China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities.
In August the Unirule Institute of Economics, a prominent economic think tank, closed its doors after years of increasing government pressure. Founded in 1993 to promote market reforms, a decade ago Unirule was a well-respected institution in the country with the space to disseminate ideas and facilitate dialogue with government leaders. The last few years have seen the shutdown of its website and public office, and as of August the organization was in liquidation.
On April 19, Zi Su was sentenced by a Chengdu court to four years’ imprisonment on charges of subversion. Zi, a retired professor from the Yunnan Communist Party School, was detained in 2017 after releasing an open letter questioning Xi Jinping’s suitability to continue as the CCP’s leader. Prior to his trial in December 2018, the government offered to shorten his sentence if he fired his lawyer and accepted a court-appointed attorney. Zi accepted, reducing his sentence from 10 to four years.
In September a Sichuan court convicted Chengdu-based activist Huang Xiaomin to 30 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Huang had called for direct elections to select party leaders. He was detained for several months before being allowed to hire a lawyer. He was then told to fire his lawyer and accept a court-appointed lawyer in exchange for a more lenient sentence, which he did.
On September 19, local police from Gucheng Township, Chengdu, detained Chen Yunfei for publishing comments in support of Hong Kong’s antiextradition bill movement. Chen had shown public support for the antiextradition protests in Hong Kong and called for a dialogue between Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and protesters to try to reach a resolution.
Countless citizens were arrested and detained for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on sensitive issues. For example, in Nan Le, Henan, a netizen was arrested for spreading “fake news” about a chemical factory explosion on WeChat. In Lianyungang police arrested 22 persons for “internet rumors,” and in Huzhou a netizen was arrested for “spreading rumors,” while he claimed he was only sharing political views.
This trend was particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government had developed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person speech and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped persons of certain ethnicities and faith and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate. During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists. Chinese embassy officials in Belgium asked a Belgian university to remove information critical of the PRC’s Xinjiang policies from their website, and in February the Belgian author of that critique reported that Chinese government officials disrupted a Xinjiang-focused academic conference in Strasbourg, France. Numerous ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who still lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included such criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
In October PRC authorities publicly condemned a tweet by the professional basketball team Houston Rockets’ general manager that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, and the state-run CCTV cancelled broadcasts of games involving U.S. professional basketball teams visiting China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from its consulate general in Houston to personally denounce the statement to the Houston Rockets. Similarly, in December Chinese state television cancelled the broadcast of an English Premier League soccer game after one of its players, Mesut Ozil, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram–both of which were blocked in China–denouncing the government’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
In July Dalian police detained a man only identified as “Lu” for distributing online cartoons that featured pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese contents. The CCP-controlled Global Times accused Lu of being “spiritually Japanese” by advocating for Japanese right-wing politics and militarism. In March 2018 Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly criticized such pro-Japanese cartoonists as “scum among Chinese people.”
In May Anhui police arrested cartoonist Zhang Dongning on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for creating comic books that depicted the Chinese people as pigs. The drawings “distorted historical facts, trampled national dignity, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to a police statement. Zhang remained in custody at year’s end.
The government used economic leverage on the mainland to suppress freedom of expression in Hong Kong. In reaction to protests in Hong Kong in August, the mainland government told Hong Kong-based Cathay Airlines that any of its employees who had engaged in “illegal demonstrations, protests, and violent attacks, as well as those who have radical behaviors” were forbidden from working on flights that entered Chinese airspace.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all.
During the year state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing media to further promote the interests of the government.
The government continued its tight ideological control over media and public discourse following the restructuring of its regulatory system in 2018. The CCP propaganda department has the ultimate say in regulating and directing media practices and policies in the country. The reorganization created three independent administrative entities controlled by the CCP propaganda department: the National Radio and Television Administration (NART), the General Administration of Press and Publications, and the National Film Bureau. While NART is still ostensibly under the State Council, its party chief was also a deputy minister within the CCP’s propaganda department.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda. The CAC served as the representative office to a recently formed CCP committee on cyberspace, which is nominally chaired by President Xi Jinping. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The internet “clean up” CAC announced in November 2018 continued into 2019. As part of CAC’s 2018 requirements, internet platforms had to submit reports on their activities if their platforms could be used to “socially mobilize” or could lead to “major changes in public opinion.” On January 23, the CAC issued a statement confirming another step in its crackdown on internet content. On April 6, the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications announced an eight-month crackdown on “vulgar content” online. According to the announcement, the National Office tasked local authorities to conduct inspections of online platforms, including social media, livestreaming, videos, and online games. In July the CAC ordered 26 podcast and music applications to terminate, suspend services, or have “talks” with regulators. According to a CAC notice, these applications were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism.”
In 2018 the government directed consolidation of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China,” which “strengthened the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Several popular domestic soap operas from 2018 were taken off the air after state-owned newspaper the Beijing Daily called the dramas “incompatible with core socialist values.” One such popular show featured Emperor Qianlong and concubines. While episodes from 2018 remained available online, many television stations had canceled similar period dramas in their 2019 programming plans. The National Radio and Television Administration followed up with a temporary ban of historical dramas in late March. The CCP also policed cartological political correctness to ensure that cartoons and documentaries supported the CCP. In one example the domestic television drama Go Go Squid was investigated after displaying a map that did not show Taiwan and Hainan Island as part of China.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the CCP does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2017 on the nation’s news media, there were 231,564 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,406 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as XinhuaNet.com and ChinaDaily.com. Other online outlets also reported on important issues but limited their tactics and topics, since they were acting without official approval.
In January government officials detained Yang Zhengjun, the editor in chief of an online labor rights news outlet, iLabour, which reported on harmful working conditions for Chinese laborers. According to RFA, on March 20, police detained Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, at his Guangzhou home. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer for 19 days, during which police interrogated Wei five times at the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center. Voice of America reported that authorities forbade Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan, from speaking to foreign media about her husband’s detention. Police also detained Wei’s colleague Ke Chengbing in Guangzhou on March 20, but there was no information regarding his status as of year’s end. Authorities formally arrested and charged Yang, Wei, and Ke in August on charges of “picking quarrels.”
In June authorities in Chongqing announced they had convicted Liu Pengfei on unknown charges and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. Liu was detained in 2017 while running a WeChat group that reposted foreign press articles in Chinese. Until his conviction was announced, Liu’s condition and location were unknown.
On August 1, Chongqing police arrested former journalist Zhang Jialong. No charges were formally announced, although police reportedly arrested him for social media posts he made in 2017 and earlier. Zhang, a well-known journalist and anticensorship activist, had stopped posting publicly in 2014 after being fired from Tencent, where he worked as an editor, for meeting with then secretary of state John Kerry. His location was unknown at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. As of year’s end, dozens of Uighur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for RFA’s Uighur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. During the year the scope of censorship grew to the point that, according to several journalists, “almost all topics are considered sensitive.” For example, whereas in past years business news reporting had been relatively free of control, many journalists’ contacts were hesitant to express themselves openly even on this topic. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 10, the discipline inspection commission of the CCP’s Beijing branch accused Dai Zigeng, former publisher and cofounder of popular daily newspaper the Beijing News, of “serious violations of discipline and law.”
Prominent Chinese journalist Huang Xueqin, known for her publications about the #MeToo movement in China, was arrested in Guangzhou in October after she wrote about antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. Officials charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” At year’s end she remained in detention.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published a report in January detailing conditions for foreign journalists in the country. More than half (55 percent) of journalists who responded to the FCCC’s survey said reporting conditions had further deteriorated over the prior 12 months. They reported the government regularly surveilled foreign journalists, both in person and, increasingly, via electronic means. Of respondents, 91 percent expressed concern about the security of their telephones, and 66 percent worried about surveillance inside their homes and offices. Half of the journalists said this surveillance diminished their ability to report in the country.
In August a Canadian journalist working for a foreign outlet was detained while reporting in Guangdong. Local police detained the journalist and a PRC news assistant in a rural area, then drove them to a police station in a larger town, held them for seven hours, confiscated their electronic devices, copied all the data on their cell phones, and tried to compel the PRC colleague to sign a confession before putting them on a train out of town. The officials followed them onto the train, separated the two, and continued to intimidate them.
During the Hong Kong protests, mainland government authorities escalated their harassment of foreign journalists, stopping numerous journalists at border crossings near Hong Kong and at airports in Beijing and elsewhere, threatening them with visa obstacles, and making copies of their electronic devices. Journalists said this impeded their ability to gather and disseminate reports about the protests.
Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were subjected to official harassment and intimidation. A citizen who was assisting a foreign journalist on a reporting trip was detained by local police, then chained to a chair for a full day before being released. Government officials contacted and harassed many Chinese citizen employees’ family members in an attempt to pressure them away from their reporting work. Both the local citizens and their foreign employers lacked recourse in these cases and were generally hesitant to address grievances with authorities due to fear of experiencing even greater repression.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the January FCCC report, 26 of 28 foreign journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2018 reported that government officials told them reporting was restricted or prohibited. This continued throughout the year, as numerous foreign journalists reported being followed constantly while in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Foreign journalists also had trouble securing hotel rooms, since authorities directed hotels to prohibit the journalists’ stays.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of post-publication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Government officials also sought to suppress journalism outside their borders. While in past years these efforts largely focused on Chinese-language media, during the year additional reports emerged of attempts to suppress media critical of China regardless of language or location. In March government officials warned a Swedish media outlet to cease its “serious political provocations,” for publishing a Swedish-language editorial that supported a position that Chinese officials opposed. Another government official threatened to blacklist a Russian journalist if the journalist did not retract an article in a Russian newspaper detailing negative Chinese economic statistics.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministries of Defense and Commerce continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
Journalist arrests and dismissals for reporting on sensitive issues continued. One of the country’s few prominent investigative reporters, Liu Wanyong, announced he was leaving the profession, blaming the shrinking space for investigating and publishing accurate news. The Weibo accounts of several bloggers, including Wang Zhian, a former state broadcast commentator who wrote about social issues, were blocked.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films continued to be subject to government censorship. In July the head of the government’s film regulatory body, the National Film Bureau, gave a speech to government officials and film industry representatives exhorting them to use films to promote Chinese political values. Throughout the year the government forbade the release of a number of new movies–including several films with prominent directors and large budgets–because they ran afoul of government censors. Shortly before its July 5 release date, the historical war drama The Eight Hundred was removed from distribution despite numerous theatrical trailers and an $80 million budget. Similarly, in February the film One Second by world-famous director Zhang Yimou was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival only days before its debut for “technical difficulties,” a common euphemism for censorship in China. Another film, Better Days, was pulled from the same festival after the movie failed to receive the necessary permissions from Chinese authorities. The head of the National Film Bureau explicitly encouraged domestic filmmakers to find more “valuable and heavy” topics and materials in the country’s “excellent traditional culture,” “revolution culture,” and “advanced culture of socialism.”
In October, when the U.S. comedy show South Park ran an episode depicting the PRC’s censorship practices, authorities banned the episode and other South Park content from local television and internet.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released, including Bohemian Rhapsody and Top Gun: Maverick. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with a restriction on the total number that keeps annual distribution below 50 films.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
In May media reported that three government officials in Chongqing and Yunnan were disciplined for “secretly purchasing, reading, and keeping overseas books and publications with serious political problems.”
In the fall the Ministry of Education directed all school libraries to review their holdings and dispose of books that “damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” Officials at a state-run library in Zhenyuan, Gansu, responded by burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases,” according to a notice and photograph on the library’s website, which circulated widely online.
New cases of extraterritorial book censorship occurred: government censors required that books printed domestically conform to government propaganda guidelines, even if those books were written by a foreign author for a foreign audience. In February an Australian bookseller reported that PRC officials forbade a Chinese company from publishing a book that included political content they found objectionable, even though the books would have been shipped out of China as soon as they were printed.
On the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, the government made an array of efforts to block all public mention of that historical event, not just in China but even in other countries. Within the country the government preemptively targeted potential critics, including elderly parents of the massacre victims, jailing them or temporarily removing them from major cities. Online censorship increased, with government censors aggressively blocking even indirect references and images from all online platforms, including, for example, an image of books lined up facing a cigarette packet in a pattern invoking the famous video of a man facing down tanks on a Beijing street. The CNN website, normally accessible in the country, was blocked on June 4, and officials broke up a live CNN newscast in Beijing on June 4 by rushing between a news reporter and cameraman as they were broadcasting, demanding CNN staff stop reporting. Other international media outlets faced increased monitoring and detentions for reporting focused on the anniversary, including one reporter who was detained for six hours. Censors at domestic internet companies said tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning as well as voice and image recognition.
The new Heroes and Martyrs Law makes it illegal to insult or defame prominent communists. Citing this law, the CAC ordered major domestic news app Bytedance to rectify information “slandering” Fang Zhimin, a prominent communist historical figure, and to punish the individuals responsible for publishing the defamatory information. Sichuan police arrested a prominent female blogger for violating the Heroes and Martyrs Law because in one of her videos she paired a red scarf, “which symbolized the revolutionary tradition,” with an “inappropriately short” skirt. On March 28, the court sentenced the blogger, identified in court documents only by her last name “Tang,” to 12 days’ incarceration, a fine, and removal of her videos.
Authorities often justified restrictions on expressions on national security protection grounds. In particular, government leaders generally cited the threat of terrorism in justifying restricting freedom of expressions by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In the first three weeks of January, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.
The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. New approvals for offerings on Tencent’s gaming platforms were frozen for nine months in 2018 for any new video game approvals as part of an industry-wide tightening of the video game market, but this was the first time the news app had been criticized. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to freely communicate.
On April 8, popular social media site Weibo (similar to Twitter and owned by Sina) announced it had suspended more than 50 popular accounts “according to relevant laws and regulations,” as they included “politically harmful information.” Account owners received notifications from Weibo that the suspensions would last 90 to 180 days. Account holders included Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar of rural development and activist for the country’s peasants, who reportedly had not published information deemed sensitive for several years but had 7.2 million followers at the time his Weibo account shut down.
The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
Xinhua issued an authoritative news piece in January stating that the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) had released two new documents regarding short-video market regulation: one on regulation of the platforms and one concerning censorship. The new censorship measures imposed stricter criteria for short videos online. The guidelines, which were believed to have been issued at the government’s direction, banned 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist Party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism.” The CNSA documents openly discussed the “content review” standards it expected of these online video services. Other content to be removed included anything that “attacks China’s political or legal systems,” “content that damages China’s image,” “foot fetishes or sexual moaning,” and “spoofing the national anthem.” The documents called for platforms to expand their internal censorship teams as business grows and changes, and to keep at least one “content review” employee on staff for every 1,000 new videos posted to their platform each day.
CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.
In June censors abruptly shut down the app of the financial news aggregator wallstreetcn.com, which had been downloaded more than 100 million times, as well as its website. Earlier in the year, regulators fined wallstreetcn.com for distributing news without a license, and disrupting “online news order.” In the shutdown notice the CAC said that wallstreetcn.com was in breach of cybersecurity measures.
The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register.
Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.
The finalization of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, imposing penalties on network operators that provide services to users who do not provide real-name information. In response, Baidu and Sina Weibo announced accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents. In March, following a chemical plant explosion outside of Shanghai, the local government jammed drones sent by media outlets to capture footage of the explosion.
In December 2018 the Zhuhai Court sentenced prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to a jail term of two years for “inciting subversion of state power” in a closed-door trial. He was released from prison on November 8. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, reportedly provided technical guidance to domestic Internet users on how to circumvent the Great Firewall to make their posts visible overseas. He was also the executive governor of a website, Rights Movement, which helped collect and disseminate information on rights protections.
Many if not most of the major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The government further restricted this space during the year, adding the Washington Post, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Australia’s the Age and News, and Wikipedia to the list of websites blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Hong Kong protests that occurred during the year were subject to heavy, selective censorship: the government initially struck any mention of the protests from media and online discussions, then began to allow and even promote reports criticizing the protesters, while continuing to prohibit access to positive or neutral reporting on the protesters, including reporting that detailed the protesters’ demands for democracy and accountability for police actions.
On August 5, Sun Yat-sen University doctoral student Chen Chun joined the protests in Hong Kong and posted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on his Weibo account. Other netizens reported him to Guangdong police, and his account was shut down.
Censorship on Chinese-owned social media platforms of users in other countries also occurred. In November TikTok, which was owned by Bytedance, blocked the account of a foreign-based user who had posted a video to raise awareness of the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. After a public outcry, TikTok restored her account and admitted her video had been temporarily removed “due to human moderation error.”
The government also punished Chinese citizens for expressing their opinions on foreign social media platforms while outside the country. In November a court in Wuhan sentenced Luo Daiqing to six months’ imprisonment on charges of “provocation” for posting a set of images mocking Chinese leaders on Twitter. Luo posted the images while living in Minnesota, where he was a student; he was arrested in July on a visit home to Wuhan.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information. In June at least 10 prominent blogs that published financial news and analyses were shut down and had all past content erased. This happened at the same time that government propaganda sources were publishing specific new messages about the country’s economy.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users there. A recent round of government attention on Twitter users in China started in late 2018. A Chinese dissident who lived in Beijing said the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau summoned him twice on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and presented printed pages of his tweets as evidence. Internet monitors and activists tallied at least 40 cases of government authorities pressuring users in person to delete their tweets or their Twitter accounts. One user spent 15 days in a detention center, while police threatened another user’s family, and a third Twitter user was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.
During the year authorities continued to manipulate the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In March the anonymous netizen behind @AirMovingDevice, a Twitter account that specialized in using publicly available data to critically analyze government activity, declared she or he would be deleting all previous tweets and ceasing communication, adding, “it is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority.”
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On July 29, a court in Sichuan sentenced prominent blogger Huang Qi–a Chinese internet pioneer who once won CCP praise for using the web to “combat social ills”–to 12 years in prison for “deliberately disclosing state secrets” and “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” The charges arose from Huang’s efforts to publicize cases of human rights abuses on the 64Tianwang blog. Huang Qi had been jailed twice previously, for a total of eight years, as a result of his blogging that exposed local government malfeasance and brutality. After Huang’s release from those sentences, he continued his blogging activities.
On January 29, a court in Hubei sentenced Liu Feiyu to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he ran a news portal publicizing government corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, there were continuing reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign entities, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
References to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. A Weibo account featuring lesbian topics, where more than 143,000 users swapped information, was abruptly shut down in April and then reopened several weeks later. Several scenes in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody that depicted the main character’s gay relationships were cut out of the version shown in Chinese movie theaters.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
On June 9, police in Jiuxiangling District summoned Guo Yongfeng, a Christian and former participant of a local democratic movement who lived in Shenzhen, to Xili Police Station in response to his online post about his intention to sue Tencent for banning several of his social media accounts. Police warned Guo against disseminating information online about rights protection and organizing related assemblies, and they did not release him until he wrote a letter of guarantee.
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts, scrutinized the content of cultural events, and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping thought, and Xi Jinping thought. In February the CCP’s Central Committee and the State Council made public the government’s Education Modernization Plan 2035, which specified 10 strategic tasks, the first task being to study Xi Jinping thought, implement it throughout the education system, including at primary and secondary education levels, and strengthen political thought education in institutes of higher education.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with CCP thought. In March Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun was suspended due to a series of essays he wrote criticizing policies of the CCP and Xi Jinping. In August 2018 Professor Yang Shaozheng was expelled from Guizhou University for publishing “politically mistaken speech and politically harmful articles,” including an article that estimated the total cost of maintaining the CCP apparatus. After his expulsion the government stripped his teaching credentials, prevented him from finding new employment, and on June 4, state security officials arrested him for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He was then released, but authorities detained him again in August and cancelled his health coverage and social benefits. In December Fudan University, Nanjing University, and Shaanxi Normal University revised their charters, adding a pledge to highlight the party’s overall leadership in schoolwork and removing a reference to “freedom of thought.” Students at Fudan University protested the revisions by singing the university’s official anthem, which included a reference to “freedom of thought.”
University professors also continued to come under scrutiny after their students reported them for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate. In some cases the university assigned the students to act as informants. In July a university professor in Chengdu was suspended from teaching for two years after students filed a complaint for remarks deemed to have shown insufficient appreciation for Chinese culture and innovation. Professor Tang Yun of Chongqing University was banned from teaching and demoted for making “politically incorrect statements” while lecturing on Chinese author Lu Xun. Professor Tang had his teaching credentials cancelled after students reported his statements to party representatives at the school.
Crackdowns against student labor activists on university campuses increased early in the year. In January the New York Times reported that more than 20 students at elite Chinese universities had been forced to watch videotaped confessions of detained labor activists to pressure the students to abandon their activism. Additional students and several recent graduates from Peking and Renmin Universities were reportedly detained and held incommunicado after releasing statements decrying police use of coerced confession videos. In May CNN reported six Marxist university students had been disappeared in the lead up to International Labor Day and the 100th anniversary of the May 4 student protests. One of the missing student labor activists, Qiu Zhanxuan, released a video and written testimony detailing abuse at the hands of police, including being strip-searched and forced to listen to a marathon speech by Xi Jinping at high volume.
Foreign universities establishing joint venture academic programs in the country must establish internal CCP committees and grant decision-making power to CCP officials. In August Reuters reported a surge in arrests and deportations of foreign teachers over the past six months as part of a continuing effort to crack down on foreign influence.
During the academic year, schools faced new prohibitions on the use of international curricula. The Ministry of Education forced the suspension of the advanced placement (AP) exams on U.S. history, world history, European history and human geography. The government allowed tests in other subjects, including calculus, biology, and chemistry, to continue.
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. In multiple instances overseas Chinese students monitored and pushed back against on-campus speech or activity considered to be critical of China, oftentimes in coordination with the government. In February the Washington Post reported a group of Chinese students at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, sought guidance from the PRC embassy and filmed the presentation of Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush about China’s mass internment of Muslims. In August the Times of London reported that China aimed to manipulate United Kingdom media and influence public officials through British universities, citing training provided by a University of Westminster media research center with links to the Chinese government on how to handle the British media, and the targeting of United Kingdom government officials, academics, and business executives by Leeds University’s Business Confucius Institute. In August Australia established a University Foreign Interference Task Force to increase consultation between its schools and government to protect national interests out of growing concern about foreign influence on Australian campuses. On November 14, the task force released a set of guidelines designed to protect against such foreign interference by safeguarding the reputation of Australian universities, protecting academic freedom, and ensuring academic institutions and the Australian economy can maximize the benefits of research endeavors.
Authorities in Xinjiang disappeared or detained several prominent Uighur academics and intellectuals. Some officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed to be held in the camps or otherwise detained included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; and Yalqun Rozi, writer. Rahile Dawut’s Han Chinese student Feng Siyu was also detained. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all were disappeared at year’s end. Courts delivered a suspended death sentence for “separatism” to Halmurat Ghopur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital. Religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulnehed Mehsum died in the camps, according to reports during the year from international organizations. Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained detained on charges of “separatism,” and some human rights groups reported he had been sentenced to death. Economist Ilham Tohti remained in prison, where he was serving a life sentence after his conviction on separatism-related charges in 2014.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
In July residents from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, protested a planned waste incineration plant in the city’s Yangluo District. Media had reported in 2013 that five such plants in Wuhan were substandard and emitted dangerous pollutants. Protests grew over several days, involving up to 10,000 demonstrators, until the local government dispersed them.
On December 26, police from Shandong coordinated with other police nationwide to arrest human rights activists and participants who gathered in Xiamen, Fujian, in early December to organize civil society and plan nonviolent social movements in the country. Suspected charges included “incitement to subvert state power” and “subversion of state power”; the latter crime carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence if convicted. At the end of the year, police held at least four activists in “residential surveillance at a designated location”: organizer Ding Jiaxi and activists Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun, and Dai Zhenya. Their families had no information on their whereabouts. Some human rights activists or those indirectly connected to the meeting participants fled the country or went into hiding inside the country. Several others involved in the meeting, including human rights lawyers, were held for several days in police custody in various jurisdictions for questioning and investigation.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were canceled at the last minute or denied government permits, ostensibly to ensure public safety.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.
In 2016 the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates authorities to conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
In 2017 the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law) came into effect. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned. On November 25, the Foreign Ministry publicly confirmed for the first time that public security authorities had investigated and penalized a foreign NGO, in this case the New York-based Asia Catalyst, for carrying out unauthorized activities.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was difficult for most foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGOs’ conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. After the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors, NGOs reported most government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional supervisory units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of December 31, approximately 510 foreign NGO representative offices (representing 420 distinct organizations) had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with nearly half of those focusing on industry or trade promotion activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2017, there were more than 800,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported foreign funding continued to drop, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding due to fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs, or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country to receive funds, or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times did not respect these rights.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Uighurs faced draconian restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, identification checks remained in place when entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang, security officials set up checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uighurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put any baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
The government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2019 National Economic and Social Development, published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 286 million individuals lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
From May to July, non-Beijing residents applied for a Beijing hukou under the special municipality’s new points-based system. Under the new policy enacted in 2018, nonnatives of the city under the legal retirement age who have held a Beijing temporary residence permit with the city’s social insurance records for seven consecutive years and were without a criminal record were eligible to accumulate points for the hukou. Those with “good employment, stable homes in Beijing, strong educational background, and achievements in innovation and establishing start-ups in Beijing” were reportedly likely to obtain high scores in the point-based competition.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists and of suspected corrupt officials and businesspersons, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police sometimes cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country, although often authorities provided no reason for such exit bans. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. Foreign national family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. The government continued its concerted efforts to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China, often pressuring relatives in Xinjiang to ask their overseas relatives to return. Authorities also refused to renew passports for Uighurs living abroad, compelling them to either return to China or pursue ways to maintain legal status in other countries. Upon return, many of these Uighurs, or persons connected with the Xinjiang residents, were detained or disappeared.
Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns, it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue or even renew old passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many when they attempted to leave. Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.
Chen Xiaoya, author of the History of Civil Rights Movement 1989, was turned away by Guangxi customs officials when she tried to travel abroad on January 10. Customs officers told her that she was banned from leaving the country because she might jeopardize national security.
Fuzhou-based human rights activist Zhuang Lei attempted to visit Hong Kong on June 6 but was stopped by Shenzhen enforcement officers at the border. Zhuang, who claimed to have no criminal record, was referred to Fuzhou’s domestic security police by the Shenzhen officers. Zhuang believed he was prevented from traveling to Hong Kong due to concerns that he might participate in the Hong Kong protests against an extradition bill on June 9.
Families of “709” lawyers faced difficulties applying for passports or were barred from leaving the country.
Foshan dissident Chen Qitang was released from Sihui Prison on May 24, after serving four and one-half years in jail for “subversion of state power.” After his release, he was prevented from returning home.
On June 1, police in Guilin and Liuzhou summoned internet users who had discussed on social media their plans to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the annual gathering in Victoria Park commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and ordered them not to go to Hong Kong. In April the 1990s Cantonese pop song “Ren Jian Dao” was banned nationwide, including on Apple Music, because the lyrics were believed to be making a reference to the 1989 massacre.
Although restricting access to border areas, the government regularly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens against their will. In addition, North Koreans detained by PRC authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. North Korean refugees were either detained in holding facilities or placed under house arrest at undisclosed locations. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
Refoulement: The government continued to consider North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and refouled many of them to North Korea. Missionaries in China involved in helping North Koreans reach safe destinations said that Chinese authorities’ crackdown on North Korean defectors had intensified since Kim Jong Un took power.
In April Chinese authorities apprehended three North Korean women, three men, and a 10-year-old girl who fled from North Korea. RFA reported in August that China had detained 60 North Korean defectors and had refouled them to North Korea where they faced harsh punishments including torture, forced abortions, forced labor, sexual violence, or death.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylum status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees in China. Asylum applicants and refugees remained in the country without access to education or social services and were subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women living on the margins of society, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
UNHCR reported that Chinese officials continued to restrict its access to border areas. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, including North Korean asylum seekers in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
International media reported as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were trafficked and married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent. Chinese fathers reportedly sometimes do not register their children to avoid exposing the illegal status of their North Korean partners.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong
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. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and an unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters. During the year, however, some SAR and central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were some legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Police arrested several individuals for damaging the national flag, which is illegal. For example, in May police arrested a proindependence activist for damaging the Chinese national flag during a protest against the controversial extradition bill. In October, media reported police asked Facebook to remove user posts about police handling of protests. Facebook reportedly declined to do so.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China in order to run for office. The commission disqualified one candidate, democracy activist Joshua Wong, from running in the November district council election. The government determined that Wong could not “possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting ‘self-determination’ is contrary to the content of the declaration” candidates are required to sign.
In 2017 the government disqualified six legislators-elect from taking office because they took their oaths in ways that did not conform to a 2016 NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law to demonstrate “sincerity” and “solemnity” when taking an oath.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. An April Hong Kong Journalists Association poll found, however, that 81 percent of journalists said press freedom in the SAR had worsened since 2018.
Violence and Harassment: In September unknown persons threw firebombs at the home of Jimmy Lai, owner of the prodemocracy Apple Daily newspaper. Also in September, four unknown assailants attacked an Apple Daily reporter who was covering protests. In November protesters smashed windows and vandalized the offices of China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Several journalists alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them while covering protests. In October the Foreign Correspondent’s Club condemned the arrest of a photojournalist who was covering a protest. Police reportedly ordered her and other journalists to remove their gas masks despite previous government assurances that the mask ban did not apply to those using masks to perform their professional duties.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. The April Hong Kong Journalists Association survey showed that one in five journalists surveyed said their superiors had pressured them to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence. Many media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship.
The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use.
There were reports of suspected politically motivated cyberattacks against private persons and organizations. In June the creator of the encrypted messaging app Telegram said the app, frequently used by protesters in Hong Kong, was the target of a massive cyberattack, apparently originating from mainland China. In August a similar attack briefly disabled the LIHKG online-chat forum, also frequently used by protesters to organize activities.
There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. A museum dedicated to memorializing the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square reopened in a new location in May after previously closing due to pressure from the museum’s prior landlord. In October Hong Kong Community College assigned Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer, to nonteaching duties after dozens of antigovernment protesters surrounded him and insulted him inside his classroom after Chan publicly called for stiffer penalties against violent protesters. In November the Education Bureau warned students in all government-run schools not to participate in “political activities” while at school.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government allowed most public gatherings to proceed, but government actions, including prosecutions of activists and refusals to grant approval for some assemblies, infringed on the right of peaceful protest.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Before violence erupted at some protests, the police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and Chinese central government. After violence began occurring at some protests, however, the police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches. The police also revoked permission for some gatherings after they started. Police on each occasion said they feared the gatherings would result in violence. Police frequently warned participants in unapproved protests that they were participating in unlawful assemblies. As of year’s end, police confirmed more than 6,000 arrests on varying charges in connection with the protests.
Media reports indicated that on several occasions police arrested onlookers not involved in protests. Police also fired thousands of rounds of tear gas to disperse crowds. Several human rights organizations repeated longstanding concerns that the SAR’s legal definitions of illegal assembly and rioting, charges frequently brought against protesters, were overly broad.
On several occasions the MTR Corporation, the operator of Hong Kong’s subway system, suspended services before and during protests. For example, on August 24, the MTR suspended services to Kwun Tong Station, the site of a police-approved protest. Critics claimed the MTR Corporation was acting to suppress peaceful protest in response to mainland state media criticism that the rail operator was facilitating protest. The Hong Kong government owns a majority stake in the MTR Corporation.
In October Chief Executive Lam, through executive fiat under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), banned the wearing of masks. Protesters frequently wore masks to protect themselves from tear gas and to hide their identity from police and from employers who might be pressured to punish employees who support the protests. In November a Hong Kong court ruled the government’s use of the ERO to implement the mask ban unconstitutional.
Continuing government prosecutions of peaceful protesters led to concerns the government was using the law to suppress political dissent. For example, in April and June, a court sentenced Benny Tai and eight other leaders of the 2014 “Occupy Central” protests following their convictions for actions related to peaceful protests. The court sentenced four of the nine to jail for eight to 16 months; the remaining five received community service or were given suspended sentences. All nine defendants have appealed their convictions.
On several occasions progovernment vigilantes, whom the international NGO Freedom House described in some cases as having “probable ties to the Chinese government,” violently attacked protesters and protest organizers. The largest vigilante attack occurred on July 21. On that day a group of more than 100 men, which police sources told the South China Morning Post included persons with organized crime connections, beat protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long subway station, resulting in at least 45 injuries. In August, two unknown men attacked Jimmy Sham, the leader of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), with baseball bats the day before the CHRF was scheduled to lead a large protest march. In October unknown men used hammers to attack Jimmy Sham again. The CHRF was the organizer of the year’s largest protests. On several occasions, prodemocracy protesters also physically attacked allegedly progovernment individuals. For example, in November, one protester lit a man who was heckling him on fire.
SAR law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. In February, however, the Executive Council upheld the ban on the proindependence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP). The ban came after repeated SAR and Chinese central government warnings that advocacy for Hong Kong independence “crosses a red line.”
Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a fine of HK$100,000 ($12,800) and a maximum of three years in prison. Those providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Reports that the Immigration Department refused entry to a small number of persons traveling to the SAR for political reasons continued. In May Immigration Department authorities denied entry to former Philippine supreme court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, who previously accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity, according to media reports. Activists and other observers contended that refusals, usually of persons holding, or suspected of holding, views critical of the Chinese central government, were made at the behest of mainland authorities.
Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government, although Chinese central government authorities in the past did not permit some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators to visit the mainland. There were reports of mainland security officials harassing and questioning Hong Kong residents suspected of participating in protests when they traveled to the mainland. In August central government officials detained an employee of the United Kingdom’s consulate in Hong Kong while he was returning from the mainland to his home in Hong Kong. He was released after more than two weeks in detention and later told media that mainland authorities tortured him.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were the frequent target of generalizations by some political parties and media organizations.
The government cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, but the SAR government has established a system for providing limited protection to persons who would be subject to torture or other abuses in their home country.
The SAR government used the term “nonrefoulement claim” to refer to a claim for protection against deportation. Persons subject to deportation could file a nonrefoulement claim if they either arrived in the SAR without proper authorization or had overstayed the terms of their entry. Filing such a claim typically resulted in a period of detention followed by release on recognizance. Activists and refugee rights groups expressed concerns about the quality of adjudications and the very low rate of approved claims, less than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice which the Hong Kong Bar Association previously noted created concerns about the consistency and transparency of decisions. Persons whose claims were pending were required to appear periodically before the Immigration Department. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to legally work in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking.
Employment: “Nonrefoulement claimants” have no right to work in the SAR while their claims are under review, and they must rely on social welfare stipends and charities. The SAR government, however, frequently granted exceptions to this rule for persons granted nondeportation status and awaiting UNHCR resettlement.
Access to Basic Services: Persons who made “nonrefoulement” claims were eligible to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. The children of such claimants could attend SAR public schools.
Temporary Protection: Persons whose claims for “nonrefoulement” are substantiated do not obtain permanent resident status in the SAR. Instead the SAR government refers them to UNHCR for possible recognition as refugees and resettlement in a third country. Some such persons have waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Tibet
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Freedom of Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Supporting the CCP, criticizing the Dalai Lama, and “not creating and spreading rumors” were some of the major requirements Tibetans had to fulfill to apply for jobs and receive access to government benefits.
Media reports in October noted that advertisements for teaching positions within the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted this permission.
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. In April the Shannan Newspaper, a daily newspaper in Lhoka City, TAR, included in a listing for new positions the requirement that employees “resolutely implement the party’s line, principles, policies, and political stance, fight against separatism, and safeguard the motherland’s unity and ethnic unity.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2019 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation. In addition, authorities banned some writers from publishing and prohibited them from receiving services and benefits such as government jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan-language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.
In February, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and win the online antiseparatist battle.”
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its March conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In May police detained Sonam Lhundrub, a Tibetan university student in Lanzhou City, Gansu, after he wrote an essay criticizing the government. His essay noted the lack of government job positions available to Tibetans in the province and the difficulty of competing with Han Chinese applicants for jobs.
In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan living patterns and customs and accelerated forced assimilation through promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, and weakening Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are the official languages of the TAR. Both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
Financial and subsistence aid is sometimes tied to a reeducation program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland,” a program that continued to expand since its inception in 2017. In areas where this program was in place, state subsidies and incentives were given only to Tibetans who could demonstrate support and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and phrases of past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Chinese, disadvantaging Tibetans who could not speak or read Chinese.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structure, with party members exercising control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. This requirement included geographic residency limitations on who can attend each monastery. In August monks from prominent Tibetan monasteries attending a government training were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society” and that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama “would not be affected by the Dalai Lama’s separatist clique.”
PRC law states “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to officially approved Tibetan-language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious education, particularly computers, physical education, arts, and other “modern” subjects.
The country’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced government intimidation and arrest if they protested official policies or practices.
In March and July, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu received official warnings not to organize certain gatherings, including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
PRC law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports. Tibetans without local residency were turned away from many Tibetan areas deemed sensitive by the government.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from leaving the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Some Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. Such restrictions not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but they also made it difficult to visit family, conduct business, or travel for leisure. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to Han Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a PRC passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to conduct only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel.
Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. In some instances the government refused to issue passports to Tibetans. Many Tibetans who possessed passports were concerned authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist and therefore did not travel. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. According to local observers, travel agents in the cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell overseas package tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6). Travel restrictions also increased around Chinese National Day (October 1).
The government strictly regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity of the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, international visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most foreign tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR a government-designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. As in prior years, authorities banned many international tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as during other periods the PRC government deemed politically sensitive. International tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR during such times.
The 2018 Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act defines open access to Tibet as meeting the following two criteria: that U.S. diplomats, journalists, and citizens can access Tibetan areas in the same way as other areas in China, and that no special permits or procedures are required to access Tibetan areas. During the year the PRC did not provide open access to Tibet based on either criterion. PRC authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Freedom of Expression section). The TAR government also frequently denied foreign diplomats’ requests for official travel. Although foreign officials were able to travel more freely in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, the People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus often subjected them to multiple checkpoints. Local government officials routinely limited diplomatic travel within Sichuan Province.
From February to April, the local government reportedly banned foreign tourists from visiting the TAR in advance of Tibet Uprising Day and the convening of the PRC’s national legislature.
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live in exile throughout the world. Tibetans live outside of China for many reasons, although policies enacted by the PRC government in Tibetan areas were frequently cited as the primary factor. Among those living outside of China are the 14th Dalai Lama and several other senior religious leaders who are not approved by the PRC government. These leaders were often unable to meet directly with their home monasteries and students.
The Tibetan overseas community is often subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. Individuals reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China.
In September media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of several leaders in the Central Tibetan Administration, the governance organization of the overseas Tibetan community, as well as officials in the Office of the Dalai Lama.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to political protests in other countries, such as Mohamad Ramadan who remained in pretrial detention after his December 2018 arrest for “inciting social unrest” by posting a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and June, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 138 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. One example cited by The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) is the June 25 arrest of several political figures after they met to form a new political alliance (Alliance of Hope) to run in 2020 parliamentary elections. On August 6, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (no. 930/2019). On September 3, board members of the Journalists’ Syndicate, journalists, and families of the detainees submitted three official complaints to NCHR claiming that the detainees were experiencing poor detention conditions and medical negligence. The next hearing on the renewal of the detention of the defendants was scheduled for January 8, 2020.
On September 24, authorities arrested Hazem Hosni and Hassan Nafaa, both political science professors at Cairo University who were outspoken critics of President Sisi. Hosny was also a spokesman for the 2018 presidential campaign of Sami Anan (see section 3). According to media, Nafaa’s arrest came minutes after a local channel aired a leaked conversation between Nafaa and an al-Jazeera producer in which Nafaa demanded LE 16,500 ($1,000) for conducting an interview with al-Jazeera. On December 17, the State Security Prosecutor ordered the renewal of Hosni and Nafaa’s detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
In a November 19 report, HRW claimed it had documented 28 cases from 2016 to 2019 in which authorities harassed or threatened one or more family members of journalists, media workers, and political and human rights activists who have criticized the government and now live abroad.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. Independent media reported that entities wholly or partially owned by the intelligence services assumed control of several independent media companies throughout the year. The constitution, penal code, and media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) broad discretion to block their content. According to media reports, the SCMR fined the weekly newspaper al-Mashhad LE 50,000 ($3,030) in March and blocked its website for six months for allegedly publishing sexually explicit material. Al-Mashhad claimed it did not publish illicit material and that the censorship was due to its reports claiming that a police station in Cairo extorted business owners to fund food to be given to voters in the April referendum. According to media reports, the SCMR also prevented al-Mashhad from sending 30 journalists to report from polling stations during the referendum.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 26 imprisoned journalists in the country.
On June 23, the al-Tahrir news agency stated it was shutting down operations after authorities blocked its website on May 9. According to a June 25 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the SCMR issued a bylaw in March stating that websites in violation of Egypt’s media laws would be blocked.
On November 24, unidentified security officials raided the office of news site Mada Masr, seized documents and electronic equipment, and detained three staff members. Detained staff members were taken to a police station before being released several hours later. On November 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that Mada Masr was investigated because it was operating without a permit. No additional information was available on the status of the investigation as of December 16.
On May 21, a court ordered the release of al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been held for 880 days in pretrial detention for allegedly disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. Before processing his release, authorities rearrested Hussein, who remained in pretrial detention awaiting formal charges.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
According to media reports, on February 20, authorities detained David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, in the Cairo International Airport and prevented him from entering the country. Kirkpatrick was the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015 and is the author of a book on Egypt, Into the Hands of the Soldiers.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The SOE empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses.
According to media reports, authorities blocked 34,000 websites prior to the April referendum, including sites gathering signatures to oppose the amendments. On June 23, AFTE reported that authorities censored three issues of the leftist Al Tagammaa Party’s weekly Al Ahly newspaper that discussed presidential pardons, corruption, and a planned government cabinet reshuffle. The AFTE report noted the government had previously censored Al-Dostour, Al-Mesryoon, Sawt Al Ummah, Al-Sabah, and Al-Bawaba newspapers.
Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the overall anti-MB and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.
On March 22, the Musicians’ Syndicate banned famous singer Sherine Abdel Wahab from performing and summoned her for questioning for “insulting Egypt.” The syndicate lifted the ban in early June after she publicly apologized.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported several cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims.
On January 29, atheist video blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to aid him in purchasing another nationality. On March 29, he posted on Twitter that there were two warrants for his arrest for treason and receiving funding from unknown sources. Gaber was arrested for denigration of Islam-related charges in 2018, 2015, and 2013. As of December 16, the government had not detained him.
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In March 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
Judges may issue restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
Authorities have held blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers, in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
The constitution protects the right to privacy, including on the internet. The constitution provides for the confidentiality and “inviolability” of postal, telegraphic, and electronic correspondence; telephone calls; and other means of communication. They may not be confiscated, revealed, or monitored except with a judicial order, only for a definite period, and only in cases defined by law. The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Despite legal protections, the government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. There were credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority including cyberattacks to gain access to devices and accounts belonging to critics of the government. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period.
The cybercrime law of August 2018 states, “the relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government had not issued implementing regulations for the law as of September.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications. On March 5, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology denied reports that the government monitored social media sites. On March 14, there were reports that authorities blocked Facebook and other social media platforms.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest LGBTI individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
A local news site reported in April that the government blocked its website and 500 more in Egypt. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 15, NetBlocks.org reported that the government blocked 34,000 internet domains to stop an online campaign to gather signatures to oppose the April constitutional referendum. On May 22, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech reported the government blocked 26,175 websites to block the Batel “Void” Campaign launched on April 8 to petition against the April referendum. After September 20 street protests (see section 2.b.), internet users throughout the country reported difficulty accessing Facebook Messenger and the news websites of the BBC, al-Jazeera, and al-Hurra. A spokesperson for the Supreme Council for Media Regulation said the BBC and other news websites may have been blocked because of their “inaccurate” coverage of the protests.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In September 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end. Defense lawyers claimed it could take years to examine the case.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. A March 6 report from AI documented a wave of digital attacks that likely originated from government-backed bodies, starting from early January and involving multiple attempts to gain access to the email accounts of prominent Egyptian human rights defenders, media, and civil society organization staff.
In October, The New York Times reported that a series of cyberattacks targeting journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights activists, in which attackers installed software on the targets’ phones that enabled them to read the victims’ files and emails and track their locations, was traced to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and that geographic coordinates embedded in one of the applications used to track the targeted individuals corresponded to the headquarters of the General Intelligence Service.
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, similar to that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. Faculty members needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason.
On August 14, the Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom requested the government to lift the travel ban on University of Washington doctoral student Walid Salem. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probation pending trial.
According to a local human rights organization, authorities released Helwan University science professor Yehia al-Qazzaz from prison on May 23, following his 2018 arrest based on a complaint filed against him by the university’s dean of the faculty of sciences for comments al-Qazzaz made on Facebook critical of President Sisi. According to the organization, after al-Qazzaz’s release, the president of Helwan University continued to harass al-Qazzaz with investigations over his 2018 political comments and by referring him to university disciplinary procedures for being absent from work while he was in prison.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in June 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Ministry of Interior and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On May 26, after remaining in pretrial detention since his arrest in February 2018, authorities released film editor Ahmed Tarek on probationary measures pending trial. According to his lawyer, authorities held Tarek incommunicado at National State Sector headquarters three days. Tarek faced charges of spreading false news and joining a group established contrary to the provisions of the law. The charges stemmed from his work on a documentary, Minus 1,095 Days, which sought to rebut claims in a state-produced film highlighting President Sisi’s accomplishments called 1,095 Days.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly “according to notification regulated by law.” The demonstrations law includes an expansive list of prohibited activities, giving a judge the authority to prohibit or curtail planned demonstrations after submitting an official memorandum. Domestic and international human rights organizations asserted the law did not meet international standards regarding freedom of assembly. In 2017 a local human rights organization filed a lawsuit challenging the 1914 law, arguing that it was passed by an incompetent body and repealed in 1929. The court was expected to issue a ruling in the case on January 4, 2020. In 2017 the government imposed an exclusion zone of 2,600 feet (790 meters) around vital governmental institutions in which protests are prohibited.
There were protests throughout the year, mostly small, and some occurred without government interference. In most cases the government rigorously enforced the law restricting demonstrations, in some cases using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.
In September local NGOs reported police arrested more than 4,000 individuals after small protests erupted in several cities over accusations of corruption against President Sisi. Many of the individuals detained reportedly had no connection to the protests and happened simply to be in the vicinity of the protests. Police and prosecutors subsequently released more than 2,500 of those detained. Local human rights organizations claimed that, in some instances, detainees were tortured or subjected to other abuses.
The cumulative number of persons arrested under the protest law was not publicly available. On May 13, authorities arrested political activist Haytham Mohamadeen, who police had surveilled since his October 2018 release following five months in pretrial detention. On May 14, authorities arrested political activist Mostafa Maher, the brother of political activist Ahmed Maher, who co-founded the April 6 movement. On December 25, Mostafa Maher received a release order that was immediately appealed by the prosecutor. Both remained in pretrial detention pending charges of “colluding with a terrorist group.”
On April 22, the final day of voting for the referendum, authorities arrested Ahmed Badawi, an engineer and member of the liberal Dostour Party, after he raised a sign saying “No to the constitutional changes” outside a polling station in Cairo. According to local media, authorities arrested four members of the Dostour Party in February after they reportedly voiced objection to the proposed constitutional amendments.
According to a local human rights organization, thousands of persons whom authorities arrested during 2013 and 2014 due to their participation in demonstrations (some of which were peaceful) remained imprisoned; however, authorities released others who had completed their sentences and some through presidential pardons. Authorities reportedly held such individuals under charges of attending an unauthorized protest, incitement to violence, or “blocking roads.”
Human rights groups claimed authorities inflated or used these charges solely to target individuals suspected of being members of groups in opposition to the government or those who sought to exercise the rights to free assembly or association.
On March 29, authorities conditionally released prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, whom a court convicted of participating in a protest in 2013. The conditions of a Court of Cassation sentence in 2017 require Abdel Fattah to report to the Dokki police station from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day for the next five years, but he may report at 7:30 p.m. during Ramadan. Abdel Fattah was appealing the nightly sentence and requesting that he be allowed to fulfill its terms from home. On September 29, police detained Abdel Fattah as he prepared to leave after spending the night in the police station and charged him with belonging to a terrorist organization, funding a terrorist group, spreading false news to undermine national security, and using social media to commit a publishing offense. Local NGOs reported he was tortured or subjected to other abuses while in custody in Tora Prison. As of year’s end, Abdel Fattah, along with his attorney Mohamed Elbakr, remained in detention on charges of “joining a banned group” and “spreading false news.”
Since their release from prison in 2017 after completing three-year sentences for violating the protest law, activists Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel remained on probation with terms requiring them to reside in the local police station from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. In May authorities rearrested Maher and released him a few days later on charges of beating a citizen and damaging his car outside a police station. Authorities also rearrested Adel in another case. On December 16, an administrative court ruled that the order to compel Adel to spend every night inside a police station as part of his probation was invalid. The court ruled that Adel could spend the daily probationary period from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. inside his home, according to a lawyer.
On May 21, authorities arrested several high school boys who protested in front of the Ministry of Education building regarding the repeated failures of new electronic systems in their schools; they were released the following day.
The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.
President Sisi signed a new NGO law on August 19. The law replaced a 2017 law which local and international NGOs stated could make it impossible for them to operate independently; the 2017 law was never implemented. According to International Center for Not-Profit Law (ICNL), the new law includes noteworthy improvements from the 2017 law in several respects, such as by eliminating individual prison sentences for violations and by removing the previous formal oversight role for security and intelligence authorities over foreign funding and foreign organizations. However, ICNL also assessed that the new law preserves the former law’s overall restrictive regulatory approach and continues to impose significant barriers to civil society activity.
Pending the promulgation of implementing regulations for the new law, the Ministry of Social Solidarity continued to apply the previous NGO law on international and domestic organizations receiving international funding. Rights groups reported fewer incidents of security services ordering cancellation of planned training programs or other events. On February 2, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional several articles of the previous NGO law, which gives the minister of social solidarity the right to dissolve NGOs.
The penal code criminalizes the request for or acceptance of foreign funds, materiel, weapons, ammunition, or “other things” from states or NGOs “with the intent to harm the national interest.” Those convicted may be sentenced to life in prison (or the death penalty in the case of public officials) for crimes committed during times of war or with “terrorist purpose.”
On October 16, a local NGO announced that authorities arrested lawyer Amr Emam after he announced on October 14 that he intended to go on a hunger strike and begin a sit-in to protest the arrests and alleged abuse of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and his attorney Mohamed Elbakr. As of year’s end, Emam remained in detention pending investigations in case no. 488 of 2019 on charges of “colluding with a terrorist organization,” “publishing fake news,” and “misusing social media to spread false information.”
On May 2, Cairo Criminal Court renewed the pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared. Authorities arrested him in 2017 at the Cairo International Airport and initially held him incommunicado. Hegazy was traveling to Geneva to participate in the WGEID. The charges against him included “communicating with a foreign body to harm the Egyptian national interest.” On May 20, the WGEID stated that it “remains concerned” that the measures against Hegazy “constitute acts of reprisals against him for cooperating with the Working Group.” On October 15, the Cairo Criminal Court ordered Hegazy’s release. On November 5, Hegazy appeared in front of the State Security Prosecution accused in a new case of “belonging to a terrorist group” and “funding a terrorist group.” On November 20, UN human rights rapporteurs criticized Hegazy’s continued detention.
Following the December 2018 acquittal of 41 mostly foreign NGO workers sentenced in 2013 for operating unlicensed organizations and receiving foreign funding without government permission, a court acquitted the remaining two defendants in May.
The MB, the MB-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the MB was listed as a designated terrorist organization.
Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. The Cairo Criminal Court postponed until February 15, 2020, a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on eight defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO.
A court case brought by el-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (also registered under the name el-Nadeem for Psychological Rehabilitation) challenging a 2016 closure order remained pending an expert report ordered by the court. The organization asserted the closure was politically motivated, targeting el-Nadeem because of its work investigating torture, deaths in detention, and impunity for these crimes. The organization continued to operate in a limited capacity.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.
In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai, stating it was to protect their safety, although it began organizing some supervised visits for journalists to North Sinai in July.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.”
Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.
Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, , and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country.
The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders, including individuals connected with NGOs facing investigation as part of the reopened NGO foreign-funding case. A September 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”
Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country as a result of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).
Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: From April to June, 413 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) were reported to UNHCR and CARE International, which provided SGBV prevention activities and counseling to 1,750 refugee and asylum seekers.
Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.
According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.
Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.
Compared with previous years, fewer Palestinian refugees from Syria entered the country illegally, intending to travel to Europe. In a number of cases, in the absence of valid travel documents or inability to confirm their identities they faced more difficulties, including higher chances of detention or deportation.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR as of June 30, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. The number of African refugees increased during the year, according to UNHCR, particularly those from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Since 2013 the government has applied a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR high commissioner’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.
Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following parliament’s passage and enforcement of a law that dramatically increased patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.
UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed the majority of detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently did not do so for detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Detained migrants–as unregistered asylum seekers–did not have access to UNHCR. Authorities often held them in in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent them to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.
The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. According to UNHCR, refugees can fully access public-health services, although many did not have the resources to do so, and prices were often higher for refugees due to discrimination. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools, private schools, or were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care. As of March 19, UNHCR reported 10 protests and two suicides committed by refugees in response to the lack of adequate services. In response to the influx of Syrians, the government allowed Syrian refugees and asylum seekers access to public education and health services. The Ministry of Education estimated that 35,000 school-age Syrian children (approximately 90 percent) enrolled successfully in the public-school system.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted “increasing restrictions” on freedom of expression.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In June and August, two dozen civil society activists circulated two separate letters calling on the supreme leader to step down and begin a process to develop a new constitution. Authorities arrested nearly all of the signatories to these letters and charged them with “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” Their trials continued before a revolutionary court.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.” According to the Washington Post, the ministry temporarily stopped issuing permits to any foreign correspondents during the summer.
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials (approximately $2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
In June, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding over Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 28, sentenced Masoud Kazemi, editor in chief of the monthly political magazine Sedaye Parsi, to four and one-half years in prison followed by a two-year ban from working as a journalist for national security charges of spreading misinformation and insulting the supreme leader. In November 2018 authorities arrested Kazemi for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Industry.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 38 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of December.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations throughout the year in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. On May 4, authorities arrested Marzieh Amiri, a journalist for Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, at a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran. In reaction to Amiri’s arrest, member of parliament Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar reportedly said to state media, “[J]ournalists don’t have the right to report on anything they want. They are the problem.” Pourmokhtar noted there was nothing wrong with Amiri’s arrest since she had been exposing important information to enemy states. Amiri posted bail of one billion rials ($23,000) and was released from Evin Prison in late October.
In July, Amnesty International called for the release of three reporters for Gam (Step), a Telegram app news channel covering labor issues. According to Amnesty International’s report and other reporting from human rights organizations, authorities arrested Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Gam’s editor in chief; his wife Sanaz Allahyari, a reporter; and Amir Amirgholi, a Gam staff reporter, in January. The journalists reportedly faced national security charges connected to their reporting on workers’ rights protests in Khuzestan Province. Authorities released the journalists on bail in late October.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
In July the Huffington Post reported that the government had set conditions for the BBC not to share reporting materials it gathered inside the country with BBC Persian, its Persian language channel. According to the report, the agreement was made in exchange for the government to allow a BBC correspondent into the country.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.
National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials. In January authorities charged three members of the Iran Writer’s Association with national-security-related crimes, reportedly for publishing information opposing censorship of art and literature, according to CHRI.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to approximately 40 days after the protests began, when the government may be concerned that families of those killed would organize new protests surrounding memorial ceremonies for the victims. Authorities also monitored private online communications and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems. The Supreme Leader’s Office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to widespread media and NGO reports, the government shut down nearly all internet access in the country for five days following the outbreak of protests over fuel price increases on November 15. The BBC noted that authorities controlled the country’s two internet connections to the outside world, the state telecommunications firm and the Institute for Physics and Mathematics. Oracle’s internet-monitoring service called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.” Access to mobile networks in parts of the country remained heavily restricted for several weeks after the demonstrations began to diminish.
NGOs reported the government filtered content on the internet throughout the year to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April authorities warned citizens they could be prosecuted for posting pictures of major flooding in the country’s southwest under the charge of “disturbing public opinion.” On October 5, authorities reportedly arrested Instagram user Sahar Tabar for “blasphemy” and “encouraging youths to corruption” for posts on her account depicting results of her numerous plastic surgeries. Several weeks later, she appeared to express regret for her actions in a state television broadcast that observers described as a “forced confession.” CHRI reported in August that authorities detained at least 14 Instagram “celebrities” in the previous three months and ordered them to stop their online activities.
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
In April, according to a CHRI report, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council’s Committee for the Islamization of Universities passed an amendment to the country’s academic disciplinary regulations, according to which university students could be punished for engaging in online activities deemed as “unethical.” Jamasb Nozari, director of the state-run Academic Affairs Organization, stated in an interview with Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), “Publishing unethical photos or committing immoral acts in cyberspace and on information-sharing networks will result in disciplinary action against students.”
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. According to a HRANA report in September, authorities denied university admission to at least 22 Bahai students solely based on their religious affiliation despite they passed the national admissions test (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In July, CHRI reported that a court sentenced filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s persecution of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In July a revolutionary court sentenced in absentia Nikan Khosravi and Arash Ilkhani of the metal band Confess to more than 14 years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting the sanctity of Islam,” among other charges.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.
According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests. Protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws also increased.
On May 13, Basij militia and progovernment plainclothes vigilante groups forcibly dispersed a student demonstration at the University of Tehran, in which hundreds of students peacefully protested the country’s mandatory hijab laws. Videos showed clerics, vigilante groups, and Basij members chanting Islamic slogans, calling for the students to respect the law or leave the university. The vigilante groups later reportedly physically attacked the students after they had retreated to the university auditorium.
On November 14, the government announced a fuel subsidy cut that substantially increased the cost of gasoline. The cut sparked days of protests in nearly three-quarters of the country’s provinces and increasingly included broader expressions of frustration regarding the country’s leadership, according to media and NGO reports. Security forces responded with lethal force, killing approximately 1,500 protesters, according to international media reports (see section 1.a.). Authorities also arrested 8,600 demonstrators. Government officials described the protesters as “rioters” and did not indicate any intent to investigate protester deaths, calling the casualty figures “disinformation.”
There were no government investigations into the killings of at least 20 demonstrators during protests in 2017-18, nor were there any government investigations into the forcible dispersal of February 2018 protests by the Gonabadi Sufi dervish community, during which security forces killed numerous dervishes. Between March 9 and 12, an appeals court upheld convictions of 23 dervishes arrested at the 2018 demonstrations and confirmed sentences ranging from six to 26 years in prison, lashings, social media bans, and travel bans. Dozens of members of the Gonabadi Sufi community remained imprisoned at year’s end.
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (see section 1.d.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
According to UNHCR, the government granted registration to 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services and facilitate the issuance of work permits. The most recent Amayesh XIV renewal exercise started on May 28. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to August, more than 219,254 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with many claiming they were pressured to leave. More than 273,089 were deported there throughout the year.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government continued to block many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with the United Nations as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They can apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move between those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards were difficult to renew and were often prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to steep annual renewal fees.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees can enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population can enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, in addition to 103,000 undocumented Afghan children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons included those without birth documents or refugee identification cards. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities prohibited stateless persons from receiving formal government support or travel documents.
In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the civil code granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men. Previously, female citizens were not able to transmit citizenship to their children or to noncitizen spouses, and their dependents could not apply for citizenship until they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. The children and spouses of Iranian men were granted citizenship automatically. Under the new law, women must still apply for nationality for their children, and children who turn 18 can apply for nationality themselves. Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government. According to media reports, between 400,000 and one million persons lacked Iranian nationality despite having an Iranian citizen mother, due to prior limitations on citizenship transmission (see section 6, Children).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. The media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.
The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.
Freedom of Expression: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.
Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.
The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. From September to November, human rights groups and foreign media reported that authorities detained at least six persons, including an academic, poet, and tribal chief, for allegedly criticizing the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).
On October 10, Omar al-Muqbil, an academic at Qassim University, was allegedly arrested over a video criticizing the GEA’s recent policy of hosting concerts by international artists. In the video he accused the GEA of “erasing society’s original identity.” On October 21, poet Safar al-Dughilbi was summoned for questioning regarding a poem he wrote that referred to the “ill-practices” of the GEA. On October 22, the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account announced a chief of the Otaiba tribe, Faisal Sultan Jahjah bin Humaid, was detained and questioned following a tweet criticizing the GEA and calling for “reasonable forms of entertainment.”
On November 12, the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al al-Sheikh, warned on Twitter the government would “take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”
Between November 16 and November 20, authorities detained at least 11 persons, mostly journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs, according to the ALQST. A few days later, authorities released at least eight of those detained.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.
Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. In 2011 a royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”
The law states that violators can face fines up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.
Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.
On March 3, local media reported that authorities temporarily suspended a talk show hosted by journalist and Saudi Broadcasting Corporation president Dawood al-Shirian after it showed episodes on the guardianship system, the shortage of driving schools for women, and Saudi women seeking asylum abroad. The show returned a week later on March 10, according to Okaz daily newspaper.
On June 11, local media reported the GEA banned Kuwaiti artist Mona Shadad from appearing on local radio and television channels after Shadad appeared in a video praising Qatar.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored the media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material.
All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.
The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, or offensive or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. In June 2018 the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism or harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties. On July 10, the Shura Council called on the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to intensify efforts to prevent the broadcast of content that contravenes the country’s laws, customs, traditions, and public decorum or harms the reputation of the kingdom and its people. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the council underlined the need to enhance control of the electronic games market through surveillance of stores, markets, and websites in accordance with local and international regulations.
In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high-profile or controversial sessions to the media.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.
The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.
National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.
The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued implementing regulations for electronic publishing that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. In May 2018 then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.
The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order. The NGO Citizen Lab reported that NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, provided spyware to the government to monitor activists’ communications on web-based applications.
Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet service providers to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.
On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.
The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including adult content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.
The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).
In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. On March 12, WhatsApp users reported the unblocking of its calling feature, but the service was reblocked hours later. Other video-calling apps, including Viber, reported services were still blocked.
The government has blocked Qatari websites such as al–Jazeera since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.
In 2017 a government official stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.
The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
During the year there was an increase in the number of concerts, sports competitions, and cultural performances available to the public. In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the GEA and the General Authority for Culture with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the GEA sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance. In June 2018 King Salman issued a royal order creating the Ministry of Culture, separating it from the Information Ministry and appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud as its minister. The country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened in April 2018, and additional cinemas opened across the country during the year.
The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.
The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces at times allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country.
The law provided for limited freedom of association; however, the government strictly limited this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government, however, prohibited the establishment of political parties or any group it considered as opposing or challenging the regime. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations.
On August 20, local media reported the issuance of new government regulations that obligate members of the Shura Council and university professors to disclose membership in foreign institutions and associations. These individuals must obtain approval from the relevant authorities before joining any foreign organization.
In 2013 and 2014, the few local NGOs that had operated without a license ceased operating after authorities ordered them disbanded. In the years since banning the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) in 2013, the government pursued criminal charges against ACPRA affiliates. In February 2018 the SCC sentenced lawyer and ACPRA-member Issa al-Nukheifi to six years in prison, based on charges of “infringing on the public order and religious values,” “opposing Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen,” and related charges. Prisoners of Conscience reported in August that al-Nukheifi was facing additional charges and a new trial.
Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). Courts, however, sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to an HRW report.
Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.
In June 2018 the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women, which resulted in waiting lists for driving classes, since a driving school certificate is a requirement to obtain a license. Another obstacle was the high cost of driver’s education for women, which international media reported was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees, reportedly because women’s schools had better technology and facilities.
Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. On June 20, Okaz reported that married Saudi men younger than 21 no longer require guardian consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel, unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children by reporting them as “disobedient,” prohibiting their travel.
On August 1, the government published Royal Decree 134/M, which stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission. The travel regulations entered into effect on August 20. On October 14, local media reported that as many as 14,000 adult women had obtained their passports since August without seeking the consent of their legal guardian.
Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.
The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists were also reportedly under travel bans.
The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging in July.
Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision. Generally, there is not a codified asylum system for those fleeing persecution, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government permitted refugees recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stay in the country temporarily, pending identification of a durable solution, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is to refuse refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.
The government granted six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni citizens, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. On January 8 and July 11, the General Directorate of Passports announced renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens in accordance with royal directives. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, however, that during the year more than 30,000 Yemenis were deported due to their immigration status (see section 7.e., Acceptable Conditions of Work). In April 2018 then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that, since the start of the Syrian conflict, the country had taken in approximately two and one-half million Syrians and treated them as its own citizens, providing them with free health care, work, and education. He added that the country’s universities and schools had more than 140,000 Syrian students.
The IOM reported that as of August an estimated 300,000 Ethiopians had returned to Ethiopia since the government launched a campaign titled “A Nation without Violations” in 2017. HRW reported that a number of these migrants came to Saudi Arabia after experiencing persecution by the Ethiopian government and that deportations may have returned individuals to potentially harmful circumstances. HRW also noted migrants had faced abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia.
The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in foreign countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in foreign countries, according to multiple sources (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). In January an 18-year-old Saudi citizen, citing fear for her life, was granted refugee status in Canada after fleeing from her family to Bangkok. Rahaf Mohammed claimed the Saudi embassy in Bangkok tried to force her to return to Saudi Arabia.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni citizens who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these persons to work. The renewable permits are valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply. In 2017 the General Directorate of Passports allowed Yemeni men to convert their visitor identification card to a residency permit if their Yemeni passport and visitor identification card were valid.
Access to Basic Services: The government provides preferential access to education, health care, public housing, and other social services to citizens and certain legal residents. A royal decree issued in 2012 permitted all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system and a separate decree issued in 2015 gave Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. The Ministry of Education modified these decisions in February 2018, announcing that Syrian and Yemeni students holding visitor identification cards were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools and universities and would have to enroll in private ones at their own expense. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment, also following a needs assessment.
The country had a number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.
Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, even if the father recognized the child as his, or if the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign citizens to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances, such as fathers who are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances); daughters in such cases can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.
Foreign male spouses of female citizens can obtain permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they can receive free government education and medical benefits, although in general they cannot apply for citizenship on the basis of their marriage and residence. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must be between the ages of 30 and 50 in order to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 in order to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear; there was anecdotal evidence that they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women who are married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother.
In past years UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as Bidoon (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Updated information on stateless persons was not available. Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, Bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues Bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identification cards to Bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.
Very small numbers of Baloch, West African, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma resident in Saudi Arabia were stateless. Some Rohingya had expired passports that their home government had refused to renew, or they had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. Many of them had been held in detention for years following their entry into the country under fake passports. UNHCR estimated there were between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya in the country. Some of these individuals benefited from a prior program to correct their residency status; in 2014 the government issued nearly 200,000 four-year residency permits to Rohingya who entered the country prior to 2008. Rohingya who arrived in the country after 2008 were not eligible for residency permits, although NGOs reported that Rohingya, including those without legal residency, were generally not subject to deportation prior to 2018. Upon the expiration of Rohingya residency permits in 2018, media reported more than 100 Rohingya faced deportation to Bangladesh at year’s end, and hundreds more were in detention at Shumaisi Detention Center near Mecca. In January the activist group Free Rohingya Coalition said Saudi Arabia continued to deport dozens of Rohingya to Bangladesh and was planning to deport 250 more. On January 26, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, criticized Saudi Arabia for mistreatment of the Rohingya. In April a report indicated that nearly 650 Rohingya refugees at Shumaisi detention center in Jeddah went on a hunger strike, resulting in a number of deaths. Only an estimated 2,000 individuals of Rohingya origin had Saudi citizenship.
There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.
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, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators.
On December 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism highlighted fewer instances of network shutdowns but the continuation of blocked access to several news and citizen journalism websites, as well as increasing self-censorship.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information Technologies Institution (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($8,500 to $85,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In August the BTK announced it would block access to 135 web addresses. The action targeted opposition news portals and public media accounts–notably the Twitter account of HDP Istanbul member of parliament Oya Ersoy and accounts that posted updates about the continuing Gezi trial. The BTK stated the move was “to protect national security and public order, prevent crime or protect public health.” Domestic and international media organizations and activists condemned the decision.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, were required to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked an additional 54,903 domain names during 2018, bringing the total number of blocked sites to 245,825. Of the new domain names that were blocked, 95 percent were blocked through a BTK decision.
Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for more than two years on the basis of national security concerns. In May, following two years of a state-imposed ban against the Wikipedia website, the Wikipedia Foundation brought a case against the country in the ECHR. In July the ECHR decided to expedite the case, due to its public importance. The Constitutional Court began deliberations on the website’s appeal of the ban in September and in late December ruled the government’s ban was a violation of the freedom of expression.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 6,073 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content, the highest number of such requests worldwide.
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace, constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Following the high court’s verdict, as of November lower courts acquitted 486 academics, and 336 cases remained pending. Most academics who were acquitted were not reinstated to their previous positions.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The state-run broadcaster TRT banned songs from the airwaves and defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law that forbids the broadcast of content encouraging persons to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” In September prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint against 18 rappers who took part in the #SUSAMAM project, a 15-minute rap video that examined a wide spectrum of social issues.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 962 demonstrations. As many as 2,800 persons claimed they faced beating and inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests. In July students at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University were confronted by police spraying tear gas before being forcibly removed. The students had set up tents to protest the cutting of trees for the construction of a new state dormitory on campus.
On March 8, police used tear gas to break up an International Women’s Day march of several thousand demonstrators near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. President Erdogan claimed some participants continued their protest during the call to prayer, which he said constituted an insult to religion (a crime according to domestic law). Progovernment media extensively covered the events with columnists widely condemning the demonstrators and largely echoing Erdogan’s criticisms, although some in progovernment media criticized his use of religion in this way. The women’s committee in charge of organizing the event issued a statement denying the accusations and asserting police used excessive force against the demonstrators.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were admitted to observe one hearing.
The government also selectively restricted gatherings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government selectively banned many demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government. In September-October, Ankara police prevented mothers of military cadets sentenced to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt from gathering outside the AKP headquarters building in Ankara. In contrast, during the same period, police did not prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, instead requiring the group to hold the weekly gathering on a nearby side street. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu previously accused the group of exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
The governors of Kayseri and Istanbul banned an academic conference hosted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in their respective provinces. The conference was the sixth in a series of similar events across the country. In a press statement, the group said the conference was a legal action taken directly in line with its government-approved foundational charter and did not violate the sections of law pertaining to assemblies and demonstrations.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, in January police prevented HDP lawmakers from holding a press conference in support of HDP member of parliament Leyla Guven’s hunger strike in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters. Police also violently disrupted a February demonstration in Van on the same topic.
In contrast with previous years, labor rights activists and political parties participated in largely peaceful marches throughout the country on May 1 (Labor Day). Turkish authorities detained 127 marchers in Istanbul who attempted to gather in Taksim Square (which the government specified as off limits).
The governors of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Gaziantep, and Mersin issued bans on public activities by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons during the year. In May and June, police broke up public events related to Pride Month using batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in Izmir and Istanbul. In Izmir groups reported police detained 16 persons for several hours, and police in Istanbul reportedly detained three to five individuals. Police in Ankara also responded to similar events with tear gas despite court rulings that the governorate’s blanket ban on public events by LGBTI groups was not legal. Activists reported that despite the court’s ruling, the government continued to impose individual bans on events and assemblies.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent from reopening associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security. In July the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures announced the government had closed 1,750 nongovernmental associations and foundations under state of emergency measures. Of those, the government allowed the reopening of 208 groups. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. In December the government closed Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association, alleging the association was providing training without the requisite permissions. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In February the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it would seek life imprisonment for philanthropist Osman Kavala, the former editor in chief of opposition-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, and 15 other journalists, artists, and human rights activists for “attempting to overthrow the government” by “organizing and financing” the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Human rights groups criticized the 657-page indictment as not containing “a shred of evidence” of criminal activities. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in prison since 2017. Hearings in the trial began in June. Defendants asserted the evidence presented by the prosecutor did not amount to a crime, contained inaccuracies, and made conclusions based on supposition rather than fact.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued. The defendants were charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop entitled, Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. A court had released Kilic under judicial control in August 2018 while his case continued. In November the prosecutor recommended conviction for Kilic and five other defendants on terror-related charges and requested acquittal for the remaining five. The case continued at years’ end.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In March authorities lifted passport restrictions for 57,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. The government declared Hakkari Province a “special security zone” and limited movement into and out of several districts in the province for weeks at a time, citing the need to protect citizens from PKK attacks.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allowed severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained that the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security.
For those barred from travel, some chose to leave the country illegally. In October a boat carrying 19 citizens seeking to flee the country capsized in the Aegean Sea, killing seven, including five children.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring displaced residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria. The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. In Nusaybin the government built and distributed 778 housing units to residents whose homes were destroyed in antiterror operations.
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were displaced Syrians. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. The Directorate General for Migration Management reported 414,313 “irregular migrants” were apprehended as of November. UNHCR reported 185,000 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. Some 89,000 were deported to their countries of origin. Most of these individuals were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to UNHCR. Reports of larger-scale detentions of individuals, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 144 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans during the year. There were reports that Turkish border guards intercepted or summarily deported Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum. In the days immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s announcement of stricter enforcement of refugee registration requirements in Istanbul, UNHCR confirmed that a small number of Syrian refugees had been involuntarily returned to Syria. Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum seekers at the border (see section 1.a.). During the offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib in June and July, there were reports of displaced Syrians in Turkey being forced to return back across the border into Syria (also see Refoulement).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian, medical, and family reunification cases since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for two nights and resulted in the destruction of several Syrian businesses. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
In certain districts of Istanbul, NGO staff members reported receiving verbal threats and harassment from residents of host communities, urging them not to help Syrians.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations have taken place during the year. The government increased efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children and some specialized medical cases and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. During the year the government also increased enforcement in major cities, such as Istanbul, against those who were either unregistered or registered to live in another province. In one instance an operation in July in Istanbul apprehended 6,122 individuals, including 2,600 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians, who either did not have valid registration to reside in Istanbul or who did not have registration at all.
The Ministry of Interior stated that all refugees of nationalities other than Syrian apprehended during these operations were sent to “repatriation centers.” Multiple refugee advocacy and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reported the refoulement of some Syrians throughout the summer, during active conflict in Idlib, and the fall. While some deported Syrians acknowledged they were living unregistered when they were apprehended and deported, others said they were living outside their city of registration or claimed to have been carrying valid government documents guaranteeing their ability to reside in Turkey. One international human rights group reported that 23 Syrians claimed they were forcibly repatriated although they had not been willing to sign a “voluntary return form” or signed only after being coerced or misinformed. The government contended all returns were voluntary.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to millions of Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some contacts expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM). Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,000 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36.9 percent remained out of school as of September. According to UNICEF, nearly 526,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 100,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: Turkey adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In 15 provinces the DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond newborns and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care. By year’s end the DGMM had closed all but seven camps in five provinces. Residents of these camps numbered 63,443 at year’s end, according to authorities.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2018, 74,939 Syrians held valid residence permits; 2019 figures were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December there were at least 405,500 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government also continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict freedom of expression. Such laws establish the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” in addition to “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. It also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders or the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China.
Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to intimidate them into agreeing the government’s policies were correct, according to social media and activists’ reports. Family members of activists also reported numerous incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and questioning by Ministry of Public Security officials. Harassment also occurred at workplaces and included threatening telephone calls and insulting activists in local media and online and attacks on activists’ homes with rocks, shrimp paste, and gasoline bombs. There were reports such abuses caused injury and trauma requiring hospitalization.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass media organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law requires editors in chief to be CPV members; many outlets apply this to additional managers as well. One of the leading newspapers, Thanh Nien, demoted 13 managing editors and deputy editors who were not party members in November 2018.
Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint-publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities. State-run media reported private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house was prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
By law the government may fine journalists and newspapers from five to 10 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($220 to $440) for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
In November 2018 the CPV publicly denounced Chu Hao, who at that time was director and editor in chief of the Tri Thuc Publishing House, for “disobeying the Party’s regulations” and “self-evolution.” Hao, a former vice minister of science and technology and a prominent intellectual, had directed Tri Thuc to publish books with themes of freedom and democracy, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the CPV viewed as contrary to the official party line. Hao left the CPV, and as a result also lost his position at Tri Thuc.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted activities of journalist employed by foreign-based media outlets. The law requires “live” foreign television programming to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. In fact, such programming ran on a 10-minute delay. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or reports involving trade tensions between the United States and Vietnam.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. In May an international journalist was refused a visa request to report on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. This same reporter had previously written an article likely seen by the government as unfavorable.
The information ministry may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists because of their coverage of sensitive stories. Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, various forms of harassment, and even physical attacks in the form of staged motorbike accidents if they reported on sensitive topics.
Foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi for reporting. When foreign journalists requested access to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or report a story the government might consider sensitive, authorities often either intentionally delayed their response or denied permission to travel.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major media outlets to meet regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often, pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
In August, two protests against Beijing’s maritime survey seeking information on petroleum reserves in an offshore area in the country ‘s exclusive economic zone took place in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and a third protest near a site popular with Chinese tourists in Danang received no local media coverage.
National Security: The law stipulates administrative fines of 20 million to 30 million VND ($880 to $1,330) for journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests and up to 50 million dong ($2,200) for information considered to be distorting history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases, these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers (ISPs) were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On September 22, in separate trials, the People’s Court of Cai Rang district, Can Tho City, convicted Facebook users Nguyen Hong Nguyen and Truong Dinh Khang of “abusing democratic freedoms,” and sentenced them to two years’ and one year’ imprisonment, respectively. According to NGO reporting, Nguyen reportedly used his Facebook account to read articles, watch videos, and view pictures with “antistate” content. Khang reportedly posted and shared articles on Facebook that reportedly “defamed the party, state, and Ho Chi Minh.”
The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned internet service providers (ISPs) routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.
An administrative rule compels owners of all websites and social networking sites to cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to prevent the spread of “bad, toxic news.” The government has used this tool to remove nearly 8,000 video clips from YouTube since 2017, according to the ministry.
Another rule requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also requires such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate government requests for information and must store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.
The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign ISPs and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cyber cafes, to register the personal information of their customers, to store records of internet sites visited by customers, and to participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored selectively.
The Law on Cybersecurity, scheduled for implementation in January, had not as of December gone into effect, as discussions continued on the implementing decree.
The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. On July 9, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced Google removed nearly 6,700 video clips, YouTube blocked six YouTube channels, and Facebook blocked nearly 1,000 links, 107 fake accounts, and 137 accounts that defamed the CPV and government.
Force 47, a special unit within the Ministry of National Defense, monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.
Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers, such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones of activists and family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. In September 2018 the People’s Court of Tu Son town convicted citizen journalist Do Cong Duong of “disrupting public order” for filming a forced eviction, according to an NGO. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Duong was subsequently convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced in October to an additional five years in prison, reduced on appeal to four. On November 28, a brother and sister and another activist were sentenced to a combined 23 years in prison for posting articles on Facebook criticizing the government’s weak response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, corruption, and environmental degradation.
Social network and blog users are required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.
Despite this restrictive environment, numerous groups and individuals criticized current and former local and national officials or members of government affiliates on social media, particularly Facebook. In response to reports from the Ministry of Information and Communications alleging that content violated certain laws, Facebook drastically increased the amount of content restricted in Vietnam. According to Facebook’s Transparency Report, from July to December 2018, it restricted access to 1,553 posts based on local law, compared to 265 content restrictions in the first half of 2018 and only 22 restrictions in the second half of 2017.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of the CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring numerous authorizations.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists engaged in peaceful activities from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights.
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits, however, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations that could be perceived as political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials.
The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, anti-China activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, and former political prisoners.
Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government. On June 25, approximately 20 family members of prisoners and activists were beaten by individuals in plain clothes outside Prison No. 6 in Nghe An province while attempting to visit prisoners engaged in a 30-day hunger strike to protest maltreatment in the facility. Activists identified a number of Nghe An police officials and prisoners detained on drug offenses among the attackers. Some family members were severely beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods. The attackers also stole personal papers, money, and cell phones.
In February more than 1,500 H’mong residing in the northern provinces were physically prevented from attending traditional spring festivals. Two of the H’mong were reportedly physically assaulted by local authorities, who told festivalgoers they had been ordered to prevent them from reaching the festival location.
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted freedom of association. Seeking to suppress unwelcome political and religious activities, the country’s legal and regulatory framework includes mechanisms particularly aimed at restricting the freedom of NGOs, including religious organizations, to organize and act. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit them to distribute policy advocacy positions publicly.
The 2018 Law on Belief and Religion requires religious groups to register with authorities and to obtain official approval of their activities. Some unregistered religious groups reported an increase in government interference.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. Some registered organizations, including governance, women’s rights, and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some limits on the movement of individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-country Movement: Several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions, were officially restricted in their movements. Authorities continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of many prominent activists and religious leaders, including Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Chi Dung, Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Hong Quang, Thich Khong Tanh, Le Cong Cau, and Duong Thi Tan. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.
Religious leaders are required to specify no more than two to three geographical areas where they will be preaching. They reported that preaching outside of the approved areas was illegal, although enforcement of the law was inconsistent.
Government restrictions required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”
Citizens must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside of their own homes; the government appeared to enforce these requirements more strictly in some Central and Northern Highlands districts. Foreign passport holders also needed to register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family. There were multiple reports of police using the excuse of “checking on residency registration” to intimidate and harass activists and prevent them from traveling outside of their place of registration (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.).
Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists, at times indefinitely. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases, this included persons wanted for crimes and political or other activism.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders, including seven Catholic priests. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation although activists believed that international travel authorization was denied to reduce those activists’ opportunities to speak out against the Vietnamese government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
According to 2018 UNHCR statistics, there were approximately 29,500 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality living in the country. No updated statistics were available for the year. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016, due to increased government effort to identify such persons. The bulk of this population are ethnic H’mong living in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce. In the past the government naturalized stateless ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia, but there was no information on naturalization efforts or options for those identified as stateless persons during the year.