an abuse of legal processes.
The National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), expected to begin functioning at year’s end, was proposed after the 11/26 terror attacks in Mumbai as a unified intelligence database to collect data and patterns of suspects from 21 organizations. NATGRID’s database was designed to link 11 national agencies with approximately 14,000 police stations throughout the country.
In July the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned 59 mobile applications owned by China-based companies or otherwise linked to China, including the social media and communications platforms TikTok, WeChat, and Helo, citing national security reasons. As of year’s end, the ministry had banned more than 200 Chinese applications.
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 August, Delhi police interrogated Delhi University academic and social activist Apoorvanand was interrogated by the Delhi police regarding his alleged association with the anti-CAA protests. Apoorvanand said in a public statement that, while an investigating agency was within its right to summon anyone for investigation, it should not lead to further harassment and victimization of protesters who asserted their democratic right to protest through constitutional means.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and 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. 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 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 August 28, AII stated that Delhi police committed serious human rights violations during the February communal riots in Delhi. AII claimed police personnel were “complicit and actively participating” in the violence that killed more than 50 persons, the majority of whom were Muslims.
There were some 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. In other instances, the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations.
In September parliament passed amendments to the FCRA that placed additional limitations on the international funding of nongovernment organizations and would create significant operational barriers for the NGO community. Experts believed the new legislation would severely restrict the ability of smaller, regional organizations to raise funds and diminish collaboration between the government and civil society.
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.
Some NGOs stated they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues, such as human rights or environmental activism. In September, AII closed its offices after a two-year FCRA investigation resulted in the government freezing the NGO’s local bank accounts. AII asserted the Ministry of Finance’s Enforcement Directorate targeted their organization in retaliation for recent human rights reporting on the Delhi riots and Jammu and Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs defended the actions noting “a significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without the ministry’s approval under the FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions.” AII challenged the Enforcement’s Directorate’s actions in court. On December 16, the Karnataka High Court granted AII access to some of its funding from the frozen accounts and ordered the Enforcement Directorate to complete its investigation within 45 days.
In June 2019, acting on a Ministry of Home Affairs complaint, the CBI filed a FIR against Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and the NGO Lawyers Collective, an organization run by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, alleging discrepancies in the utilization of foreign funds. On July 11, the CBI accused Grover and Jaising of violating FCRA provisions and raided their home and offices. On July 25, the Bombay High Court stated the CBI allegation against Lawyers Collective–mixing FCRA funds with domestic funding–was “vague and arbitrary,” and it directed the CBI not to take any coercive steps in relation to the FIR until August 19. Civil society groups, including HRW and the International Commission of Jurists, criticized the CBI action as “dubious” and politically motivated.
c. Freedom of Religion
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. The government generally respected these rights.
The country hosted a large refugee population, including more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed 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 obstacles regularizing their status through long-term visas (LTVs) and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, 40,068 persons of concern were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.
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. In December 2019 the government extended the Inner Line Permit regime to Manipur, requiring all non-Manipuris to have the permit before they enter the state.
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 Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: In December 2019 parliament passed the CAA, which provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims and does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few instances.
Approximately 1.9 million residents of the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, were left off the register of 32.9 million who applied for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam, leaving the nationality status of those excluded unclear pending the adjudication of these claims and objections. The government established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions. The official notification required to initiate the procedures in Assam remained pending. On January 6, the government informed the Supreme Court that children would not be separated from their parents or sent to detention centers because of the NRC in Assam. On February 4, the government informed parliament that it had not taken any decision to prepare the NRC at the national level. On March 18, the Ministry of Home Affairs filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that preparation of the NRC was a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from noncitizens.” On December 23, 2019, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation regarding the government’s intention to do so.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Authorities located settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. In 2019 approximately 19,000 persons were displaced because of conflicts and violence, while natural disasters displaced more than five million persons.
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 it had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
In January the central government, along with the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram, signed an agreement with the leaders of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum that allowed Brus to settle permanently in Tripura. The Brus are a scheduled tribe living in relief camps in Tripura as IDPs since 1997, when they fled Mizoram in the wake of ethnic clashes with the Mizo community. The agreement was intended to allot land and cash assistance to more than 30,000 persons from the Bru tribes in Tripura.
f. Protection of Refugees
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but supported it in refugee protection and response.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees as any other foreigner. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to detention, forced returns, and abuse. The country historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.
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 and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. 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.
Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least four Rohingya, who were in detention, were returned to Burma in January. According to UNHCR, at least 26 non-Rohingya refugees had been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.
The identity card issued by UNHCR was the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.
In 2018 the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The ministry directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. 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 generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR continued to follow up on matters related to statelessness. UNHCR 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. Nonetheless, 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 they permitted asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingya detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. 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.
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. According to UNHCR, obtaining formal employment was difficult for refugees because they did not possess the necessary documents such as Aadhar (national identity) cards and long-term visas.
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 national identity 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. After issuing more than 7,000 long-term visas, which were renewable on a yearly basis for up to five years and provided access to formal employment, health care, and higher education, the government halted the practice in 2017. As of the end of 2019, only 35 UNHCR-registered refugees held unexpired long-term visas. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
According to the UNHCR India Factsheet from December 2019, the government directly provided assistance and protection to 203,235 refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet and 39,960 asylum seekers of other nationalities registered under UNHCR mandate. There were 341 Rohingya refugees living in the south: 254 in Karnataka, seven in Kerala, and 80 in Tamil Nadu. The Rohingya were employed in the informal economy, since they did not have legal work authorization from the government. Minor children had access to health services and education under the government’s “education for all” program. UNHCR was not aware of mistreatment or discrimination against Rohingya refugees; however, the agency said the state governments of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu were not providing adequate support.
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.
Durable Solutions: UNHCR reported 196 individuals returned to Sri Lanka in March. At year’s end voluntary repatriations were suspended because there were no commercial flights available for the return of Sri Lankan refugees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
g. Stateless Persons
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 may 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.
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.
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While these 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.
UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 95,000 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:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained a significant source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, at times constrained freedom of expression.
Freedom of Speech: Journalists could criticize the government and discuss matters of general interest with no restrictions. Politicians publicly discredited and criticized such journalists, however.
On July 16, more than 80 Baja California journalists signed a letter to the CNDH denouncing Governor Jamie Bonilla’s verbal attacks against the newspaper La Voz de la Frontera, newspaper Reforma correspondent Aline Corpus, the regional magazine Semanario Zeta, and its director Adela Navarro.
Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor, the director of NOTIMEX, the government’s news agency, ordered journalists to eliminate or not publish content about certain government institutions and officials, according to the newspaper Aristegui News, the digital media Signa Lab, and the NGO Article 19.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction but often self-censored due to fear of reprisal. Journalists in Nogales, Sonora, said they were aware of unspoken red lines in covering organized crime and that crossing lines, such as mentioning the name of an alleged assailant, could result in personal harm.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were killed or subjected to physical and cyberattacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) in response 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. High levels of impunity, including for killings or attacks on journalists, resulted in self-censorship and reduced freedom of expression and the press.
Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity, consistent with high levels of impunity for all crimes. The NGO Article 19 reported that as of December 2019, the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99 percent. According to Article 19 and media reporting, as of December, six journalists had been killed because of their reporting.
From January to June, Article 19 documented 406 attacks against journalists and media, a 45 percent increase from the same period in 2019. According to Article 19, between January and June, journalists reported 40 death threats, 91 cases of intimidation or harassment, and 47 physical attacks. Public officials carried out 199 of the recorded attacks, according to Article 19. The NGO recorded 68 attacks carried out by public officials against journalists and media outlets reporting on COVID-19.
Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists, a unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office, secured 19 convictions for various related crimes out of 1,311 cases of attacks against journalists. In 2019, 43 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 in 7 percent of attacks against journalists, according to Article 19’s 2018 report. In March the Interior Ministry recognized government authorities perpetrated attacks against the press.
On August 20, Juan Nelcio Espinosa, an independent journalist in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, died while in police custody. Reports indicated he was detained with a colleague on charges of alleged violence against security forces. The Coahuila State Prosecutor General’s Office reported the journalist experienced breathing problems and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Espinosa’s family accused police of killing him and said police had previously threatened him.
Between 2012 and April 2020, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received more than 1,200 requests for protection for journalists and human rights defenders. As of June, 398 journalists were beneficiaries of Mechanism protection. Since 2018, seven journalists under Mechanism protection had been killed.
In early August, Pablo Morrugares, journalist and director of the digital news portal PM Noticias, which carried out investigations on criminal operations in Guerrero, was shot and killed by armed men in a restaurant in Iguala. He had received threats since 2015, and the state issued protective measures. The police officer assigned to guard him was also killed in the attack. Hours earlier he reported Tlacos, an organized crime group, was responsible for a recent spate of killings.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported some state and local governments censored media. Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of 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.
In 2018 Article 19 reported the government, despite reductions in its advertising budgets, continued to have a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies. According to Article 19, no information was available concerning the criteria through which the government chooses media outlets for public advertising.
Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander; however, eight states have criminal laws on these acts. In Baja California Sur, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, 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 500 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 Campeche, Colima, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, Yucatan, and Zacatecas, with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison and monetary fines. In July 2019 the state of Hidalgo abrogated the slander law. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.
In addition to criminal libel and defamation laws, civil law defines “moral damage” as similar to defamation, concerning harm to a person’s “feelings, affections, beliefs, dignity, honor, reputation, and privacy,” according to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists. A 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court removed the cap on fines for moral damages, leaving journalists vulnerable to exorbitant fines. In January a Mexico City court ordered academic Sergio Aguayo, a columnist of the daily newspaper Reforma, to pay a fine of $530,000 in moral damages to former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira. On July 29, the Supreme Court agreed to analyze the case but as of October had not issued a ruling.
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 regarding 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.
On August 22, a federal judge sentenced Juan Carlos “El Larry” Moreno Ochoa to 50 years in prison for the 2019 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent who reported on organized crime and corruption.
The threat against journalists by organized crime was particularly high in Guerrero. Journalists in Iguala, Guerrero, received messages through social networks, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, from unknown contacts, threatening them and their families, according to Article 19. Following the August 2 killing of Pablo Morrugares, the El Diario de Iguala newspaper published a note blaming organized crime and Governor Hector Astudillo Flores’ administration for violence against journalists and impunity. On August 4, attackers fired multiple shots at the building housing the printing facilities of El Diario de Iguala.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns about online manipulation tactics, high levels of violence against digital reporters, and investigations surrounding abusive surveillance practices. The report noted political partisans launched social media campaigns against journalists who criticized President Lopez Obrador’s daily livestreamed press conferences.
A trend on social media also saw public officials blocking critical journalists and media from following their social media accounts. In March 2019, however, the Supreme Court ordered the Prosecutor General of Veracruz to unblock and allow a journalist to follow his Twitter account.
Article 19 noted that according to Google Transparency reports between 2012 and June 2018, the executive and judiciary branches filed 111 requests to remove content from the web, including two instances in which the reason cited was “criticism of government.”
Digital media journalists covering stories such as crime, corruption, and human rights violations experienced physical violence and online abuse. Online discrimination, harassment, and threats were problems particularly for women journalists and politicians, as well as any individuals and organizations advocating for women’s rights.
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 the provisions, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access user metadata.
On May 12, Article 19 and ITESO, a Jesuit university in Guadalajara, published a report on attacks against journalists orchestrated by Sanjuana Martinez, director of NOTIMEX. Ten witnesses with direct knowledge of the NOTIMEX newsroom told Article 19 of the existence of a WhatsApp chat called “the Avengers N.” The chat was used by the agency’s executives–at the behest of Martinez–to order journalists to create fake Twitter accounts and post messages against voices critical of NOTIMEX leadership. Former NOTIMEX director of international news Manuel Ortiz said Martinez ordered him and his collaborators to attack prominent journalists who questioned the appointment of Martinez as the head of the state news agency. Article 19 noted the attacks were very serious, putting at risk the lives and careers of journalists.
Journalists who asked difficult questions of the president during the daily press conference received attacks via Twitter. Tweets disseminated their identities and their media outlets and also made veiled threats.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws restricting public demonstrations. Government failures to investigate and prosecute attacks on protesters and human rights defenders resulted in impunity for these crimes, consistent with high impunity rates for all crimes.
On July 10, Guanajuato state police detained protesters and supporters during a protest led by women in Guanajuato. From a group of 60 protesters, state police arrested four women and a member of the Guanajuato state human rights commission. All detainees were later released. The CNDH and OHCHR condemned the excessive use of force by police.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
Federal law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of asylum seekers and other migrants, including by threats and acts of kidnapping, extortion, and homicide.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights identified 28 incidents of mass forced internal displacement due to violence in 2019 (defined as the displacement of at least 10 families or 50 individuals). These episodes took place in eight states and displaced 8,664 persons. A total of 16 of the episodes were caused by violence generated by armed organized groups, such as drug cartels. Others were caused by land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, or local political disputes. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of displaced persons. From December 2019 to September, clashes between factions of the Sinaloa cartel in and around Tepuche, Sinaloa, displaced hundreds of families. While an unknown number of persons returned, the state commission for attention to victims of crime in Sinaloa estimated 25 families remained displaced.
According to civil society organizations, an armed group continued to displace Tzotzil indigenous persons from their homes in Los Altos de Chiapas, placing the group at an elevated risk of malnutrition and health maladies.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government 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, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The press, international organizations, and NGOs reported victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials. There were numerous instances of criminal armed groups extorting, threatening, or kidnapping asylum seekers and other migrants. In September 2019 the Migrant Organizations Network (Redodem, a group of NGOs that shelter migrants) reported that in 2019, federal, state, and municipal police, as well as INM agents, committed at least 298 robbery and kidnapping crimes against migrants.
Media reported criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from their relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on the groups’ behalf. Particularly in locations such as Tamaulipas, the government often did not confront organized crime groups targeting migrants. In a June report, Human Rights Watch identified in Tamaulipas alone at least 32 instances of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of migrants and asylum seekers–mostly by criminal organizations–in the three months between November 2019 and January. Those instances involved at least 80 asylum seekers kidnapped and 19 kidnapping attempts. At least 38 children were among those kidnapped or subjected to kidnapping attempts.
In July 2019 authorities arrested six police officers from the Coahuila Prosecutor General’s Office and detained one on homicide charges, after the officers participated in an operation resulting in the death of a Honduran migrant. Initial police reports indicated the migrant shot at officers conducting a counternarcotics raid, but Coahuila prosecutor general Gerardo Marquez stated in August 2019 that no shots were fired by the migrant. Three days after the shooting, the Prosecutor General’s Office determined police officer Juan Carlos (last name withheld by authorities) was likely responsible for killing the migrant and stated it would recognize the migrant as a victim and pay reparations to the family. As of November an agreement regarding compensation was pending.
Access to Asylum: Federal law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection to those fleeing persecution or facing possible torture in their country of origin; this right was generally respected in practice. The government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protections. The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to asylum and the asylum procedure, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, and integration in local communities (including access to school, work, and other social services) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status.
The Secretariat of Government declared the asylum system “essential,” allowing the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) to continue registering new asylum requests and processing pending claims throughout the COVID-19 crisis. From January to July, COMAR received approximately 22,200 applications for asylum. From January to August, COMAR processed an estimated 17,600 cases, including approximately 26,500 individuals.
Civil society groups reported some migration officials discouraged persons from applying for asylum. NGOs and international organizations stated INM in some instances conducted expedited repatriations without sufficient measures to assure individuals were aware of their right to claim asylum or international protection, but there was no evidence to indicate this was a systemic practice.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. 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 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 since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported 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 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 July MetroPOLL company survey, 62 percent of respondents believed media in the country was not free, and 50 percent believed they were not free on social media.
The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.
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. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 36,066 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2019; 12,298 stood trial and 3,831 were penalized. In contrast from 2014 to 2019, the number of individuals that received prison sentences under insult laws dropped to 2,663. In July police detained 11 persons and arrested one for comments made on social media posts about the president’s daughter and son-in-law, former treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, following the birth of their son on charges of “insulting a public official.”
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons whom it has issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and 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,” claiming ties to or support for 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.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Freedom of Speech: 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 June 23, an Istanbul court upheld the conviction and sentencing of the main opposition CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu on multiple charges related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court had sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018 for “insulting the republic,” “insulting the president,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” in tweets. At year’s end she remained free pending her final legal appeal. Kaftancioglu also faced separate charges under a December indictment by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for ordering photographs of alleged illegal construction on land owned by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The indictment sought up to 10 years’ imprisonment for Kaftancioglu. Authorities scheduled the first hearing of the case for May 2021.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by MPs on the floor of parliament and provides for the possibility of fining violators; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law. Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from a statement the Bar Association released in 2017, stating, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
In late April the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint for hate speech against Ali Erbas, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), following a sermon in which he stated that homosexuality causes illness, including HIV. In response President Erdogan announced that an attack against Erbas was an attack against the state. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office promptly opened a criminal investigation against the bar association, and President Erdogan commented, “All will know their place.”
Freedom of 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 through the companies’ affiliation with the government. 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 journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In 2018 authorities convicted 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet on charges 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. After a lengthy appeal process, the Constitutional Court found no rights violations in cases for 11 of the journalists but ruled in favor of three. On November 10, the ECHR found that Turkey violated the freedom of expression rights of eight of the journalists and ordered them to be compensated 16,000 euro ($19,200) each. On November 24, the ECHR separately found that the country had violated the rights of another defendant, journalist Ahmet Sik.
In July an Istanbul court convicted Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” for articles he wrote on Turkey as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. The Constitutional Court had previously reviewed the press articles in the indictment and determined they were protected by freedom of the press. Yucel indicated he would appeal the ruling.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including through the use of electronic monitoring. For example, in October an Istanbul court sentenced five of eight Yeni Yasam, Yeni Cag, and OdaTV journalists on trial for allegedly revealing the identity of intelligence officers to more than four years in prison. The court released three of the defendants, Baris Pehlivan, Hulya Kilinc, and Murat Agirel, based on time served but imposed an international travel ban. The court acquitted the two OdaTV journalists.
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.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2019 at least nine journalists were physically attacked, often outside of their place of work. Although in some cases suspects were identified quickly, by year’s end authorities had made no arrests or publicly noted progress in investigations against the perpetrators. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. On August 19, Saban Onen, a journalist of a Bursa-based local newspaper was attacked in a parking garage in Karacabey. Onen claimed that the attackers were relatives of the ruling AKP mayor of Karacabey and specifically referenced his writing about the mayor during the attack. On August 26, a vehicle belonging to the Nevsehir Journalists Association was set on fire. The chair of the association, Bayram Ekici, stated he believed the attack was a premediated attempt to intimidate journalists.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against 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 for speech critical of the state. In September authorities arrested on slander charges the publisher and editor in chief of a daily newspaper in Kocaeli Province after the newspaper ran a story accusing local AKP officials of sexually abusing a minor.
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 private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers 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. Human rights organizations voiced strong concern that a law governing social media that went into effect October 1 would result in increasing social media censorship and indiscriminate enforcement of content removal requests imposed by courts or made through individuals’ requests by social media companies (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom for details). 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, authorities required publishing houses to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The Turkish Publisher’s Association 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 association 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. Authorities also subjected publishers 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 banned books because of objectionable content.
In August an Istanbul court banned access to reporting by major newspapers and broadcast networks that a large tender was awarded to a friend of the president’s son. In September an Istanbul court ordered an additional access ban to news articles regarding the initial access ban.
In October police raided the Van bureau of Mezopotamya Ajansi and the homes of many journalists of the news agency. Police detained four journalists during the raid and confiscated their cameras and technical equipment. One of the journalists, Cemil Ugur, first reported the story of two villagers in Van who were allegedly detained, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter by soldiers in September. The courts granted a confidentiality order requested by the Van Chief Prosecutor’s Office on news reports concerning the incident. On October 1, an Ankara penal judge also ruled to permit the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to block access to Mezopotamya Ajansi’s online content.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. For instance, the government continued to pursue a case against Cumhuriyet journalists Alican Uludag and Duygu Guvenc for “publicly degrading the judiciary” and “insulting the Turkish nation” for their coverage of the country’s arrest of Andrew Brunson in 2018. On October 22, the court ruled that Uludag and Guvenc be acquitted as “the act in question is not defined as a crime in the law.”
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. In December the owner of private media outlet Olay TV announced that he would close the channel after only a month of operation because its editorial line prioritized pro-HDP content. The editor in chief of Olay TV announced during its last broadcast that the government pressured channel executives to close the channel. Other outlet employees told reporters the channel faced government scrutiny because it was too critical of the government and included reports of alleged corruption and human rights violations by government officials.
Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of December, RTUK had fined or suspended independent broadcasters in 54 instances. During that time government-affiliated broadcasters received two warnings and one fine. Independent broadcasters paid 25 times more in fines than government-affiliated ones.
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” 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. In July, RTUK announced it would suspend pro-opposition television stations Halk TV and TELE1 for five days and that the two outlets could lose their broadcast licenses entirely if they received another penalty. RTUK ruled that TELE1 “incited hatred” during two news programs that criticized the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and President Erdogan. RTUK imposed the suspension on Halk TV for criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists warned, “the two channels were two remaining pro-opposition broadcast outlets in a media landscape that has become predominantly progovernment” and that “their presence is vital for media plurality” in the country. After the broadcasters lost court appeals, RTUK suspended TELE1 and Halk TV broadcasts for five days in September.
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 2019. 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.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted. In March, Engin Ozkoc of the opposition CHP insulted the president using the same phrasing that the president used in reference to Ozkoc. Ozkoc’s comments set off a brawl on the floor of the parliament. Erdogan sued Ozkoc for libel and the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Ozkoc’s comments.
In September a court sentenced the former cochair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party Sebahat Tuncel to 11 months in prison for insulting the president. Tuncel had called Erdogan a misogynist and “an enemy of women and Kurds.”
In May police arrested former CHP Izmir province vice chair Banu Ozdemir for her social media posts sharing videos of Izmir mosques playing the song “Bella Ciao” from their speakers after a hacking incident. Ozdemir was arrested on charges of “denigrating religious values” and spent one week in pretrial detention. On December 10, an Izmir court acquitted Ozdemir.
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 March an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of seven journalists and editors for their news organizations’ reports on the funeral of an alleged MIT official who died in Libya in February. Authorities charged the journalists with exposing the identities of MIT agents and their families. In September an Istanbul court found five of the journalists guilty and issued sentences from three to more than four years imprisonment. The court acquitted two of the journalists.
The trial of prominent columnist Ahmet Altan continued, and he remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” relating to allegations he had a role in the 2016 attempted coup; Altan received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. In December the Constitutional Court rejected Altan’s application for review of his re-arrest. Rights groups claimed that Altan faced charges in reprisal for his work as a journalists and author.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in March authorities detained a group of journalists, including five foreign journalists along the Turkey-Greece border, for allegedly violating the border zone. All were later released.
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 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 some 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 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 and Communication Technologies Authority (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 ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.
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 is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, 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 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.
In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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 faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. 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.
In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the “Academics for Peace,” was a violation of freedom of expression. The academics had signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast and been prosecuted on terrorist propaganda charges. As of September, 622 of the 822 Academics for Peace cases ended in acquittal. Most of the academics acquitted in 2019 had been fired from their positions and had not been reinstated at year’s end.
In April the parliament amended the Higher Education Law. The amendment included specification of grounds for censure and dismissal of academics, including engaging in and supporting “activities that qualify as terror” and insulting a superior. The University Faculty Members Association released a statement that expressed concern the amendment threatens academic freedom.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that 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. In December 2019 the Council of Higher Education temporarily suspended the operating license of Istanbul Sehir University, established by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January the council seized the assets of the Science and Art Foundation that managed the university and appointed trustees to its management, citing financial mismanagement and inadequate funds as the reason for the intervention. Academic freedom activists claimed that the actions were in retaliation for Davutoglu’s establishment of a new opposition party.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The government banned more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” Police arrested members of Grup Yorum, a popular folk band collective, in 2016 on terror charges alleging the group’s links to terrorist group Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front and banned them from performing. In April and May, two members of the group, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokcek died as a result of hunger strikes in protest of the group’s treatment. Two additional members remained in prison. In August police detained at least 10 persons for attending an unauthorized concert in Istanbul by the group. Authorities arrested at least two persons for attending the unauthorized concert.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
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 while protesting. 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 HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, police intervened in at least 637 demonstrations. As many as 1,364 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither the 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 dozens of leaders and members of 29 bar associations participated in a march to Ankara to protest anticipated legal changes to regulations governing bar associations. Police forcibly disrupted the march as they entered the city of Ankara and prevented bar association chairs from participating in a sit-in in front of the parliament. Video footage showed police pushing and jostling the bar association heads.
On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators intending to mark International Women’s Day by marching through Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. Prior to the scheduled march, the governor of Istanbul announced the areas would be closed for demonstrations and assembly and deployed an extensive police presence to prevent access to the main thoroughfares. Despite the announcement, groups proceeded with the planned march and attempted to enter the area. Police blocked the entrances and dispersed the group using tear gas and riot shields. According to media reports, police detained 32 women during the confrontations. Police did not disperse commemorations and marches hosted by women’s groups in the city’s Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
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. Authorities generally prohibited domestic and international observers from observing the hearings.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. For instance, the Tekirdag Governor’s Office closed entrance to the province citing COVID-19 precautions ahead of the HDP March for Democracy from Edirne to Ankara, scheduled in June to take place during three days. Sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK continued for the second year. Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, in July detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week. 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.
In January police prevented Melek Cetinkaya, the mother of one of 259 military cadets jailed and sentenced to aggravated life in prison in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup, from launching a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul. Police detained Cetinkaya and 66 family members of other imprisoned cadets who were to join the march. The group planned to walk from Ankara to Silivri Prison in Istanbul, where the cadets are jailed. Police teams took heightened security measures in the city center of Ankara before the group gathered and began detaining marchers as they entered the area. Authorities later released all of the detained protesters. Cetinkaya accused police of excessive force.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. The longstanding bans in the southeast of the country have remained in place during the year.
In contrast with previous years, labor unions, labor organizations, and opposition political parties called on citizens to honor Labor Day on May 1 while respecting social distance measures. In particular these groups encouraged supporters to sing songs from balconies, share messages via social media, and explore other activities that respect social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis. Social media showed that many celebrations occurred in isolation across the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, police detained and later released at least 45 persons for attempting to march despite a mandatory three-day COVID-related lockdown. Among others, police detained the chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), Arzu Cerkezoglu, as well as 25 other DISK members as they attempted to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prior to the event, DISK claimed to have contacted and informed the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding its plans to organize a march. The office stated that DISK received Istanbul approval to travel by vehicles, not by foot, and blamed DISK for violating social distancing measures and initiating brawls with law enforcement officials.
Freedom of Association
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 associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2019 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures 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 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. For instance, the HRA reported that continued investigations and audits during the last four years have created immense pressure on the organization. In February the government launched a three-week audit of the HRA.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. On July 3, an Istanbul court convicted four of the human rights activists on terrorism-related charges. Nearly three years after his arrest, Kilic received a prison sentence of six years and three months for membership in a terrorist organization. The court sentenced former Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, and fellow human rights defenders Gunal Kursun and Ozlem Dalkiran to two years and one month for assisting a terrorist organization. The court acquitted seven other human rights activists including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi. The four convicted human rights activists remained free pending appeal; the ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, imposed in 2018, remained in place.
On December 27, the parliament adopted new counterterrorist financing legislation entitled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” granting the Ministry of Interior powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs. The legislation prompted strong concern among civil society groups. Nearly 700 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing the new law, noting it would expand Ministry of Interior “political tutelage,” severely restrict fundraising, and allow for rapid closure of civil society groups without judicial review.
On July 11, parliament approved a law changing the regulations governing bar associations. The law allows lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 bar association members to establish new associations after collecting a minimum of 2,000 member signatures. Whereas previous regulations only permitted one bar association per province, the new regulations allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces, paving the way for provincial associations to splinter into many groups, which could dilute the voices of existing organizations. The law also changed delegate representation within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA), a governing body of bar associations, reducing the influence of large bar associations from major metropolitan areas. All 80 Turkish bar associations, as well as human rights groups, publicly criticized the law, predicting it would undermine judicial independence, divide bar associations along political lines, and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. To date, bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In September a group of Istanbul Bar Association lawyers gathered enough signatures to establish a new association in the city and filed a registration petition with UTBA.
On October 2, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular postponing bar association elections scheduled by law from October to December. The circular cited anti-COVID-19 precautions banning all in-person events held by professional organizations and NGOs. Major bar associations protested the move, alleging the postponement decision was political since a later election timeline would allow newly established bar associations to participate. On October 5, a total of 76 of 80 bar associations issued a statement alleging that the circular violates Turkish law and filed civil suits. Courts dismissed Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir associations’ suits. In December the minister of interior postponed the elections further to March 2021.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In March the country enacted amendments to the Law on Associations introducing requirements that associations notify local administrative authorities of any changes in membership within 30 days or face penalties. The Council of Europe issued a statement calling the amendments “problematic on both procedural and substantive accounts” and noted they failed to meet requirements under the ECHR.
c. Freedom of Religion
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 June authorities lifted passport restrictions for 28,075 individuals, in addition to the 57,000 lifted in 2019, 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, as did restrictions on interprovincial travel due to COVID-19 precautions.
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 allow 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).
The minister of interior and governorates also restricted interprovincial travel between March and May followed by limited restrictions on movement to and from metropolitan municipalities as measures to contain COVID-19. Some governorates, particularly in the northwest and southeast, instituted subsequent bans on movement as anti-COVID-19 measures throughout the year.
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 on 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 the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
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.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
In October 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in areas of Syria affected by the operation. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria as a result of the operation have returned. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
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.
f. Protection of Refugees
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.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants” in 2019. The DGMM reported 201,437 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. Due to border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government paused deportations until June 1, and deportations continued at a much lower rate throughout the year. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 34 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. In February, however, the government announced that the borders the country shares with the EU were “open,” prompting more than 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups. Because the borders remained closed on the Greek side, many individuals were stuck in difficult conditions, particularly on the land border with Greece near Pazarkule. Press reports asserted some Turkish border guards aided refugees in charging and dismantling border fences. Unable to cross into Greece and unable to return to their homes in Turkey, hundreds of refugees remained at the border for weeks in an unofficial encampment. On March 1, Istanbul Bar Association representatives visited Pazarkule and reported that a group of approximately 1,000 individuals, including women, children, and elderly, were in the region and experienced poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical services, and basic goods, including, food, clothes, and blankets. The bar association delegation reported that many individuals were injured by tear gas capsules.
After weeks of living in open-air temporary shelters, on March 26, Turkish authorities disbanded the encampment due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The government reported it transported migrants to dormitories in nearby cities to safely quarantine. On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border. Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. At least five migrants also drowned in the river near this border area.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans during much of the year due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country was significantly lower than in prior years; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel. For example, an estimated 50-60 migrants died after their boat sank on Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Police arrested the captain of the boat and detained eight others in relation to investigation into the deaths.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings. Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they are able to 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. Following the deaths of several Turkish soldiers in Syria in February, in early March increased societal violence against refugee communities was reported throughout the country, including some beatings and attacks on businesses. In July, in the western province of Bursa, four Turkish men beat to death a 17-year-old Syrian refugee in a market. Police arrested the four, who awaited trial at year’s end. 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.
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 took place during the year. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities, particularly non-Syrians. 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, 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. In May, Amnesty International reported the apparent forcible deportation of six Syrian men to northern Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at serious risk.
As of November 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,395 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (831 persons), Afghans (228 persons) and Iranians (173 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, three persons reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin.
In the incidents of administrative detention, of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not completing the registration procedure, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, and rejection of request for temporary protection) or criminal acts. Authorities continued to apply the legal framework and the procedural safeguards in place for persons seeking or in need of international protection.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. For incidents in which UNHCR intervened where the persons were no longer in the country, it was difficult for UNHCR to reach the individual to confirm or deny claims.
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 Refugee 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 nearly four million Syrians while maintaining conditional or subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional or 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 observers 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 expected 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 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. Most refugees, however, did not have access to regular or skilled work, partly as a result of high unemployment rates for both refugees and Turkish nationals, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition 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. As of late 2019, only an estimated 132,000 Syrians in the country had formal work permits.
Access to Basic Services: During the year, due to changes to the Law on Foreigners under International Protection, refugees registered under international protection status (approximately 330,000 individuals) for more than one year no longer had access to subsidized medical care (other than emergency care). Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Previously, the government provided free access to the public medical system to non-Syrian refugees registered until they began receiving international protection. Syrians registered for temporary protection (3.6 million) continued to receive free access to the public health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,919 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF, since 2017 more than 628,000 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. NGO staff members reported seeing refugees asked for bribes to receive government services, and individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization 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 110,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
As of September 30, UNHCR in cooperation with the DGMM, observed spontaneous voluntary returns in 14 provinces of 10,917 Syrians who chose to return to Syria. In April and May, the DGMM suspended voluntary repatriation as a result of COVID-19 measures. As of the end of November, authorities referred 6,022 refugees to 14 countries for resettlement, and 3,864 refugees departed the country for resettlement. The main reasons for the decrease in resettlement are due to reduced refugee quotas and the suspension of resettlement departures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September, however, resettlement departures resumed.
Temporary Protection: The country 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 continued to offer 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 September 2019 the governate of Bursa announced that the provinces of Antalya, Aydin, Bursa, Canakkale, Duzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kirklareli, Kocaeli, Mugla, Sakarya, Tekirdag, and Yalova would limit registration processing to exceptional cases and newborns. The DGMM has not made any official announcement regarding provinces stopping processing of registrations. 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 the end of 2019, the DGMM had closed all but seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of the end of November, there were 59,077 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2019 a total of 117,579 Syrians held valid residence permits; official figures for the calendar year were not available at year’s end.
g. Stateless Persons
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 2019, at least 516,000 babies had been born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.