Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions,” but it contains the broad and ambiguous caveat that exercise of these rights must “not be contrary to the laws enacted for national security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality.” Threats against and arrests of journalists and others who criticized the government or military continued.
Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech was more restricted than in 2019. Authorities arrested, detained, convicted, intimidated, and imprisoned citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government and the military, generally under charges of defamation, incitement, or violating national security laws. This included the detentions and trials of activists and ordinary citizens. The government applied laws carrying more severe punishments than in the past, including laws enabling years-long prison sentences.
Some persons remained wary of speaking openly about politically sensitive topics due to monitoring and harassment by security services and ultranationalist Buddhist groups. Police continued to monitor politicians, journalists, and writers.
On January 17, the Karen State government charged Karen environmental activist Saw Tha Phoe over his role in a traditional prayer ceremony to protect local water resources against pollution from a coal-powered cement factory. He fled when police attempted to arrest him and was still in hiding as of November. The local government General Administration Department filed a complaint against Saw Tha Phoe for making or circulating statements that may cause public fear or alarm and incite the public to commit an offense against the state or “public tranquility.”
On May 7, the Kayah State government placed numerous restrictions on civil society and political activities, using COVID-19 as a pretext to ban any speeches, writing, pictures, posters, placards, pamphlets, or other activity deemed to be defamatory to authorities, according to The Irrawaddy newspaper.
On September 4, Maung Saungkha, an activist, poet, and cofounder of the freedom of expression activist organization Athan, paid a fine to avoid a prison sentence over an act of peaceful protest to mark the first anniversary of the mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. Saungkha unfurled a banner asking: “Is the internet being shut down to hide war crimes in Rakhine [State] and killing people?”
Military officers brought or sought to bring charges against several prominent religious figures based on their criticism of the military, including multiple Buddhist monks. Cases against at least three prominent, protolerance monks critical of the military and Burmese Buddhist ultranationalism, Sein Ti Ta, Myawaddy Sayadaw, and Thawbita, remained open as of November.
As of November, proceedings continued in the cases against democracy activist Nilar Thein and four others for their protest during a court hearing for Peacock Generation members (see Academic and Freedom and Cultural Events below). Nilar Thein and the four others were charged with “obstructing” and “deterring” a public official. The maximum sentence is three years in jail.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and able to operate, despite many official and unofficial restrictions. The government continued to permit the publication of privately owned daily newspapers. As of November, authorities approved 47 dailies; however, press freedom declined compared with 2019, and security forces detained journalists under laws carrying more severe sentences than those used in previous years.
Local media could cover human rights and political issues, including, for example, democratic reform and international investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, although they observed some self-censorship on these subjects. Official action or threats of such action increased against journalists reporting on conflict in Rakhine State involving the AA. The government generally permitted media outlets to cover protests and civil unrest, topics not reported widely in state-run media.
The military continued to react harshly to perceived critical media commentary through prosecution by civil authorities. Members of the ruling party increasingly prosecuted journalists perceived as critical. Officials continued to monitor journalists in various parts of the country, according to Freedom House.
On April 3, Takotaw Nanda (also known as Aung Kyi Myint), a Channel Myanmar News journalist, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for allegedly disrupting a public service and unlawful assembly after live-streaming on Facebook a May 2019 protest against a Mandalay Region cement plant. In May 2019, Aung Marm Oo, editor-in-chief of Development Media Group in Rakhine State, went into hiding after charges were filed that the group reported human rights violations in the continuing fighting between the military and the AA. Aung Marm Oo, also known as Aung Min Oo, received death threats, while Special Branch police interrogated journalists at the media group and questioned his family members.
Authorities took actions against journalists for erroneous reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 21, chief editor of Dae Pyaw News Agency, Zaw Min Oo, was sentenced to two years in prison for falsely reporting a COVID-19 death in Myawady, Karen State, on April 3. He was charged with publishing or circulating a statement, rumor, or report that could arouse “public mutiny, fear, alarm or incitement.” On July 10, Zaw Min, a reporter from Khit Thit Media, was fined for incorrectly reporting a local quarantine center had no staff to feed nine patients and no masks or soap were available.
The government relaxation of its monopoly on domestic television broadcasting continued, with five private companies broadcasting using Ministry of Information platforms. The news broadcasters, however, were subject to the same informal restrictions as were print and online media. The government offered three public channels–two controlled by the Ministry of Information and one by the military; the ministry channels regularly aired the military’s content. Two private companies that had strong links to the previous military regime continued to broadcast six free-to-air channels. The government allowed the general population to register satellite television receivers for a fee, but the cost was prohibitive for most persons outside of urban areas. The military, government, and government-linked businesspersons controlled the eight privately or quasi-governmentally owned FM radio stations.
Violence and Harassment: Government agents, nationalist groups, and businesspersons engaged in illegal enterprises, sometimes together with local authorities, continued to attack and harass journalists who criticized government policy on a range of issues.
On February 9, ultranationalists from the Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar National Organization protesting in Rangoon threatened and physically intimidated staff at Khit Thit Media and 7 Day News, according to Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor of Khit Thit Media and a member of the government-sponsored Myanmar Press Council.
On March 4, Frontier Myanmar journalist Naw Betty Han and Ko Mar Naw, a photojournalist from Myanmar Times, were detained for one day and allegedly tortured by the ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces in Myawaddy Township, Karen State, for reporting on the Chinese Shwe Kokko development project.
On May 13, Kyaw Lin, a journalist who reported for online independent news outlets Myanmar Now and Development Media Group, was assaulted in Sittwe, Rakhine State, by two individuals shouting death threats. Kyaw Lin had reported on fighting between the AA and the military. In 2017, an unknown attacker stabbed him in Sittwe after he published an article on local land prices. The perpetrators of the May 13 assault were still at large as of October.
Authorities prevented journalists’ access to northern Rakhine State except on government-organized trips that participants reported to be tightly controlled and designed to advance the government’s narrative. The government continued to use visa issuance and shortened visa validities to control foreign journalists, especially those not based in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally not enforced, laws prohibit citizens from electronically passing information about the country to foreign media, exposing journalists who reported for or cooperated with international media to potential harassment, intimidation, and arrest. There were no reports of overt prepublication censorship, and the government allowed open discussion of some sensitive political and economic topics, but legal action against publications that criticized the military or the government increased self-censorship.
Self-censorship was common, particularly on issues related to Buddhist extremism, the military, the situation in Rakhine State, and the peace process. Journalists reported that such self-censorship became more pronounced after the 2018 trial and conviction of two Reuters journalists. The government ordered media outlets to use certain terms and themes to describe the situation in northern Rakhine State and threatened penalties against journalists who did not follow the government’s guidance, exacerbating self-censorship on that topic.
The military filed a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council when a January 25 Reuters story quoted a lawmaker as saying that army artillery fire had caused the deaths of two Rohingya women. After the reported advocacy by the press council, however, the military withdrew its complaint on March 18 “in the interest of maintaining good relations with the press council.”
The government censorship board reviews all films to be screened inside the country.
Journalists continued to complain about the widespread practice of government informants attending press conferences and other events, which they said intimidated reporters and the events’ hosts. Informants demanded lists of hosts and attendees.
Libel/Slander Laws: A criminal defamation clause in the telecommunications law was frequently used to restrict freedom of expression; charges were filed against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens perceived as critics of the government and the military.
Noted filmmaker and human rights activist Min Htin Ko Gyi was freed on February 21 after serving seven months in prison for libel for Facebook posts that were critical of the military’s role in politics.
As of November, a case against three prominent political activists, lawyer Kyi Myint, poet Saw Wai, and former army captain Nay Myo Zin, continued in the courts. In late 2019 the military charged them with defamation for remarks they made in April 2019 about amending the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Nay Myo Zin was serving a one-year prison term in Insein Prison on the same charge from another military lawsuit.
National Security: In March the government and military designated the Arakan Army as a terrorist organization and an unlawful association under the law. Nay Myo Lin, founder and editor of Voice of Myanmar, a local Mandalay news outlet, was arrested on March 30 for publishing an interview with an AA spokesperson. He was charged in a local court under sections of the law prohibiting organizations and individuals from contacting or associating with outlawed organizations–a charge carrying a maximum life sentence. Police released Nay Myo Lin on April 10 when the court decided to drop the case.
The government censored online content, restricted access to the internet, and continued to prosecute internet users for criticism of the government and military and their policies and actions. In March the Ministry of Transport and Communications issued a series of directives ordering internet providers to block websites.
By order of the Transport and Communications Ministry, mobile phone operators in 2019 stopped mobile internet traffic in eight townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in southern Chin State due to “disturbances of peace and use of internet services to coordinate illegal activities.” Although the ministry announced on June 23 that internet restrictions were extended only through August 1, as of November only 2G data networks were available, according to Human Rights Watch. Some persons reported being unable to access the internet at all. On October 31, the ministry announced all mobile operators should extend restrictions on 3G and 4G mobile data services in the eight townships until at least December 31.
The telecommunications law includes broad provisions giving the government the power to temporarily block and filter content, on grounds of “benefit of the people.” According to Freedom House, pressure on users to remove content continued from the government, military, and other groups. The law does not include provisions to force the removal of content or provide for intermediary liability, although some articles are vague and could be argued to cover content removal. Pressure to remove content instead came from the use or threat of use of other criminal provisions.
In the second half of March, the Posts and Telecommunications Department ordered mobile operators to block more than 2,000 websites, including 67 allegedly distributing “fake news.” In May it followed up by instructing the operators to block a further 22 sites alleged to contribute to “fearmongering” and “misleading of the public in relation to the coronavirus.” Neither the government nor the operators released a full list of the blocked websites, but among those that could no longer be accessed were several registered news organizations, including Rakhine State-based Development Media and Narinjara News, Voice of Myanmar, Karen News from Karen State, Mandalay-based In-Depth News, and Mekong News, which was based in eastern Shan State’s Tachileik.
The government’s Social Media Monitoring Team reportedly continued to monitor internet communications without clear legal authority, according to Freedom House. Social media continued to be a popular forum to exchange ideas and opinions without direct government censorship, although there were military-affiliated disinformation campaigns on social media.
The government limited users’ ability to communicate anonymously by enforcement of SIM card registration requirements. Subscribers must provide their name, citizenship identification document, birth date, address, nationality, and gender to register for a SIM card; noncitizens must provide their passports. Some subscribers reported being required by telecommunications companies to include further information beyond the bounds of the regulations, including their ethnicity.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events continued.
The government tightened restrictions on political activity and freedom of association on university campuses. In September and October, approximately 57 students at universities across the country, who protested human rights violations in Rakhine State, called on the government to lift internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states and urged reform of laws to comply with international standards for the protection of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. They were arrested and faced a variety of criminal charges, according to the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The students were charged with unlawful assembly, various speech-related crimes, antimilitary incitement, and other crimes, according to the federation. As of November, more than 20 were imprisoned, while the remainder were awaiting sentencing or were in hiding while facing arrest warrants, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The government generally allowed the informal establishment of student unions, although among university rectors and faculty there was considerable fear and suspicion of student unions because of their historical role in protests. Although some student unions were allowed to open unofficial offices, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, as in previous years, was unable to register but participated in some activities through informal networks.
There were reported incidents of the government restricting cultural events. There is a ban on street art. On April 3, three street artists were arrested for painting a mural about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating a law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after Buddhist hardliners complained the mural portrayed a grim reaper figure that they believed looked like a Buddhist monk, spreading the COVID-19 virus. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.
In a series of seven verdicts delivered between October 2019 and June 2020, courts handed down prison sentences to the leader and five other members of the satirical street performance group Peacock Generation. Group leader Zayar Lwin was sentenced to a total of five and one-half years in prison; the others received sentences of two to six years. The military brought the charges after a performance in which members satirically criticized the military’s political power in a democracy. At year’s end up to 25 members still faced charges that carry up to six months in prison, while two members were released in June and August, respectively, having already completed sentences of more than a year.
Public film showings were possible with the cooperation of the Ministry of Information. The MEMORY! film festival showed prescreened classic films in public spaces in Rangoon “under the high patronage of the Ministry of Information.” According to the organizers, mutual trust with the ministry enabled freedom of expression for organizers, participants from civil society organizations, and audiences. Organizers showed films including challenging themes. While MEMORY! faced information ministry censorship, mostly for nudity or Buddhist imagery, no film was banned in its entirety, and journalistic fora and public discussions around the films were free of interference.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights. In addition to direct government action, the government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides the right to peaceful assembly, it was not always respected. While the law only requires notification of protests, authorities treated notification as a request for permission. Authorities used laws against criminal trespass and provisions criminalizing actions the government deemed likely to cause “an offense against the State or against the public tranquility” to restrict peaceful assembly.
Restrictions remained in place in 11 Rangoon townships on all applications for processions or assemblies. Some civil society groups asserted these restrictions were selectively applied and used to prevent demonstrations against the government or military.
Farmers and social activists continued to protest land rights violations and land confiscation throughout the country, and human rights groups reported the arrest of farmers and supporters. Many reported cases involved land seized by the former military regime and given to private companies or persons with ties to the military.
Whether civil society organizations were required to apply for advance permission before holding meetings and other functions in hotels and other public venues varied by situation and by government official. Some officials forced venues to cancel civil society events where such permission was not obtained.
On January 17, four activists–Naw Ohn Hla, Maung U, U Nge (also known as Hsan Hlaing), and Sandar Myint–were sentenced to one month in prison after they were found guilty of protesting without authorization. Police charged the four activists after they participated in a peaceful demonstration organized by residents of the Shwe Mya Sandi housing project in Karen State in April 2019.
On March 20, Than Hla (also known as Min Bar Chay), an ethnic Rakhine development worker, was found guilty of protesting without permission after he participated in a demonstration calling for justice and an end to security force violations in Rakhine State. He was sentenced to 15 days in prison; he was released the same day authorities announced that a second charge of protesting without permission was dropped.
Freedom of Association
Although the constitution and laws allow citizens to form associations and organizations, the government sometimes restricted this right.
The law on registering organizations stipulates voluntary registration for local NGOs and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs. In the run-up to the November general election, the government began insisting that NGOs receiving foreign funding were required to register.
Registration requires sponsorship from a government ministry. Some NGOs that tried to register under this law found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, NGOs classed as “advocacy groups” would have to pay tax if the Internal Revenue Department determined, based on their tax return, that they made a “profit.” Advocacy groups include those working on human, women’s, labor, and land rights. NGOs expressed concern about the new rules and warned they could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.
Activists reported that civil society groups, community-based organizations, and informal networks operated openly and continued to discuss human rights and political issues openly, although discussion of the most sensitive issues could lead to prosecution. They reported, however, that state surveillance of such operations and discussions was common and that government restrictions on meetings and other activity continued.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law does not protect freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, or repatriation. Local regulations limit the rights of citizens to settle and reside anywhere in the country. By law the president may require the registration of foreigners’ movements and authorize officials to require foreigners to register every change of address exceeding 24 hours.
In-country Movement: Regional and local orders, directives, and instructions restricted freedom of movement.
Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya were extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State where most Rohingya resided. Township officers in Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships continued to require Rohingya to submit a “form for informing absence from habitual residence” in order to stay overnight in another village and to register on the guest list with the village administrator. Obtaining these forms and permits often involved extortion and bribes.
Restrictions governing the travel of foreigners, Rohingya, and others between townships in Rakhine State varied, depending on township, and generally required submission of a document known as “Form 4.” A traveler could obtain this form only from the township Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, a temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. Travel authorized under Form 4 is generally valid for two to four weeks, but it is given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, effectively eliminating many opportunities to work or study. The cost to obtain the form varied from township to township, with required payments to village administrators or to the township immigration office ranging from the official amount of 30,000 to more than two million kyats ($22 to $1,460). The extensive administrative measures imposed on Rohingya and foreigners in Rakhine State effectively prevented persons from changing residency.
Rohingya faced prison terms of up to two years for attempting to travel out of Rakhine State without prior authorization. A total of 128 Rohingya from Rakhine State were arrested in November 2019 after disembarking from boats near beach resorts in the Ayeyarwady Region. They were charged for traveling without valid identity documents, which carries a maximum two-year prison sentence, a modest fine, or both. On April 8, a court dropped illegal travel charges against more than 200 accused persons, but according to activists hundreds more Rohingya charged with illegal travel remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.
Foreign Travel: The government maintained restrictions to prevent foreign travel by political activists, former political prisoners, and some local staff of foreign embassies. Stateless persons, particularly Rohingya, were unable to obtain documents required for foreign travel.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
As of November, an estimated 326,500 individuals were living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to violence in Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, and northern Shan States. The large number of primarily ethnic minority IDPs in primarily ethnic-dominated parts of the country can be traced back to decades of conflict between the central government and ethnic communities.
As of November, an estimated 40,000 IDPs lived in areas of the country outside government control, primarily in northern Kachin State. Fighting in Rakhine, Chin, and Shan States displaced tens of thousands of additional persons during the year, compounding the long-term displacement of communities in these areas. Most of those newly displaced in Shan State, however, were able to return home. Locally based organizations had some access to IDPs in areas outside government control, but the military restricted their access, including through threats of prosecution. The military largely restricted access to IDPs and Rohingya in areas of Rakhine State to only the Red Cross and the World Food Program, resulting in unmet humanitarian needs among these IDPs. The government had not granted the United Nations or other international organizations humanitarian access to areas in Kachin State outside of military control since 2016.
The United Nations reported significant deterioration in humanitarian access during the year–a situation further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic–and the military continued to block access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse). The Arakan Army-military conflict in Rakhine State and the COVID-19 pandemic were cited as justifications for additional onerous restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State, most of which were not justified on security or public health grounds, according to humanitarian partners operating in Rakhine State.
The government restricted the ability of IDPs and stateless persons to move, limiting access to health services, employment opportunities, secure refuge, and schooling. While a person’s freedom of movement generally derived from possession of identification documents, authorities also considered race, ethnicity, religion, and place of origin as factors in enforcing these regulations. Residents of ethnic minority states reported the government restricted the travel of IDPs and stateless persons.
The approximately 132,000 primarily Rohingya IDPs in Sittwe, Pauktaw, and other townships were dependent on assistance from aid agencies. Humanitarian agencies provided access to clean water, food, shelter, and sanitation in most IDP camps for Rohingya, although the COVID-19 pandemic restricted access from August.
An October Human Rights Watch report on the detention of Rohingya described the IDP camps’ severe restrictions on movement; limited access to education, health care, and work; and the denial of fundamental rights. It referred to the camps collectively as “An Open Prison Without End.” According to the report, more than 130,000 Muslims–mostly Rohingya, as well as a few thousand Kaman–remain confined in IDP camps in central Rakhine State. Rohingya in the camps were denied freedom of movement through overlapping systems of restrictions–formal policies and local orders, informal and ad hoc practices, checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing, and a widespread system of extortion that made travel financially and logistically prohibitive. In 24 camps or camp-like settings, severe limitations on access to livelihoods, education, health care, and adequate food or shelter were compounded by increasing government constraints on humanitarian aid.
The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded freedom of movement restrictions in IDP camps. In general, IDP camps did not have dedicated quarantine centers or testing facilities due to lack of space and dedicated staff. If there was a positive case, movement restrictions were imposed on the entire camp and residents were not allowed to leave or enter the camp, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. IDPs who required testing, hospitalization, and quarantine were moved to outside government facilities where the government and humanitarian organizations provided targeted support for the patient and direct contacts. IDPs received adequate care, and outside of a few isolated cases, there were no major COVID-19 outbreaks at IDP camps.
Camp shelters, originally built to last just two years, deteriorated without construction and maintenance, leading to overcrowding and vulnerability to flood and fire. According to Human Rights Watch, these IDP camp conditions were a direct cause of increased morbidity and mortality in the camps, including increased rates of malnutrition, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal deaths. Lack of access to emergency medical assistance, particularly in pregnancy-related cases, led to preventable deaths.
Approximately 70 percent of the 120,000 school-age Muslim children in central Rakhine camps and villages were out of school, according to Human Rights Watch. Given the movement restrictions, most could only attend underresourced temporary learning centers led by volunteer teachers. Restrictions that prevented Rohingya from working outside the camps had serious economic consequences. Almost all Rohingya in the camps were forced to abandon their pre-2012 trades and occupations.
Despite the adoption of a national camp closure strategy in 2019, the government’s approach to “closing” IDP camps largely consisted of building new infrastructure near existing camps and reclassifying them as villages without addressing movement restrictions; providing security, livelihoods, or basic services; or consulting with IDPs on their right to return to their areas of origin or to resettle in areas of their choice.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government did not always cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Dozens of Rohingya were arrested and charged under immigration laws after returning from Bangladesh informally in June and July during heightened scrutiny of border crossings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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. The UN High Commission for Refugees did not register any asylum seekers during the year.
g. Stateless Persons
The vast majority of Rohingya are stateless. Following the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017, up to 600,000 Rohingya were estimated to remain in Rakhine State. There were also likely significant numbers of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality throughout the country, including persons of Chinese, Indian, and Nepali descent. Although these latter groups did not face the same level of official and social discrimination as Rohingya, they were still subject at best to the lesser rights and greater restrictions of associate and naturalized citizenship.
The government recognizes 135 “national ethnic groups” whose members are automatically full citizens. The law defines “national ethnic group” as a racial and ethnic group that can prove origins in the country dating back to 1823, the year prior to British colonization. Despite this rule, the government has granted “national ethnic group” status to ethnic groups or withdrawn that status from them throughout the country on various occasions. The Rohingya are not on the list. Several ethnic minority groups, including the Chin and Kachin, criticized the classification system as inaccurate.
The law also establishes two forms of citizenship short of full citizenship: associate and naturalized. Citizens of these two types are unable to run for political office; form a political party; serve in the military, police, or public administration; inherit land or money; or pursue certain professional degrees, such as medicine and law. Only members of the third generation of associate or naturalized citizens are able to acquire full citizenship.
Some Rohingya may be technically eligible for full citizenship. The process involves additional official scrutiny and is complicated by logistical difficulties, including travel restrictions and significant gaps in understanding the Burmese language. In practice this also requires substantial bribes to government officials, and even then it does not guarantee equality with other full citizens. In particular, only Rohingya are required to go through an additional step of applying for the National Verification Card (NVC), in which their identity papers will describe them as “Bengali” and presumes them to be noncitizens. This can lead to discrimination in access to public services and a wide range of societal discrimination. While members of other ethnic groups faced challenges, they are not singled out the same way Rohingya are in obtaining citizenship.
The law does not provide any form of citizenship (or associated rights) for children born in the country whose parents are stateless.
The government continued to call for Rohingya to apply for NVCs, created in 2015. The government claimed that these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship as well as other government documentation, such as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards. NGO reports indicated that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. For example, there were reported cases of government officials requiring Rohingya to have an NVC to go fishing or access a bank account. Many Rohingya expressed the need for more assurances about the results of the process as well as fear that after turning in their old documents they would not be issued new documents. Many said they were already citizens and expressed fear the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would provide a form of lesser citizenship, thereby formalizing their lack of rights. Rohingya in Rakhine State had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs, while some Muslims from other ethnic groups had to identify as “Bengali” to apply for Citizenship Scrutiny Cards in other parts of the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
Occupation authorities significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of expression and subjected dissenting voices including the press to harassment and prosecution. Occupation authorities’ reported failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: The HRMMU noted occupation authorities placed “excessive limitations on the freedoms of opinion and expression.” On July 31, occupation authorities began enforcing a law that prohibited the unauthorized dissemination of information damaging to the FSB’s reputation without the FSB’s approval. Enforcement of this law in Crimea deprived Crimean residents of the opportunity to publicly criticize and disseminate information about reportedly unlawful actions of FSB officers and alleged violations or abuses of human rights.
Individuals could not publicly criticize the Russian occupation without fear of reprisal. Human rights groups reported the FSB engaged in widespread surveillance of social media, telephones, and electronic communication and routinely summoned individuals for “discussions” for voicing or posting opposition to the occupation. These unlawfully obtained recordings were often used against those who were arbitrarily arrested in closed trials.
Occupation authorities often deemed expressions of dissent “extremism” and prosecuted individuals for them. For example, according to press reports, on January 18, the FSB placed a 34-year entry ban on Taras Ibrahimov, a Ukrainian journalist who covered politically motivated lawsuits and human rights violations in Crimea. Occupation authorities officially informed Ibrahimov of the ban but did not provide a justification.
Occupation authorities harassed and fined individuals for the display of Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar symbols, which were banned as “extremist.” For example, on March 9, police dispersed a small group of women who began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during an authorized ceremony next to a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol. Police told the women their actions constituted an “act of provocation.”
Occupation authorities deemed expressions of support for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula to be equivalent to undermining Russian territorial integrity. For example, on May 22, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation charged in absentia Crimean Tatar television channel ATR deputy director Ayder Muzhdabaev with violating a Russian law against “public calls for committing terrorist activities.” The charges were purportedly due to his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which he routinely expressed on the daily talk show that he cohosted.
There were multiple reports that occupation authorities detained and prosecuted individuals seeking to film raids on homes or court proceedings. For example, according to press reports, journalist Amet Suleimanov was among those arrested on “terrorism” charges in the FSB’s March 11 raid on multiple Crimean Tatars’ homes in Bakhchisaray district. Occupation authorities first detained Suleimanov in 2017 for filming security forces during a raid on the home of a fellow member of Crimean Solidarity. Occupation authorities have detained and released him multiple times since 2017, citing vague “terrorism” concerns. As of October Suleimanov was under house arrest.
During the year occupation authorities prosecuted individuals for the content of social media posts. For example, on May 28 a “district court” in occupied Crimea fined the acting chairman of the Alushta Muslim community, Ruslan Emirvaliev, for a social media post made in 2016 containing an image of a boy pointing at a banner displaying the words of the Islamic shahada, or statement of faith, in Arabic script. Court documents characterized these words as “an inscription in an unknown language, of an unknown nature and content.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent print and broadcast media could not operate freely. Most independent media outlets were forced to close in 2015 after occupation authorities refused to register them. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, after the occupation began, many local journalists left Crimea or abandoned their profession. With no independent media outlets left in Crimea and professional journalists facing serious risks for reporting from the peninsula, civic activists were a major source of information on developments in Crimea.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous cases of security forces or police harassing activists and detaining journalists in connection with their civic or professional activities. For example, on November 3, occupation authorities detained two journalists of the Russia-based Grani.ru website near a Russia-controlled military court building in Simferopol on administrative charges related to public order. The journalists had come to the military court building to report on the sentencing of three Crimean Tatars by a military court in Rostov-on-Don, which was due to be delivered on the same day. Occupation authorities suggested the reporters had been involved in protests in support of the defendants, although local media reported the crowds of protesters had already dispersed when the journalists were arrested.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, journalists resorted to self-censorship to continue reporting and broadcasting.
There were reports occupation authorities sought to restrict access to or remove internet content about Crimea they disliked. As of September Russia-led authorities blocked 30 websites in Crimea, including the websites of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis (a representative body that Russia deems extremist), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Ministry of Integration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, and several independent Ukrainian news outlets, among others. Censorship of independent internet sites was widespread (see Internet Freedom).
Occupation authorities banned most Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar-language broadcasts, replacing the content with Russian programming. On June 22, the Crimean Human Rights Group reported that occupation authorities were continuing to block Ukrainian FM radio stations in northern Crimea by broadcasting their stations on the same wavelength. The signal of Ukrainian FM radio stations was heard in only five of the area’s 19 settlements.
Human rights groups reported occupation authorities continued to forbid songs by Ukrainian singers from playing on Crimean radio stations.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to justify retaliation against opponents of Russia’s occupation.
The Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service included prominent critics of the occupation on its list of extremists and terrorists. Inclusion on the list prevented individuals from holding bank accounts, using notary services, and conducting other financial transactions.
Authorities frequently used the threat of “extremism,” “terrorism,” or other purported national security grounds to justify harassment or prosecution of individuals in retaliation for expressing opposition to the occupation. For example, on May 25, the Russia-controlled “supreme court” in occupied Crimea began hearing the in absentia trial of Lenur Isliamov, the owner of the Crimean Tatar television channel ATR. In 2015 occupation authorities charged Isliamov with “organizing an illegal armed group, committing sabotage, [and] public calls for extremist activities.” In 2015 Isliamov led a group of volunteers near the administrative border in blocking the transport of commercial goods to and from occupied Crimea. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group called the act an “essentially peaceful civic blockade of Crimea,” and the Ukrainian government subsequently approved the formal registration of Isliamov’s organization.
Russian occupation authorities restricted free expression on the internet (see section 2.a. of the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia), by imposing repressive Russian Federation laws on Crimea. Security services routinely monitored and controlled internet activity to suppress dissenting opinions. According to media accounts, occupation authorities interrogated and harassed residents of Crimea for online postings with pro-Ukrainian opinions (see Censorship or Content Restrictions, above).
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Occupation authorities engaged in a widespread campaign to suppress the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
According to the June UN secretary-general’s special report, “public events initiated by perceived supporters of Ukrainian territorial integrity or critics of policies of the Russian Federation in Crimea were reportedly prevented or prohibited by occupation authorities.”
Human rights monitors reported that occupation authorities routinely denied permission to hold assemblies based on political beliefs, in particular to opponents of the occupation or those seeking to protest the actions of the occupation authorities. Those who gathered without permission were regularly charged with administrative offenses. Expansive rules about what type of gatherings required permits and selective enforcement of the rules made it difficult for protesters to avoid such offenses. For example, according to a local news website, on January 19, police shut down a small women-led rally in Kerch against the possible closure of the Taigan Safari Park, which faced mismanagement-related litigation in Russia-based courts. Police and representatives of the Kerch city council told the rally’s participants that holding a public event unauthorized by the city council was illegal. The participants complied in ending the rally, and several of them began disseminating leaflets to passers-by. An hour later, police detained several of the women and took them to the police station. Police did not register the arrests.
Occupation authorities brought charges for “unauthorized assemblies” against single-person protests, even though preauthorization is not required for individual protests. For example, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group, on June 8, police charged activist Serhiy Akimov with an administrative offense for holding a one-person protest in Simferopol in front of the Crimean “parliament” building in support of Russian politician Nikolay Platoshkin, who was under house arrest in Moscow.
There were reports that authorities used a ban on “unauthorized missionary activity” to restrict public gatherings of members of religious minorities. For example, on April 1, the “prosecutor” of Alushta opened administrative proceedings against Yusuf Ashirov, the imam of the local Islamic community, for “illegal missionary activity.” The prosecutor did not explain how Ashirov’s performance of Friday prayers, a traditional rite for Muslims, violated the law.
A “regulation” limits the places where public events may be held to 366 listed locations, which, as the HRMMU noted, restricted the ability to assemble to a shrinking number of “specially designated spaces,” a move that appeared “designed to dissuade” peaceful assembly.
There were reports occupation authorities charged and fined individuals for allegedly violating public assembly rules in retaliation for gathering to witness security force raids on homes.
Freedom of Association
See the Country Reports on Human Rights for Russia for a description of the relevant Russian laws and procedures that the Russian government applied and enforced in occupied Crimea.
Occupation authorities broadly restricted the exercise of freedom of association for individuals who opposed the occupation. For example, there were numerous reports of authorities taking steps to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison members of the human rights group Crimean Solidarity, an unregistered movement of friends and family of victims of repression by occupation authorities (see section 1.d.). During the year the Crimean Human Rights Group documented multiple cases in which police visited the homes of Crimean Solidarity activists to threaten them or warn them not to engage in “extremist” activities. For example, on May 6, Seyran Menseitov, a member of the Crimean Solidarity movement, received a letter from the Yevpatoriya “prosecutor’s office,” which warned him against participating in gatherings related to the May 18 “Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Crimean Tatar Genocide,” as they might constitute “extremist” activities. At least 10 other Crimean Tatar activists and journalists received similar “preventive warnings” in advance of the May 18 holiday.
According to human rights groups, Russian security services routinely monitored prayers at mosques for any mention that Crimea remained part of Ukraine. Russian security forces also monitored mosques for anti-Russia sentiment and as a means of recruiting police informants, whose secret testimony was used in trials of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People remained banned for purported “extremism” despite a decision by the International Court of Justice holding that occupation authorities must “refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions, including the Mejlis.” Following the 2016 ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis as an “extremist organization,” occupation authorities banned gatherings by Mejlis members and prosecuted individuals for discussing the Mejlis on social media.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
Occupation authorities imposed restrictions on freedom of movement.
In-country Movement: Occupation authorities maintained a state “border” at the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea. According to the HRMMU, the boundary and the absence of public transportation between Crimea and mainland Ukraine continued to undermine freedom of movement to and from the peninsula, affecting mainly the elderly and individuals with limited mobility. The government simplified crossing the administrative boundary for children in a decree that came into force on February 9. Children younger than 16 were allowed to cross the administrative boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea both ways if accompanied by one parent. Notarized permission of the second parent was no longer required. Children ages 14-16 could cross the administrative line both ways unaccompanied if they studied at an educational institution located in mainland Ukraine and resided or were registered in Crimea.
There were reports occupation authorities selectively detained and at times abused persons attempting to enter or leave Crimea. According to human rights groups, occupation authorities routinely detained adult men at the administrative boundary for additional questioning, threatened to seize passports and documents, seized telephones and memory cards, and questioned them for hours.
On March 14, Ukrainian authorities restricted crossing of the administrative boundary as a COVID-19 preventative measure. Under the restrictions, only individuals registered as residents of government-controlled territory could cross into mainland Ukraine, and only individuals registered in Crimea could cross into the occupied peninsula. Public backlash to the measures led the government to expand authorized crossings four days later, allowing for crossings for humanitarian reasons, such as family reunification, cases of serious illness, and the death of a close relative. On June 15, the State Border Guard Service rescinded the residency requirements and resumed normal operations of checkpoints along the administrative boundary, while still requiring self-isolation for persons leaving occupied Crimea. On August 1, the service rescinded the self-isolation requirement but temporarily closed the crossing points again from August 8 to 30.
On March 18, Russian occupation authorities banned Ukrainian citizens from entering occupied Crimea, citing COVID-19 prevention as justification. The number of administrative boundary crossings dropped to nearly 1 percent of historical levels as a result of these restrictions. For instance, from April to May, the State Border Guard Service registered 4,000 crossings of the administrative boundary, compared with 344,000 crossings during the same period in 2019.
On April 3, Russian occupation authorities imposed upon Ukrainians in Crimea a measure banning those they considered Russian citizens from leaving the territory of what they considered the Russian Federation. Occupation authorities justified the action by asserting that many Ukrainians in Crimea had Russian passports, many of which were issued without being requested. For example, on April 5, FSB officials at the administrative boundary denied the request of a Ukrainian citizen seeking cancer treatment in Kyiv to exit occupied Crimea, citing her alleged Russian citizenship. Similarly, on April 17, Soviet dissident and marathon swimmer Oleh Sofianyk presented a Ukrainian passport to Russian officials at the administrative boundary in order to cross into mainland Ukraine. The officials refused his request to exit occupied Crimea, citing his alleged Russian citizenship. On April 27, Sofianyk attempted a second time to exit Crimea, but authorities again refused his request. Sofianyk managed to leave the peninsula on June 2.
In other cases, occupation authorities issued entry bans to Crimean Tatars attempting to cross the administrative boundary. For example, on May 23, the FSB detained 61-year-old human rights defender Diliaver Memetov when he attempted to pass through an administrative boundary checkpoint for a planned trip to mainland Ukraine. Occupation authorities took Memetov to a police station, where he claims police tore out pages from his passport. Upon his release three hours later, Memetov attempted to cross again, but was denied entry and fined a substantial amount for presenting a damaged passport.
Occupation authorities launched criminal cases against numerous high-profile Crimean Tatar leaders, including Member of Parliament Mustafa Jemilev; the chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov; the director general of the ATR television channel, Lenur Isliamov; and ATR deputy director Aider Muzhdabayev.
According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian law restricts access to Crimea to three designated crossing points and imposes penalties, including long-term entry bans, for noncompliance. Crimean residents lacking Ukrainian passports, who only possessed Russian-issued Crimean travel documents not recognized by Ukrainian authorities, often faced difficulties when crossing into mainland Ukraine.
Citizenship: Russian occupation authorities required all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens. Those who refused Russian citizenship could be subjected to arbitrary expulsion. According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, during the six years of Russia’s occupation, approximately 2,000 Ukrainians were prosecuted for not having Russian documents, and approximately 530 persons were ordered to be “deported.”
According to the HRMMU, in 2019 Crimean “courts” ordered “deportation” and forcible transfer of 109 Ukrainian citizens whose residence rights in Crimea were not recognized.
Residents of Crimea who chose not to adopt Russian citizenship were considered foreigners but in some cases could obtain a residency permit. Persons without Russian citizenship holding a residency permit were deprived of key rights and could not own agricultural land, vote or run for office, register a religious congregation, or register a vehicle. Authorities denied those who refused Russian citizenship access to “government” employment, education, and health care as well as the ability to open bank accounts and buy insurance, among other limitations.
According to the Crimean Human Rights Group, Russian authorities prosecuted private employers who continued to employ Ukrainians. Fines could be imposed on employers for every recorded case of employing a Ukrainian citizen without a labor license. Fines in such cases amounted to several million dollars.
In some cases authorities compelled Crimean residents to surrender their Ukrainian passports, complicating international travel, because many countries did not recognize “passports” issued by Russian occupation authorities.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Approximately 47,000 residents of Crimea registered as IDPs on the mainland, according to the Ministry of Social Policy. The Mejlis and local NGOs, such as Crimea SOS, believed the actual number could be as high as 100,000, as most IDPs remained unregistered. Many individuals fled due to fear that occupation authorities would target them for abuse because of their work as political activists or journalists. Muslims, Greek Catholics, and Evangelical Christians who left Crimea said they feared discrimination due to their religious beliefs.
Crimean Tatars, who made up the largest number of IDPs, said they left because of pressure on their community, including an increasing number of arbitrary searches of their homes, surveillance, and discrimination. In addition, many professionals left Crimea because Russian occupation authorities required them to apply for Russian professional licenses and adopt Russian procedures in their work.
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. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. On June 10, a local human rights organization said authorities did not investigate police reports it filed after several attacks against its director between October and December 2019 that resulted in bodily injury to the director and theft of his car. On June 27, eight human rights organizations condemned a media attack against the director after he published a report on conditions in Gamassa Prison.
On February 16, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued executive regulations for the media law ratified in 2018. Among the regulations, newspapers are required to print their issues in Egypt at licensed printing houses registered with the council; news websites must host their servers in Egypt; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies all of published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The regulations also prohibit any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.
Freedom of Speech: 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.
Between March and July, authorities arrested at least seven doctors and charged them with membership in a banned group, spreading false news, and misuse of social media after they criticized the government’s response to COVID-19. Between October and December, three doctors were released pending investigation. The Doctors’ Syndicate protested the arrests and called for release of all the doctors. On October 1, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of prominent lawyer Tarek Jamil Saeed pending investigations of disturbing the peace, spreading rumors, and misusing social media after he criticized candidates for parliament. Saeed was released on bail on October 11.
On December 27, a criminal court ordered the release of housing-rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine with probationary measures. Ezzedine remained in detention until the end of the year. According to a local human rights organization, he was held without notice beginning in June 2019 after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in November 2019 before the State Security Prosecution accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
A criminal court on September 13 renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of Mohamed Ramadan, who was arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. After a court ordered Ramadan’s release on bail on December 2, the State Security Prosecution ordered him remanded into custody on December 8 on additional charges of joining a banned group based upon letters he sent while in detention.
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 used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and September, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 96 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. In June 2019 several political figures were arrested, including El-Aleimy and journalist Hossam Moanes, after they met to form the political Alliance of Hope to run in parliamentary elections. They remained in pretrial detention. On March 11, a misdemeanor court sentenced El-Aleimy to one year in prison for spreading false news and disturbing public peace as a result of a BBC interview in 2017. On April 18, a terrorism court added 13 defendants from the “Hope” case to the terrorism list, including former member of parliament and Social Democratic Party leader Ziyad El-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On June 16, the Cairo Criminal Court turned down a challenge filed by Moanes against an August 2019 ruling to seize his money. On August 4, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (No. 930/2019). On October 10, a criminal court ordered the release of four Alliance of Hope defendants, including activist Ahmed Tammam. On November 14, an administrative court heard the lawsuit filed by El-Aleimy to allow him to receive telephone calls and correspondence. Amnesty International reported he was being denied adequate health care by Tora Prison authorities even though his underlying medical conditions put him at particular risk if exposed to COVID-19.
On March 19, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 political figures in pretrial detention, including political science professor Hassan Nafaa and former president Sisi campaigner Hazem Abdel Azim. Nafaa was arrested in September 2019 with Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign, and journalist Khaled Dawoud. On December 27, a criminal court renewed Hosni’s and Dawoud’s pretrial detention for 45 days pending investigations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and ordered Hosni’s release. The State Security Prosecution ordered Hosni’s continued detention in a new case on November 4. On July 5, a criminal court overturned the public prosecutor’s 2019 decision to freeze Nafaa’s fixed assets and stayed the public prosecutor’s decision to seize his assets until the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Antiterrorism Law.
On August 5, the writer and prominent leftist Sinai activist, Ashraf Ayoub, and his son Sherif, were detained in Arish city, North Sinai, and taken to an unknown location. According to a labor leader, Ayoub advocated for detainees. After 20 days, Ayoub appeared before the State Security Prosecution, which ordered his pretrial detention on charges of joining a terrorism group and spreading false news. According to local media, Ayoub’s son was released without charges in mid-August.
In May security forces arrested sports critic Awny Nafae while he was under government-imposed COVID-19 quarantine after returning from Saudi Arabia, according to local media. The arrest came after Nafae criticized the Ministry of Emigration for its handling of thousands of Egyptian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was held in pretrial detention on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and participating in a terrorist group, but he was released in October.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the 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. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
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 EGP 50,000 ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (Supreme Council) broad discretion to block their content.
According to media reports, on April 21, the Supreme Council fined the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm for an op-ed written by its founder Salah Diab under a pseudonym. The article suggested that Sinai should have one governor with expanded powers to better govern the entire peninsula. The Supreme Council ordered the newspaper to remove the op-ed, issue an apology, and suspend Diab’s opinion pieces for one month. On May 12, the Supreme Council ordered media not to publish or broadcast any material under pseudonyms without the approval of the Supreme Council.
On April 12, authorities arrested Mustafa Saqr, owner of the Business News company, and the State Security Prosecution detained him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist, spreading false news, and misusing social media. His arrest came after he published an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 27 journalists were imprisoned in the country.
During the year the government raided several newspapers, arrested employees, and released them shortly thereafter. On June 24, the security services arrested Noura Younis, editor in chief of the independent news website Al-Manassa and a former Washington Post correspondent. On June 26, authorities released Younis on bail pending trial on charges of creating a network account with the intent to commit a crime, possessing software without a license from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority, copyright infringement, and wrongfully profiting through the internet or telecommunication services.
On May 11, authorities arrested Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Haitham Mahgoub, days after he published an article relating to the country’s response to COVID-19, according to media. Media reported that Mahgoub and his attorneys were not allowed to attend the June 7 hearing where the State Security Prosecution ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigations of joining a banned group, financing a banned group, and spreading false news. Mahgoub was released on November 19 pending further investigation. On May 22, television stations broadcast confessions of four of 11 journalists and media workers whom the Interior Ministry claimed were part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to produce false reports for al-Jazeera. Human rights lawyers challenged the confessions and their pretrial publication as illegal.
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.
On March 17, the State Information Service revoked the accreditation of a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, after it published a report addressing the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. On March 26, the Guardian reported that authorities forced the correspondent to leave the country.
On March 30, authorities ordered the detention of Mohamad Al-Eter, the Ultra Sawt website correspondent, for 15 days pending investigations. He was accused of joining a terrorist group, publishing false news, and misusing the online social networks. A court granted Al-Eter bail in May, and he was released on June 1 pending investigation.
According to Freedom House, multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remained in prison. In many cases the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argued they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist or banned group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations were the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The state of emergency 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. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.
In June the Supreme Council for Media Regulation stated that all media in any form had to use official sources to publish or broadcast any information about Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the war against terrorism in Sinai, or COVID-19.
In June a media rights organization said that the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 media websites.
The rising number of arrests for social media posts had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. On August 15, the National Translation Center published its translation guidelines, including conditions that books it translates do not “oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.” According to media, professional writers and translators denounced the rules as a form of censorship. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as sectarian tensions, sexuality, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims. On June 21, the Alexandria Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court upheld the February 27 three-year sentence against activist and blogger Anas Hassan for “insulting religion and misusing social media.” According to a local human rights organization, security forces arrested Hassan in August 2019 for his Facebook page “The Egyptian Atheists” that a police report stated contained atheistic ideas and criticism of the “divinely revealed religions.”
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 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.
On March 10, the prime minister instructed relevant authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors regarding COVID-19. On March 28, the Public Prosecution affirmed in a statement that it would address such “fake news” stories according to the law.
On March 18, security forces arrested Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, at his home in Aswan following a critical post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 14, which ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigation.
A local independent human rights organization reported that journalist Basma Mostafa was detained for nine hours while covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories in downtown Cairo. Media reported Mostafa was arrested on October 3 while covering the death of Luxor Governorate citizen Ewais al-Rawy (see section 1.a.) and ensuing protests; Mostafa was released on October 6.
On February 12, local media reported that the Supreme Council for Media Regulations sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posting “false news” regarding a reported COVID-19 infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban publishing any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.
Judges may issue restraining 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.
On March 11, authorities released, with probationary measures, blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers. He had been held 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 prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. 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.
On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.
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. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cybercrime law 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 issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.
On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.
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 observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. 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 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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 and Technical Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, like that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. University faculty members and Ministry of Education employees (including teachers) needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic or professional purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason. Some public universities restricted campus visits of foreign speakers or delegations or required a faculty chaperone for delegations of university students traveling to the United States.
On May 8, authorities at the Cairo International Airport confiscated the passport of Walid Salem, a University of Washington doctoral student, preventing him from traveling. 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 probationary measures pending trial. On February 22, the State Security Prosecution canceled the probationary measures and released him under guarantee of his place of residence.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in 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 Interior Ministry 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 February 16, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mahraganat music, a popular street-music genre, in public and prohibited any dealings with Mahraganat singers without the syndicate’s permission. This decision came two days after a Cairo concert where Mahraganat singers used what the syndicate considered inappropriate words. A few hours after the decision, the Tourism Police prevented Omar Kamal from holding a concert in a Cairo hotel. The syndicate and the Department of Censorship of Artistic Works filed police reports against a number of Mahraganat singers.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for freedom of 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. On January 18, an administrative court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a local human rights organization in 2017 challenging the law. A government-imposed exclusion zone prohibits protests within 2,600 feet (790 meters) of vital governmental institutions.
On March 22, President Sisi ratified amendments to the Prison Regulation Law, preventing the conditional release of those convicted of assembly crimes, among other crimes.
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 instances using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.
On February 7, authorities detained Patrick George Zaki, a student at the University of Bologna, at the Cairo International Airport. Media reported he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. On February 8, Zaki appeared before the prosecutor, who ordered his pretrial detention on charges of inciting individuals to protest in September 2019, spreading false news, promoting terrorism, and harming national security. A criminal court renewed his pretrial detention for 45 days on December 6.
On April 22, a local NGO reported that authorities released 3,633 of the 3,717 protesters detained after street demonstrations in September 2019. According to the report, approximately 1,680 defendants were released in 2019, approximately 1,983 were released in the first quarter of 2020, and an estimated 54 remained in detention. On February 5, the Al-Mokattam Emergency Misdemeanor Court ordered the acquittal of 102 individuals of charges of attacking the Mokattam police station in protest against the death in custody of Mohamed Abdel Hakim. Government investigators reported that Hakim had died from beatings by two police employees following his arrest in 2018.
On July 1, the Cassation Court reduced the prison sentence of a Central Security Forces officer, Yaseen Hatem, from 10 years to seven years for the death of activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Hatem was convicted of wounding that led to the death and deliberately wounding other protesters during a 2015 protest marking the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
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. 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 April 12, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 35 detainees on bail whom authorities had accused of spreading false news about COVID-19, some of whom had participated in a street march in Alexandria on March 23 after curfew, despite government restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic. On April 25, authorities released 20 detainees on bail who had participated in an April 23 street march after curfew in Alexandria to celebrate Ramadan and protest COVID-19.
On June 17, a local human rights organization filed an official complaint with the prosecutor general to release activist Mohamed Adel as he reached the two-year legal limit for pretrial detention since his June 2018 arrest on charges of violating the protest law. On December 21, State Security Prosecution ordered Adel’s detention for 15 days pending investigation in a new case on charges of joining and funding a terrorist group, meeting terrorist leaders in prison, and spreading false news. Reports indicated that in September more than 2,000 persons, including at least 70 younger than 18, were arrested in response to small demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the anticorruption protests of September 2019. On September 27, the Public Prosecution ordered the release of 68 of the 70 minors who had been arrested. In early November more than 400 persons arrested during the demonstrations were released from prison, and in early December approximately 67 additional individuals were also released.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.
A 2019 law governing NGOs eliminated prison sentences as penalties and removed formal oversight roles for security and intelligence authorities. It also required the government to issue executive regulations to clarify that NGOs will have exclusive access to and control of NGO funds as well as procedural protections, such as impartial administrative and judicial appeal mechanisms. On November 25, the cabinet approved the executive regulations. As of December 31, however, they had not been published in the official gazette.
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.”
As of year’s end, lawyer Amr Emam remained in detention pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist organization, publishing false news, and misusing social media to spread false information. Emam was arrested in October 2019 after he began a hunger strike and sit-in to protest the arrests, alleged abuse, and continued detention of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and lawyer Mohamed Elbakr. In late August Emam, along with Esraa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Elbakr, was added to a new case on similar charges.
On September 6, after a criminal court ordered his release on August 26, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy on new charges. This was the third case against Hegazy, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, since his 2017 arrest at the Cairo International Airport while traveling to Geneva to participate in the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the Muslim Brotherhood was listed as a designated terrorist organization.
Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. On July 18, the Cairo Criminal Court denied a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on 14 defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan and others, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO. On December 5, an investigative judge dismissed criminal charges, including receiving foreign funding to harm the national interests, and lifted the travel bans and asset freezes against 20 domestic NGOs involved in the 2011 case.
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.
In November Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and executive director Gasser Abdel Razek of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were arrested on charges of “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news.” On December 3, authorities released the three pending investigation. On December 6, the Third Terrorism Circuit Court ordered a temporary freeze on the personal assets of the three employees.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers.
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 on safety grounds.
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. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing 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. A 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 because 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.
On June 6, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have to renew the passport of Ayman Nour, the president of the opposition New Ghad Party who was living abroad. Nour filed the lawsuit when the ministry refused to renew his passport at the Egyptian consulates in Turkey and Lebanon.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: 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.
On January 8, the Supreme Administrative Court made a final ruling that the government could not extradite to Libya six former Libyan officials who were part of the government of former president Muammar Gaddafi. The court stated that according to domestic and international law, they were entitled to protection in Egypt.
UNHCR protested the government’s November 2019 deportation of a Yemeni asylee to Yemen. According to UNHCR, the asylee was arrested in August 2019 in Egypt for his alleged conversion from Islam to Christianity and subsequent proselytizing activities.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the law does 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 March, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.
In 2013 the government began applying 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’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 enactment and enforcement of a law dramatically increasing 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 most 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 not detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Authorities often held detained migrants as unregistered asylum seekers in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent some 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. 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 that were either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools or private schools, or they 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.
g. Stateless Persons
Of the eight stateless persons known to UNHCR, most were Armenians displaced for more than 50 years. According to a local civil society organization, the number of stateless persons in the country was likely higher than the number recorded by UNHCR. The government and UNHCR lacked a mechanism for identifying stateless persons, including those of disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese nationality and those of disputed Ethiopian/Eritrean nationality. A majority of the approximately 70,000 Palestinian refugees were stateless.
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, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but government officials used civil libel and slander laws to place limits on freedom of speech, and self-censorship was widespread. Some media outlets avoided criticizing government officials due to fears of legal sanction and potential loss of government advertising, which, according to the PUL, was the largest source of media revenue. Other outlets avoided addressing sensitive human rights issues such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Court decisions against journalists sometimes involved exorbitant fines.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. According to the PUL, civil suits relating to libel, slander, and defamation were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. The PUL also expressed concern that media outlets owned directly by politicians and government officials were crowding out privately owned media and advocated for legislation to prohibit ownership of media by public officials.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners, as well as individual journalists, because of their political opinions and reporting.
On January 23, Police assaulted journalist Christopher Walker, a sports editor for Front Page Africa, at a soccer stadium, according to the PUL. Walker told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he was standing with other journalists in the assigned media area when two police officers approached him and demanded he leave the area despite having the proper press accreditation. The two officers then grabbed and shoved Walker while several other officers, including members of the Police Support Unit wearing helmets and body armor, pushed and shoved him to the ground. According to some media sources, Walker was targeted because of an article he wrote that accused the Youth and Sports Ministry of fixing a soccer match to favor the team from Grand Kru County, President George Weah’s home county. Walker’s article alleged Weah had requested the fix. In February, LNP spokesperson Moses Carter told the CPJ that the names of three implicated officers had been forwarded to the police force’s professional standards division for investigation.
National Security Agency and Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency officials attacked or otherwise intimidated at least four journalists–Charles Bioma Yates, Joel Cholo Brooks, Frank Wornbers Payne, and Molley Trojan Kiazolu–in March and April while they reported on the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CPJ and the PUL.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid harassment. Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to maintain advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country. There were several reports that politicians and government agencies offered “transportation fees” to journalists to secure coverage of events. Some media outlets, journalists, and broadcasters charged fees to publish articles or host radio programs.
From approximately February to August 2019, the radio show of government critic Henry Costa was frequently unavailable. On several occasions the broadcast seemed to feature older, progovernment clips, leading to speculation by some that the station was being jammed or otherwise interfered with. In reaction Costa made several comments in his Facebook Live broadcasts about using force to defend himself should any agent of the government try to cause him harm. The government’s reactions to these and other broadcasts from Costa, which the government deemed as inciting violence, included a suspension of Roots FM’s broadcast license due to nonpayment of fees and inciting violence. In October 2019 sheriffs from the Monrovia Magisterial Court, escorted by armed police units with a “search and seizure” writ issued by the court at the request of Solicitor General Saymah Cyrenius Cephus, stormed the Roots FM studio, shut down Costa’s broadcast, and seized the station’s broadcasting equipment. At year’s end Costa was broadcasting via social media from an overseas location.
Following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency on April 8 related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Solicitor General Cephus threatened on April 29 to seize the equipment and revoke the license of any media institution spreading “fake news,” arguing that the state of emergency suspended rights associated with freedom of speech. In April, Eugene Fahngon, deputy minister of information, cultural affairs, and tourism, introduced a new media credentialing system, declared existing credentials void, and stated that any journalists who did not use the new credentials would be subject to action by security services. At the time of the state of emergency, the PUL stated that “using the state of emergency to curtail other freedoms violates constitutional rights.” The required use of new media credentials ended on July 21, when the government lifted the state of emergency.
Libel/Slander Laws: In February 2019 criminal libel and slander laws were repealed with the passage of the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom. Nonetheless, government officials occasionally used the threat of civil suits to intimidate critics. In April 2019 Minister of State for Presidential Affairs Nathaniel McGill filed a $500,000 defamation suit against Roots FM and its radio hosts Henry Costa and Fidel Saydee, alleging the two radio personalities “slandered, badmouthed, vandalized, and vilified” McGill by accusing him of financial impropriety. Both the Media Foundation for West Africa and Center for Media Studies and Peace Building urged Minister McGill to withdraw the suit, which was later dropped.
In July, Sinoe Country Senator J. Milton Teahjay filed a $4.7 million libel suit against the Front Page Africa newspaper for publishing an investigation alleging that Teahjay received a $20,000 bribe to confirm Ndubusi Nwabudike as the chairperson of the National Elections Commission. A recording also emerged in which a voice allegedly belonging to Teahjay stated that he expected the nominees he confirmed to give jobs to one or two of his recommended applicants. According to the newspaper, in October, Civil Law Court Judge Kennedy Peabody mandated that both parties present pretrial memoranda to set the stage for a jury trial, stating it would take a jury to determine whether libel had occurred as alleged in Senator Teahjay’s complaint. The trial was pending at year’s end.
The PUL continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards, including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. The union’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, continued to mediate cases during the year.
Unlike in the previous year, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet during the year. In July 2019 in the lead-up to and during a planned protest, the government blocked usage of both Orange and Lonestar Cell MTN, the two mobile networks in the country. When protesters dispersed, access was restored.
There were no additional reports the government censored online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits in attempts to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate content creators.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
A variety of civil society groups conducted demonstrations throughout the year, including outside the legislature and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In some cases the Ministry of Justice requested that organizers of mass protests apply for permits before assembling in areas that would block traffic. The LNBA and INCHR stated the constitution and law requires prior notification, not application for a permit, to allow the government time to provide sufficient security to protect free assembly, and that a permitting process could restrict freedom of assembly. Many observers said the relevant laws and regulations required clarification.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government restricted travel between neighboring countries and between counties within the country in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Security officials at road checkpoints throughout the country frequently requested bribes, which may have inhibited domestic travel.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The government had policies and protections for IDPs in line with the UN Guiding Principle on Internal Displacement. The government did not deny humanitarian NGOs or international organizations access to IDPs.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR, other humanitarian organizations, and donor countries in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The LRRRC and UNHCR reported seven Ivoirian refugees remained in custody in the Monrovia Central Prison, pursuant to a 2013 request for extradition from the government of Cote d’Ivoire that alleged their involvement in “mercenary activities.” The case began in 2013, and bail requests were denied. Three of the seven refugees were brothers, the youngest 16 years old at the time of arrest. The LRRRC and UNHCR continued to provide subsistence allowances, legal support, and medical and psychosocial support to refugees in custody.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The law forbids the forced return of refugees, their families, or other persons who may be subjected to persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and the government generally respected those rights for refugees. The government provided a prima facie mode of recognition for Ivoirian refugees, meaning Ivoirian refugees who arrived in Liberia because of the 2011 postelectoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire did not have to appear before an asylum committee to gain refugee status; the status was granted automatically. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2019 Liberia was host to 8,101 refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and 98 others of diverse nationalities.
As of December 23, UNHCR reported the arrival of 22,989 new Ivorian refugees who fled anticipated violence following Cote d’Ivoire’s October 31 election. According to the Liberia Refugee Repatriation Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), the prima facie status continued to be automatic for Ivoirian refugees.
Any (non-Ivoirian) refugees denied asylum may submit their case to the appeals committee of the LRRRC. Asylum seekers unsatisfied with the appeals committee ruling may seek judicial review at the Supreme Court. The Alien and Nationality Law of 1974, however, specifically denies many of the safeguards for those wishing to seek asylum in the country under the Refugee Convention.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees enjoyed freedom of movement, since the country did not have a mandatory encampment policy. Government policy stated refugees wishing to receive material assistance should move to one of the three refugee camp locations in Bahn Town, Nimba County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh; and Harper, Maryland County.
Employment: The law generally prohibits noncitizens from obtaining work permits when Liberian citizens are available to perform the labor, but this law was generally not enforced. As such, the LRRRC and UNHCR worked with partners to implement livelihood programs for Ivoirian refugees who wished to integrate. As an example, in July, five refugees requested work permits from the Ministry of Labor to work in the formal sector, and UNHCR paid the requisite application and processing fee. The work permits for the five refugees were pending at year’s end.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government resettled, offered naturalization, and assisted in the voluntary return of refugees. Voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees from Cote d’Ivoire’s 2011 postelection violence continued. According to UNHCR, as of July, 149 Ivoirian refugees had voluntarily returned to their country. UNHCR and the LRRRC reported providing continuing support to nearly 1,600 refugees who opted for local integration. At year’s end the refugee camps in Bahn Town, Nimba County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh; and Harper, Maryland County were being transformed into settlements intended for local integration of refugees. In August the government began the naturalization process for five refugees, which continued at year’s end.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government, with UNHCR and other implementing partners, continued to provide protection to Ivoirian refugees who entered the country after November. According to the LRRRC, as of December, 25,700 refugees remained in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a July MetroPOLL company survey, 62 percent of respondents believed media in the country was not free, and 50 percent believed they were not free on social media.
The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 36,066 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2019; 12,298 stood trial and 3,831 were penalized. In contrast from 2014 to 2019, the number of individuals that received prison sentences under insult laws dropped to 2,663. In July police detained 11 persons and arrested one for comments made on social media posts about the president’s daughter and son-in-law, former treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, following the birth of their son on charges of “insulting a public official.”
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons whom it has issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” claiming ties to or support for the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On June 23, an Istanbul court upheld the conviction and sentencing of the main opposition CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu on multiple charges related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court had sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018 for “insulting the republic,” “insulting the president,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” in tweets. At year’s end she remained free pending her final legal appeal. Kaftancioglu also faced separate charges under a December indictment by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for ordering photographs of alleged illegal construction on land owned by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The indictment sought up to 10 years’ imprisonment for Kaftancioglu. Authorities scheduled the first hearing of the case for May 2021.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by MPs on the floor of parliament and provides for the possibility of fining violators; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law. Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from a statement the Bar Association released in 2017, stating, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
In late April the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint for hate speech against Ali Erbas, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), following a sermon in which he stated that homosexuality causes illness, including HIV. In response President Erdogan announced that an attack against Erbas was an attack against the state. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office promptly opened a criminal investigation against the bar association, and President Erdogan commented, “All will know their place.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In 2018 authorities convicted 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet on charges of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. After a lengthy appeal process, the Constitutional Court found no rights violations in cases for 11 of the journalists but ruled in favor of three. On November 10, the ECHR found that Turkey violated the freedom of expression rights of eight of the journalists and ordered them to be compensated 16,000 euro ($19,200) each. On November 24, the ECHR separately found that the country had violated the rights of another defendant, journalist Ahmet Sik.
In July an Istanbul court convicted Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” for articles he wrote on Turkey as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. The Constitutional Court had previously reviewed the press articles in the indictment and determined they were protected by freedom of the press. Yucel indicated he would appeal the ruling.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including through the use of electronic monitoring. For example, in October an Istanbul court sentenced five of eight Yeni Yasam, Yeni Cag, and OdaTV journalists on trial for allegedly revealing the identity of intelligence officers to more than four years in prison. The court released three of the defendants, Baris Pehlivan, Hulya Kilinc, and Murat Agirel, based on time served but imposed an international travel ban. The court acquitted the two OdaTV journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2019 at least nine journalists were physically attacked, often outside of their place of work. Although in some cases suspects were identified quickly, by year’s end authorities had made no arrests or publicly noted progress in investigations against the perpetrators. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. On August 19, Saban Onen, a journalist of a Bursa-based local newspaper was attacked in a parking garage in Karacabey. Onen claimed that the attackers were relatives of the ruling AKP mayor of Karacabey and specifically referenced his writing about the mayor during the attack. On August 26, a vehicle belonging to the Nevsehir Journalists Association was set on fire. The chair of the association, Bayram Ekici, stated he believed the attack was a premediated attempt to intimidate journalists.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state. In September authorities arrested on slander charges the publisher and editor in chief of a daily newspaper in Kocaeli Province after the newspaper ran a story accusing local AKP officials of sexually abusing a minor.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Human rights organizations voiced strong concern that a law governing social media that went into effect October 1 would result in increasing social media censorship and indiscriminate enforcement of content removal requests imposed by courts or made through individuals’ requests by social media companies (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom for details). Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, authorities required publishing houses to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The Turkish Publisher’s Association reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities banned books because of objectionable content.
In August an Istanbul court banned access to reporting by major newspapers and broadcast networks that a large tender was awarded to a friend of the president’s son. In September an Istanbul court ordered an additional access ban to news articles regarding the initial access ban.
In October police raided the Van bureau of Mezopotamya Ajansi and the homes of many journalists of the news agency. Police detained four journalists during the raid and confiscated their cameras and technical equipment. One of the journalists, Cemil Ugur, first reported the story of two villagers in Van who were allegedly detained, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter by soldiers in September. The courts granted a confidentiality order requested by the Van Chief Prosecutor’s Office on news reports concerning the incident. On October 1, an Ankara penal judge also ruled to permit the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to block access to Mezopotamya Ajansi’s online content.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. For instance, the government continued to pursue a case against Cumhuriyet journalists Alican Uludag and Duygu Guvenc for “publicly degrading the judiciary” and “insulting the Turkish nation” for their coverage of the country’s arrest of Andrew Brunson in 2018. On October 22, the court ruled that Uludag and Guvenc be acquitted as “the act in question is not defined as a crime in the law.”
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. In December the owner of private media outlet Olay TV announced that he would close the channel after only a month of operation because its editorial line prioritized pro-HDP content. The editor in chief of Olay TV announced during its last broadcast that the government pressured channel executives to close the channel. Other outlet employees told reporters the channel faced government scrutiny because it was too critical of the government and included reports of alleged corruption and human rights violations by government officials.
Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of December, RTUK had fined or suspended independent broadcasters in 54 instances. During that time government-affiliated broadcasters received two warnings and one fine. Independent broadcasters paid 25 times more in fines than government-affiliated ones.
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. In July, RTUK announced it would suspend pro-opposition television stations Halk TV and TELE1 for five days and that the two outlets could lose their broadcast licenses entirely if they received another penalty. RTUK ruled that TELE1 “incited hatred” during two news programs that criticized the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and President Erdogan. RTUK imposed the suspension on Halk TV for criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists warned, “the two channels were two remaining pro-opposition broadcast outlets in a media landscape that has become predominantly progovernment” and that “their presence is vital for media plurality” in the country. After the broadcasters lost court appeals, RTUK suspended TELE1 and Halk TV broadcasts for five days in September.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of 2019. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted. In March, Engin Ozkoc of the opposition CHP insulted the president using the same phrasing that the president used in reference to Ozkoc. Ozkoc’s comments set off a brawl on the floor of the parliament. Erdogan sued Ozkoc for libel and the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Ozkoc’s comments.
In September a court sentenced the former cochair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party Sebahat Tuncel to 11 months in prison for insulting the president. Tuncel had called Erdogan a misogynist and “an enemy of women and Kurds.”
In May police arrested former CHP Izmir province vice chair Banu Ozdemir for her social media posts sharing videos of Izmir mosques playing the song “Bella Ciao” from their speakers after a hacking incident. Ozdemir was arrested on charges of “denigrating religious values” and spent one week in pretrial detention. On December 10, an Izmir court acquitted Ozdemir.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In March an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of seven journalists and editors for their news organizations’ reports on the funeral of an alleged MIT official who died in Libya in February. Authorities charged the journalists with exposing the identities of MIT agents and their families. In September an Istanbul court found five of the journalists guilty and issued sentences from three to more than four years imprisonment. The court acquitted two of the journalists.
The trial of prominent columnist Ahmet Altan continued, and he remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” relating to allegations he had a role in the 2016 attempted coup; Altan received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. In December the Constitutional Court rejected Altan’s application for review of his re-arrest. Rights groups claimed that Altan faced charges in reprisal for his work as a journalists and author.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in March authorities detained a group of journalists, including five foreign journalists along the Turkey-Greece border, for allegedly violating the border zone. All were later released.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.
In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education.
In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the “Academics for Peace,” was a violation of freedom of expression. The academics had signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast and been prosecuted on terrorist propaganda charges. As of September, 622 of the 822 Academics for Peace cases ended in acquittal. Most of the academics acquitted in 2019 had been fired from their positions and had not been reinstated at year’s end.
In April the parliament amended the Higher Education Law. The amendment included specification of grounds for censure and dismissal of academics, including engaging in and supporting “activities that qualify as terror” and insulting a superior. The University Faculty Members Association released a statement that expressed concern the amendment threatens academic freedom.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies. In December 2019 the Council of Higher Education temporarily suspended the operating license of Istanbul Sehir University, established by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January the council seized the assets of the Science and Art Foundation that managed the university and appointed trustees to its management, citing financial mismanagement and inadequate funds as the reason for the intervention. Academic freedom activists claimed that the actions were in retaliation for Davutoglu’s establishment of a new opposition party.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The government banned more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” Police arrested members of Grup Yorum, a popular folk band collective, in 2016 on terror charges alleging the group’s links to terrorist group Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front and banned them from performing. In April and May, two members of the group, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokcek died as a result of hunger strikes in protest of the group’s treatment. Two additional members remained in prison. In August police detained at least 10 persons for attending an unauthorized concert in Istanbul by the group. Authorities arrested at least two persons for attending the unauthorized concert.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, police intervened in at least 637 demonstrations. As many as 1,364 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither the government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
In July dozens of leaders and members of 29 bar associations participated in a march to Ankara to protest anticipated legal changes to regulations governing bar associations. Police forcibly disrupted the march as they entered the city of Ankara and prevented bar association chairs from participating in a sit-in in front of the parliament. Video footage showed police pushing and jostling the bar association heads.
On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators intending to mark International Women’s Day by marching through Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. Prior to the scheduled march, the governor of Istanbul announced the areas would be closed for demonstrations and assembly and deployed an extensive police presence to prevent access to the main thoroughfares. Despite the announcement, groups proceeded with the planned march and attempted to enter the area. Police blocked the entrances and dispersed the group using tear gas and riot shields. According to media reports, police detained 32 women during the confrontations. Police did not disperse commemorations and marches hosted by women’s groups in the city’s Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Authorities generally prohibited domestic and international observers from observing the hearings.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. For instance, the Tekirdag Governor’s Office closed entrance to the province citing COVID-19 precautions ahead of the HDP March for Democracy from Edirne to Ankara, scheduled in June to take place during three days. Sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK continued for the second year. Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, in July detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability.
In January police prevented Melek Cetinkaya, the mother of one of 259 military cadets jailed and sentenced to aggravated life in prison in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup, from launching a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul. Police detained Cetinkaya and 66 family members of other imprisoned cadets who were to join the march. The group planned to walk from Ankara to Silivri Prison in Istanbul, where the cadets are jailed. Police teams took heightened security measures in the city center of Ankara before the group gathered and began detaining marchers as they entered the area. Authorities later released all of the detained protesters. Cetinkaya accused police of excessive force.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. The longstanding bans in the southeast of the country have remained in place during the year.
In contrast with previous years, labor unions, labor organizations, and opposition political parties called on citizens to honor Labor Day on May 1 while respecting social distance measures. In particular these groups encouraged supporters to sing songs from balconies, share messages via social media, and explore other activities that respect social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis. Social media showed that many celebrations occurred in isolation across the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, police detained and later released at least 45 persons for attempting to march despite a mandatory three-day COVID-related lockdown. Among others, police detained the chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), Arzu Cerkezoglu, as well as 25 other DISK members as they attempted to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prior to the event, DISK claimed to have contacted and informed the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding its plans to organize a march. The office stated that DISK received Istanbul approval to travel by vehicles, not by foot, and blamed DISK for violating social distancing measures and initiating brawls with law enforcement officials.
Freedom of Association
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2019 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. For instance, the HRA reported that continued investigations and audits during the last four years have created immense pressure on the organization. In February the government launched a three-week audit of the HRA.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. On July 3, an Istanbul court convicted four of the human rights activists on terrorism-related charges. Nearly three years after his arrest, Kilic received a prison sentence of six years and three months for membership in a terrorist organization. The court sentenced former Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, and fellow human rights defenders Gunal Kursun and Ozlem Dalkiran to two years and one month for assisting a terrorist organization. The court acquitted seven other human rights activists including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi. The four convicted human rights activists remained free pending appeal; the ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, imposed in 2018, remained in place.
On December 27, the parliament adopted new counterterrorist financing legislation entitled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” granting the Ministry of Interior powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs. The legislation prompted strong concern among civil society groups. Nearly 700 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing the new law, noting it would expand Ministry of Interior “political tutelage,” severely restrict fundraising, and allow for rapid closure of civil society groups without judicial review.
On July 11, parliament approved a law changing the regulations governing bar associations. The law allows lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 bar association members to establish new associations after collecting a minimum of 2,000 member signatures. Whereas previous regulations only permitted one bar association per province, the new regulations allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces, paving the way for provincial associations to splinter into many groups, which could dilute the voices of existing organizations. The law also changed delegate representation within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA), a governing body of bar associations, reducing the influence of large bar associations from major metropolitan areas. All 80 Turkish bar associations, as well as human rights groups, publicly criticized the law, predicting it would undermine judicial independence, divide bar associations along political lines, and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. To date, bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In September a group of Istanbul Bar Association lawyers gathered enough signatures to establish a new association in the city and filed a registration petition with UTBA.
On October 2, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular postponing bar association elections scheduled by law from October to December. The circular cited anti-COVID-19 precautions banning all in-person events held by professional organizations and NGOs. Major bar associations protested the move, alleging the postponement decision was political since a later election timeline would allow newly established bar associations to participate. On October 5, a total of 76 of 80 bar associations issued a statement alleging that the circular violates Turkish law and filed civil suits. Courts dismissed Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir associations’ suits. In December the minister of interior postponed the elections further to March 2021.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In March the country enacted amendments to the Law on Associations introducing requirements that associations notify local administrative authorities of any changes in membership within 30 days or face penalties. The Council of Europe issued a statement calling the amendments “problematic on both procedural and substantive accounts” and noted they failed to meet requirements under the ECHR.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In June authorities lifted passport restrictions for 28,075 individuals, in addition to the 57,000 lifted in 2019, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement, as did restrictions on interprovincial travel due to COVID-19 precautions.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
The minister of interior and governorates also restricted interprovincial travel between March and May followed by limited restrictions on movement to and from metropolitan municipalities as measures to contain COVID-19. Some governorates, particularly in the northwest and southeast, instituted subsequent bans on movement as anti-COVID-19 measures throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
In October 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in areas of Syria affected by the operation. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria as a result of the operation have returned. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants” in 2019. The DGMM reported 201,437 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. Due to border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government paused deportations until June 1, and deportations continued at a much lower rate throughout the year. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 34 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. In February, however, the government announced that the borders the country shares with the EU were “open,” prompting more than 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups. Because the borders remained closed on the Greek side, many individuals were stuck in difficult conditions, particularly on the land border with Greece near Pazarkule. Press reports asserted some Turkish border guards aided refugees in charging and dismantling border fences. Unable to cross into Greece and unable to return to their homes in Turkey, hundreds of refugees remained at the border for weeks in an unofficial encampment. On March 1, Istanbul Bar Association representatives visited Pazarkule and reported that a group of approximately 1,000 individuals, including women, children, and elderly, were in the region and experienced poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical services, and basic goods, including, food, clothes, and blankets. The bar association delegation reported that many individuals were injured by tear gas capsules.
After weeks of living in open-air temporary shelters, on March 26, Turkish authorities disbanded the encampment due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The government reported it transported migrants to dormitories in nearby cities to safely quarantine. On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border. Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. At least five migrants also drowned in the river near this border area.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans during much of the year due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country was significantly lower than in prior years; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel. For example, an estimated 50-60 migrants died after their boat sank on Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Police arrested the captain of the boat and detained eight others in relation to investigation into the deaths.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings. Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they are able to register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. Following the deaths of several Turkish soldiers in Syria in February, in early March increased societal violence against refugee communities was reported throughout the country, including some beatings and attacks on businesses. In July, in the western province of Bursa, four Turkish men beat to death a 17-year-old Syrian refugee in a market. Police arrested the four, who awaited trial at year’s end. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement, and tens of thousands of deportations took place during the year. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities, particularly non-Syrians. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children, some specialized medical cases, and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. In May, Amnesty International reported the apparent forcible deportation of six Syrian men to northern Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at serious risk.
As of November 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,395 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (831 persons), Afghans (228 persons) and Iranians (173 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, three persons reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin.
In the incidents of administrative detention, of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not completing the registration procedure, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, and rejection of request for temporary protection) or criminal acts. Authorities continued to apply the legal framework and the procedural safeguards in place for persons seeking or in need of international protection.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. For incidents in which UNHCR intervened where the persons were no longer in the country, it was difficult for UNHCR to reach the individual to confirm or deny claims.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to nearly four million Syrians while maintaining conditional or subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional or subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some observers expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the DGMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Most refugees, however, did not have access to regular or skilled work, partly as a result of high unemployment rates for both refugees and Turkish nationals, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of late 2019, only an estimated 132,000 Syrians in the country had formal work permits.
Access to Basic Services: During the year, due to changes to the Law on Foreigners under International Protection, refugees registered under international protection status (approximately 330,000 individuals) for more than one year no longer had access to subsidized medical care (other than emergency care). Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Previously, the government provided free access to the public medical system to non-Syrian refugees registered until they began receiving international protection. Syrians registered for temporary protection (3.6 million) continued to receive free access to the public health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,919 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF, since 2017 more than 628,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely. NGO staff members reported seeing refugees asked for bribes to receive government services, and individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 110,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
As of September 30, UNHCR in cooperation with the DGMM, observed spontaneous voluntary returns in 14 provinces of 10,917 Syrians who chose to return to Syria. In April and May, the DGMM suspended voluntary repatriation as a result of COVID-19 measures. As of the end of November, authorities referred 6,022 refugees to 14 countries for resettlement, and 3,864 refugees departed the country for resettlement. The main reasons for the decrease in resettlement are due to reduced refugee quotas and the suspension of resettlement departures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September, however, resettlement departures resumed.
Temporary Protection: The country adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government continued to offer temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In September 2019 the governate of Bursa announced that the provinces of Antalya, Aydin, Bursa, Canakkale, Duzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kirklareli, Kocaeli, Mugla, Sakarya, Tekirdag, and Yalova would limit registration processing to exceptional cases and newborns. The DGMM has not made any official announcement regarding provinces stopping processing of registrations. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care.
By the end of 2019, the DGMM had closed all but seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of the end of November, there were 59,077 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2019 a total of 117,579 Syrians held valid residence permits; official figures for the calendar year were not available at year’s end.
g. Stateless Persons
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December 2019, at least 516,000 babies had been born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
In the Donbas region, Russia-led forces suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.
Freedom of Speech: With some exceptions, individuals in areas under government control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal.
The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols as well as the manufacture or promotion of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol associated with Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. On March 29, police issued an administrative offense citation in Odesa to a local resident for publicly displaying a portrait of Stalin. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police fined individuals in Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and Kyiv for carrying banned Soviet symbols.
The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression against the country, and the government prosecuted individuals under these laws (see “Censorship” and “National Security”).
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The NGO Freedom House rated the country’s press as “partly free.” Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views. Privately owned media, particularly television channels, the most successful of which were owned by influential oligarchs, often provided readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners and providing favorable coverage of their allies and criticism of political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies. Editorial independence was particularly limited in media controlled by individuals and oligarchs supportive of or linked to the Russian government and intelligence agencies. The Ministry of Defense on November 25 stated the Russian Federation “has intensified measures to discredit the top state and military leadership of Ukraine. To this end, pro-Russian media, journalists and agents of influence, including in Ukraine, are being used more actively.”
There were reports of continuing financial and political pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company, created to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. The 2020 budget provided only 89 percent of the previous budget’s funding for the broadcaster, which was already reportedly 45 percent lower than what it should have received by law. Parliament consistently failed to comply with legal requirements allocating at least 0.2 percent of the state’s annual budget to the broadcaster. In late February the State Executive Service blocked the broadcaster’s bank accounts pursuant to a Supreme Economic Court order to repay the debt of its predecessor, the National Television Company of Ukraine. On March 6, the Independent Media Council noted the action left the broadcaster unable to continue operations. On June 2, the bank accounts were unblocked.
Jeansa–the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs–continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the Institute for Mass Information (IMI) of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. Only 11 out of the 50 most-visited information sites did not contain jeansa, according to an IMI study conducted from June to August. The study found that 70 percent of the jeansa materials identified were of a political nature. The IMI attributed the widespread use of political jeansa during this period to an attempt to influence voters ahead of the October 25 local elections.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists blamed what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity. Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists.
According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 20 reports of attacks on journalists, which is equal to the number of attacks on journalists during the first eight months of 2019. As in 2019, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated the majority of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 20 incidents involving threats against journalists, as compared with 33 during the same period in 2019. The IMI and editors of major independent news outlets also noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they asserted had the tacit support of the government.
There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists by government officials. For example, on August 26, members of the Zaporizhzhya city council physically removed Gvozdi (Nails) newspaper editor Bohdan Vasylenko from the city administrative building. Vasylenko had planned to attend the city council meeting to inquire about local COVID-19 prevention measures. The journalist filed a police report. No charges had been brought as of mid-September.
Media professionals continued to experience pressure from the Security Service, the military, police, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues. For example, on April 29, a police officer beat Hromadske journalist Bohdan Kutyepov, pushed him to the ground, and broke his media equipment while he was live-streaming antiquarantine protests taking place in front of a government building. As of November the State Bureau for Investigations was looking into the incident.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors, including numerous attacks against investigative journalists from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) program Schemes that occurred throughout the year. On August 7, RFE/RL investigative journalist Mykhailo Tkach found alleged evidence of wiretapping in his apartment and posted images on Facebook of holes drilled into the ceiling of his apartment as evidence of the suspected wiretapping attempt. Shortly thereafter, on the evening of August 16, the car of an RFE/RL Schemes driver and film crew member was set on fire. Tkach claimed he had received anonymous messages indicating that his “journalistic activities are annoying high-level officials.” Schemes journalists believe the attacks were in response to its critiques of President Zelenskyy and its investigative reporting on high-level corruption. Police initiated an investigation, and the case gained a high degree of media attention. The head of the Kyiv Regional Police, Andriy Nebytov, wrote on Facebook, “It is obvious that the arsonist and their ‘curators’ had a goal not only to destroy the vehicle, they wanted more to cause outrage among the journalistic community and the public, to create a perception of insecurity and permissiveness.” As of October, no arrests had been made in the case.
In January, RFE/RL journalist Halyna Tereshchuk’s car was set on fire in Lviv in an arson attack. In February the Security Service detained a 19-year-old believed to be responsible for the attack, and in August a police officer was arrested on charges indicating his complicity in the crime.
There were allegations the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports that government officials sought to pressure journalists through the law enforcement system, often to reveal their sources in investigations. For example, the State Bureau for Investigations summoned television anchor Yanina Sokolova and editor in chief of the online news platform Censor.Net, Yuriy Butusov, for questioning. On August 18, Butusov, citing law enforcement sources, reported the detention of Russian mercenaries in Belarus had been part of a special operation by Ukrainian security services that failed due to a leak from the Office of the President. Sokolova announced she was summoned on the grounds that she had potentially disclosed information pertaining to a state secret.
Journalists received threats in connection with their reporting. For example, on July 13, Kateryna Serhatskova, a journalist and cofounder of the online platform Zaborona (Prohibition), left the country, claiming threats to her life and her family believed to be in connection with her reporting. On July 3, Zaborona published an article detailing alleged links between leaders of violent radical groups and the directors of Stop-Fake.org, a project of the nonprofit Media Reforms Center, aimed at stopping the dissemination of false information about the country (see Internet Freedom). According to Serhatskova, police refused to open an investigation into the threats against her, prompting her lawyer to appeal to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which opened an investigation in July. As of November, the investigation continued.
In December 2019 police arrested three suspects and two persons of interest in the 2016 killing of well known Belarusian-Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet (see section 1.a.). In early September the Shevchenkivskyy District Court in Kyiv began hearing the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for taking an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites, and other content (see subsections on National Security and Internet Freedom).
On September 3, the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) revoked the broadcasting license of the Pryamy FM radio station for not broadcasting within a year of the date its license was issued. Derzhkomteleradio is an eight-member executive body charged with overseeing television and radio broadcasters’ compliance with Ukrainian laws. The parliament and the president appoint four members each to the council.
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose their media owners or political allies to criticism or might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government entities, and public figures in particular, used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists.
National Security: In the context of the continuing Russia-led conflict in the Donbas region as well as continuing Russian disinformation and cyber campaigns, authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat, particularly those emanating from Russia and promoting pro-Russian lines.
The government continued the practice of banning specific works by Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russian journalists. According to the State Film Agency, as of mid-September approximately 808 films and television shows had been banned on national security grounds since 2014. In response to Russia’s continued barrage of cyberattacks and disinformation as part of its efforts to destabilize the country, the government maintained a ban on the operations of almost 839 companies and 1,605 persons that allegedly posed a “threat to information and the cyber security of the state.” Among them were two widely used social networks based in Russia and major Russian television channels as well as smaller Russian channels that operated independently of state control.
Derzhkomteleradio maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence; promoting violence; inciting interethnic, racial, or religious hostility; promoting terrorist attacks; or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of November the list contained 227 titles.
There were reports the government used formal pretexts to silence outlets for being “pro-Russian” and for being critical of its national security policy. On October 15, Derzhkomteleradio announced an unscheduled inspection of pro-Russian television channels Newsone, 112 Ukraine, and ZIK, claiming their favorable coverage of an October 6 meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk might have violated national security laws.
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports that radical groups committed attacks on journalists. For example, on June 15, members of radical groups attacked ZIK television journalist Alla Zhyznevska at the Shevchenkivskyy district courthouse in Kyiv where Serhiy Sternenko was being held and protests were organized by activists of the Youth Wing and members of the Opposition Platform for Life. Clashes broke out, and police detained five individuals. A few days prior, on June 12, Zhyznevska reported another incident in which she was conducting a story on a local market in Odesa when six unknown men emerged, demanded the journalist’s crew not take pictures, and forcibly removed them from the market. Police were called, but the six men dispersed before they arrived.
The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the Donbas region. Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to Digital Security Lab Ukraine, an independent digital analysis organization, authorities in the “LPR” blocked approximately 158 Ukrainian news outlets as of late January.
The HRMMU reported that journalists entering Russia-controlled territory of the “DPR” had to inform the “press center” of the “ministry of defense” about their activities on a daily basis, were arbitrarily required to show video footage at checkpoints, and were accompanied by members of armed groups when travelling close to the contact line.
Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”
On May 14, President Zelenskyy renewed sanctions on several Russian websites that were introduced in 2017 in retaliation for Russian cyberattacks. The sanctions included a ban on popular Russian social networks VKontakte and OdnoKlassniki, although the sites could easily be reached with use of a virtual private network connection. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites at government behest based on national security concerns. As of September, 475 sites were blocked in the country on such grounds. According to monitoring by Digital Security Lab Ukraine, internet service provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied widely.
Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts continued to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. Freedom House reported thousands of websites, including some self-described news sites, were blocked for alleged involvement in cybercrime, fraud, and other illegal activities. For example, on January 27, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 59 websites, including the media platforms smi.today, capital.ua, and ukr.fm, at the request of the Kyiv Oblast prosecutor’s office on grounds related to violations of intellectual property rights.
There were reports of the disclosure of personally identifiable information of persons to penalize expression of opinions. On July 11, a Ukrainian journalist with more than 130,000 followers on his social media account posted a picture of journalist Kateryna Serhatskova with her son as well as details about her personal life, suggesting she worked for Russian intelligence services. In the comments responding to the post, users posted her address, photos of her home, and death threats against her. The threats and disclosures came in response to Serhatskova’s July 3 publication of an article about the alleged influence of violent radical groups on a fact-checking organization, StopFake.org. Human Rights Watch called on authorities to provide for her safety. On July 14, Serhatskova left the country out of concern for her safety and that of her family.
The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. For instance, in early August the website published personally identifiable information of the editor and host of the television program Nashi Hroshi (Our Money), Denys Bihus. Myrotvorets published the information in retaliation for Bihus’s investigative reporting on Ihor Hladkovsky, the son of a former National Security and Defense Council official. Myrotvorets justified its actions by citing a July court ruling that dismissed the claims of Bihus and other journalists regarding Hladkovsky’s alleged involvement in embezzlement.
There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, after publishing an investigative report in July on the pro-Russian influence of certain Telegram channels closely followed by members of parliament, journalist Lyubov Velychko reported repeated attempts to hack her social network and messenger accounts as well as numerous online death threats against her.
Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russia’s aggressive actions in the Donbas region and its occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of trolling and harassment on social media.
In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in November, Freedom House concluded that the country has made cautious improvements in regards to internet freedom. Improvements included the removal of telecommunications licensing requirements that were previously tied to corruption and a reduction in the practice of administratively blocking websites, with the exception of President Zelenskyy’s extension of sanctions to several Russian-owned technology companies in May.
There were reports the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example, according to press reports, in early August, the Security Service in Sumy searched a house and detained a man who allegedly posted calls on social networks to break the ceasefire in Donbas.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were some instances in which the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events.
The government maintained a list of Russian or pro-Russian musicians, actors, and other cultural figures it prohibited from entering the country on national security grounds.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but police sometimes restricted, or failed to protect freedom of assembly. No laws, however, regulate the process of organizing and conducting events to provide for the right, and authorities have wide discretion under a Soviet-era directive to grant or refuse permission for assemblies on grounds of protecting public order and safety. Organizers are required to inform authorities in advance of demonstrations.
There were reports of police restricting and failing to protect freedom of assembly. For example, in July police officers in Lviv restricted activists’ ability to assemble peacefully near the Taras Shevchenko monument in the city’s center by dispersing the group and writing up a police report for “petty hooliganism.” The activists held a performance in which one member wore a Zelenskyy mask and handed out one million hryvnia notes to all who passed by, while others smashed a printer that was printing the fake money.
Human rights defenders noted that police at times arbitrarily enforced COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, including through selective dispersal of civic assemblies. For example, on June 25, organizers of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community support month in Kyiv scheduled two events at the same location. Organizers informed police about both events in advance to abide by legal processes and COVID-related restrictions. The events were reportedly both approved in advance, and police allowed the first event–a panel discussion–to proceed as planned but dispersed participants of the second event and wrote a misdemeanor report against the venue’s owner, citing alleged quarantine restrictions. The owner reported that in addition to the events being previously approved, authorities also previously checked the venue to ensure it met quarantine requirements and had not reported any concerns.
Events organized by women’s rights activists or the LGBTI community were regularly disrupted by members of violent radical groups. Police at times did not adequately protect participants from attack before or after the events, nor did they provide sufficient security for smaller demonstrations or events, especially those organized by persons belonging to minority groups or opposition political movements. For example, two men who participated in the March 8 Women’s Rights March in Kyiv were beaten and sprayed with tear gas in an underground tunnel after the event. Police detained four suspects, including Vita Zaverukha and three other activists from the violent radical group Unknown Patriot. As of July 6, only one indictment against one suspect for “hooliganism” had been sent to court.
On August 30, members of the radical group Tradition and Order attacked participants of the Odesa pride rally. Tradition and Order members punched, kicked, and threw projectiles at both participants and police. Two officers were injured. International monitors noted that poor communication between event organizers and police contributed to police failure to provide adequate protection. Police arrested 16 persons involved in the attack and investigated the incident. Similarly, on September 20, representatives of violent radical groups gathered in the downtown area of Zaporizhzhya for a counterprotest in response to the March of Equality (pride march). During the event, police detained an armed man after he aimed a gun at the pride march participants. No shots were fired, and the perpetrator was taken to the Dnipro police department.
On December 14, a group of young men attacked two teenage boys in Kyiv’s Kontrakova Square, shouting homophobic slurs, beating, and kicking them in what appears to have been an unprovoked attack. A witness who posted a video of the attack claimed that while police arrested one of the victims for arguing with them, the attackers remained in the square even after police left, shouting racist slogans.
In Russia-controlled territory, the HRMMU observed the absence of free and peaceful assembly and noted, “Such a restrictive environment, where dissenting opinions may trigger retaliation, has a long-lasting chilling effect on the population.” The HRMMU also noted the only demonstrations permitted in these areas were ones in support of local “authorities,” often apparently organized by Russia-led forces with forced public participation.
Russia-led forces in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the HRMMU, a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under “laws” in the “DPR” and “LPR” that mirrored Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
Human rights organizations reported an increase in attacks on activists following a decrease in attacks in 2019 (48 attacks in the first six months of the year, up from 39 in the same period of 2019). International and domestic human rights NGOs remained concerned about the lack of accountability for attacks on members of civil society organizations, which they believed had created a climate of impunity.
For example, on July 23, the head of the NGO Anticorruption Center, Vitalii Shabunin, reported suspected arson after his home was set on fire. Shabunin’s parents and children were in the house at the time but managed to escape unharmed. After an investigation, police concluded the fire resulted from an arson attack that started on the activist’s porch with the assistance of a flammable liquid to ignite a stable flame. As of September the perpetrators had not been identified. Shabunin believed the arson was an assassination attempt carried out at the request of politically influential oligarchs to prevent his organization’s investigative reporting on corruption. On December 30, police removed suspicious items resembling bombs from the doorsteps of apartments belonging to Shabunin’s relatives. In recent years several major human rights groups have expressed concern about the government’s singling out of Shabunin for unfair treatment.
There were reports the government targeted activists for raids, arrests, or prosecution in retaliation for their professional activity. For example, on September 30, Shabunin was fined 850 hryvnias ($30) for the late submission of an asset declaration by half a day. The Anticorruption Center believed the fine was issued to include Shabunin on a register of corrupt individuals and used against the organization in a smear campaign.
On March 30, police arrested Yuriy Fedorenko, the head of the Tverdynia NGO that works to expose illegal construction projects, as he was attempting to film construction in Kyiv he believed to be illegal. Fedorenko himself called police to report the construction violation, but they instead arrested and searched him and transported him to a nearby police station where he was charged with a violation of quarantine, despite his wearing a mask while in public. Police, citing privacy concerns, did not provide a reason for the arrest, and Fedorenko was later completely acquitted in court.
There were reports that unknown actors initiated violent attacks against activists because of their involvement in civil society organizations. For example, on June 20, Valentyna Buchok was wounded when a grenade exploded near a gate outside her home in Ivanopillya in the government-controlled part of Donetsk Oblast. Buchok, who was reportedly tortured while imprisoned by Russia-led forces in the Izolatsiya detention facility on falsified charges from 2016-17, was a member of SEMA Ukraine, a group that advocated for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Human rights groups claimed the explosion marked the third attempt on her life since her release in a prisoner exchange in 2017.
According to the HRMMU, in the territories controlled by Russia-led forces, domestic and international civil society organizations, including human rights defenders, could not operate freely. Residents informed the HRMMU they were being prosecuted (or feared being prosecuted) by the “ministry of state security” for their pro-Ukrainian views or previous affiliation with Ukrainian NGOs. If human rights groups attempted to work in those areas, they faced significant harassment and intimidation. The HRMMU also noted some civil society organizations run by Russia-led forces appeared to require certain persons, such as public-sector employees, to join.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide citizens with freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government, however, restricted these rights, particularly in the eastern part of the country near the zone of conflict.
In-country Movement: The government and Russia-led forces strictly controlled movement between government-controlled areas and territories in the Donbas region controlled by Russia-led forces. Crossing the line of contact remained arduous.
On March 16, the government introduced COVID-related restrictive measures on transit through the five entry and exit checkpoints, barring all crossings except those involving humanitarian grounds. On March 21, Russia-led forces in the “LPR” and “DPR” established similar restrictions. On June 10, the government reopened its side of the Stanytsia Luhanska and Marinka checkpoints, but it began requiring individuals to download an app on their cell phones monitoring their compliance with quarantine orders, effectively preventing anyone who did not own a cell phone from crossing into government-controlled territory. Russia-led forces in Donetsk likewise turned many away who attempted to cross into government-controlled territory; those allowed to cross were required to sign a document indicating they would not return until the COVID-19 pandemic had subsided. On June 19, the “LPR” reopened its side of the Stanytsia Luhanska checkpoint but required individuals seeking entry to provide proof of residency. Public passenger transportation remained prohibited; private transportation was available at high prices and was generally unaffordable for the majority of persons crossing.
According to the HRMMU, from late March to mid-June, the number of monthly line-of-contact crossings decreased from 1.3 million to a few hundred, most of which occurred in Luhansk Oblast. As a result, thousands were separated from their families and lost access to quality health care, pensions, social protection, and employment. Women and elderly persons, who comprised the majority of those crossing before the COVID-19 lockdown, were particularly affected. The government required those seeking to cross into government-controlled territory to obtain a pass. The pass system imposed significant hardships on persons crossing into government-controlled territory, in particular those seeking to receive pensions and government benefits not distributed in the territory controlled by Russia-led forces.
According to the HRMMU, since late June, civilians seeking entry to territory controlled by Russia-led forces in the “DPR” had to have permission from the “Operational Headquarters to Combat COVID-19” and have a residence registered in the “DPR.” To enter government-controlled territory from the “DPR,” civilians had to be registered in the government-controlled territory.
The government and Russian occupation authorities subjected individuals crossing between Russian-occupied Crimea and the mainland to strict controls at the administrative boundary between Kherson Oblast and Crimea. Authorities prohibited rail and commercial bus service across the administrative boundary, requiring persons either to cross on foot or by private vehicle. Civil society, journalists, and independent defense lawyers reported that the government made efforts to ease requirements for entering Crimea, improving previously lengthy processes to obtain required permissions that hindered their ability to document and address abuses taking place there. On April 3, Russian occupation authorities imposed a measure in Crimea banning Russian citizens from leaving the territory of the Russian Federation. The measure affected Ukrainian residents of Crimea due to authorities requiring all residents of Crimea to be Russian citizens, and Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea (see Crimea subreport).
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
According to the Ministry of Social Policy, as of late September more than 1.4 million persons were registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea. Some NGOs and international organizations estimated the number to be lower, since some persons returned to their homes after registering as IDPs, while others registered while still living in the conflict zone. The largest number of IDPs resided in areas immediately adjoining the conflict zones, in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts as well as in the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts and Kyiv. Many resided in areas close to the line of contact in the hope they would be able to return home.
The government granted social entitlements only to persons who had registered as IDPs. Local departments of the Ministry of Social Policy regularly suspended payment of pensions and benefits to IDPs pending verification of their physical presence in government-controlled territories, ostensibly to combat fraud, requiring recipients to go through a burdensome reinstatement process.
According to the HRMMU, as part of its COVID-19 prevention measures, the government suspended the burdensome requirement that IDPs undergo identification checks every second month in order to receive social benefits.
Humanitarian aid groups had good access to areas under government control.
IDPs were able to vote in local elections and for single-mandate district seats in parliamentary elections. In May the Central Election Commission passed a resolution allowing IDPs, working migrants, and citizens without registration to apply in-person or online to the State Registry of Voters to identify or change their voting address and vote where they actually live. As a result, approximately 5.5 million additional Ukrainians were eligible to participate in local elections in October.
According to the HRMMU, IDP integration remained impeded by the lack of a government strategy and the absence of allocation of financial resources, leading to IDPs’ economic and social marginalization. UN agencies reported the influx of IDPs led to tensions arising from competition for scarce resources.
NGOs reported employment discrimination against IDPs. IDPs continued to have difficulty obtaining education, medical care, and necessary documents. According to the law, the government should provide IDPs with housing, but authorities did not take effective steps to do so. A shortage of employment opportunities and the generally weak economy particularly affected IDPs, forcing many to live in inadequate housing, such as collective centers and temporary accommodations. Other IDPs stayed with host families, volunteers, and in private accommodations, although affordable private accommodations were often in poor condition. Some IDPs, particularly those in government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, lacked sufficient sanitation, shelter, and access to potable water.
Romani activists expressed concern that some Roma could not afford to flee conflict areas, while others had no choice but to leave their homes.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. International and domestic organizations reported the system for protecting asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern did not operate effectively.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities frequently detained asylum seekers for extended periods without court approval.
Refoulement: There were reports the government did not provide for protection against the expulsion or return of some asylum seekers to a country where there was reason to believe their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. For example, on May 14, the Supreme Court rejected the asylum appeal of prominent Kazakhstani journalist and opposition activist Zhanara Akhmetova. Human rights groups warned that the decision put Akhmetova at risk of deportation to Kazakhstan, where she would likely face mistreatment or torture for her political views.
The Open Dialogue Foundation claimed the decision was rushed and failed to address defense arguments. Akhmetova fled Kazakhstan in 2017 with her minor son without serving her suspended sentence for a 2009 fraud case, fearing that moves by Kazakhstani authorities to shut down her newspaper and fine her for social media posts put her in danger of political harassment and abuse.
There were also allegations that officials deported three individuals to Uzbekistan, where they were at risk of imprisonment. At a news conference on October 23, relatives and advocates for three Uzbekistani men who disappeared in October alleged that the Uzbekistani State Secret Service had kidnapped the men with the help of the Security Service of Ukraine and taken them to Uzbekistan, where they were allegedly imprisoned. The disappearances occurred in Poltava, Kharkiv, and Odesa. The families’ lawyers alleged that in two of the cases, witnesses claimed the men were detained by plainclothes Security Service officials. The men’s lawyers called on police to initiate investigations and claimed the extraditions were linked to Uzbekistan’s religious persecution of Muslims, including members of the group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine. Two of the families submitted claims to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on behalf of their missing relative.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a legal system for providing protection to refugees. Protection for refugees and asylum seekers was insufficient, however, due to gaps in the law and the system of implementation. According to the State Migration Service, the number of refugees and asylum seekers has decreased. The country is a transit and destination country for asylum seekers and refugees, principally from Afghanistan, the Russian Federation, Bangladesh, Syria, and Iraq.
Many Belarusian nationals were either forcibly exiled by Belarusian authorities or voluntarily fled Belarus, crossing into Ukraine to seek refuge during a violent crackdown and political crisis in Belarus stemming from election-related mass protests following the fraudulent presidential election there on August 9. On October 4, President Zelenskyy signed a decree that relaxed requirements for certain categories of Belarusian citizens seeking residence. The decree directed the Cabinet of Ministers to extend the time allotted for temporary stays for Belarusian citizen entrepreneurs and information technology specialists from 90 to 180 days as well as to simplify procedures for obtaining a residence permit. While a few hundred Belarusians utilized the relaxed requirements for temporary stays and residence, relatively few applied for asylum. As of October, only 11 Belarusians had applied for asylum in the country.
Human rights groups noted that the refugee law falls short of international standards due to its restrictive definition of a refugee. The law permits authorities to reject many asylum applications without a thorough case assessment. In other instances government officials declined to accept initial asylum applications without a legal basis, leaving asylum seekers without documentation and vulnerable to frequent police stops, fines, detention, and exploitation. Asylum seekers in detention centers were sometimes unable to apply for refugee status within the prescribed time limits and had limited access to legal and other assistance. Asylum seekers have five days to appeal an order of detention or deportation.
A lack of access to qualified interpreters also hampered the full range of asylum procedures. International observers noted the government did not provide resources for interpreters, which created opportunities for corruption and undermined the fairness of asylum application procedures.
Employment: Refugees frequently had a hard time finding employment due to lack of qualifications and language proficiency. Some worked illegally, increasing their risk of exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: The national plan on the integration of refugees adopted by the government did not allocate resources for its implementation.
Temporary accommodation centers had a reception capacity of 421 persons. Asylum seekers living outside an official temporary accommodation center often experienced difficulties obtaining residence registration, and authorities regularly imposed a substantial fine because they lacked registration. According to the State Migration Service, refugees could receive residence registration at homeless shelters for up to six months.
According to UNHCR, gaps in housing and social support for unaccompanied children left many without access to state-run accommodation centers or children’s shelters. Many children had to rely on informal networks for food, shelter, and other needs and remained vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation. UNHCR noted a lack of educational programs and vocational activities for those in detention for extended periods.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection (“complementary protection”) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of August 31, authorities had provided complementary protection to 56 persons.
g. Stateless Persons
UNHCR estimated there were more than 35,000 stateless persons in the country. Persons who were either stateless or at risk of statelessness included Roma, homeless persons, current and former prisoners, and persons older than 50 who never obtained a Ukrainian personal identification document after the fall of the Soviet Union and were no longer able to obtain one.
The law requires establishing identity through a court procedure, which demanded more time and money than some applicants had. UNHCR reported Roma were at particular risk for statelessness, since many did not have birth certificates or any other type of documentation to verify their identity. Homeless persons had difficulty obtaining citizenship because of a requirement to produce a document testifying to one’s residence.
In June parliament amended the laws on recognition of stateless persons to define clearly the terms “stateless person,” “child separated from the family,” and “legal representatives” of such individuals. The law allows stateless persons to stay in the country and obtain a residence permit and stateless identity card, which facilitates foreign travel.