Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.
Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature was more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms, although the monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law, which provides for public access to government information, remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated government sources shared information with only a few media outlets. Human Rights Watch criticized the arrest of a government employee who was alleged by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to have spread false information about the October 21 attack on a school and mosque in Takhar that resulted in civilian deaths.
Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Council said that during the year journalists’ social media accounts were hacked and journalists were threatened by the Office of the National Security Council.
On May 30, a journalist and a driver from Khurshid TV were killed when their vehicle, carrying 15 employees of the station, was hit by a roadside bomb in Kabul. Four other employees of the station were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
On November 12, an explosive in Lashkargah city killed Radio Azadi reporter Ilias Daee, as well as his brother. Journalist Malala Maiwand was killed by gunmen on December 10 in Jalalabad, and journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad was killed in Ghazni on December 21. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, business owners, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.
Vida Saghari, a female journalist, faced a series of online harassments, including hate speech and death threats, following her criticism of a cleric’s Ramadan rallies in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, according to RSF.
Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media was also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks.
Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and daily newspapers openly criticized the government. Nevertheless, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. A greater percentage of the population, including those in rural areas, had easier access to radio than other forms of media. According to The Asia Foundation, rural inhabitants primarily received news and information from family and friends, followed by television and radio.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats and violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to RSF, NDS officials arrested Radio Bayan journalist Mahboboalah Hakimi on July 1. Two days after Hakimi’s arrest, the NDS released a video of Hakimi confessing to posting a video critical of the president, an action he had previously denied, and apologizing to the president. Following Hakimi’s release, he alleged the NDS tortured him and forced him to record his confession.
RSF also reported that authorities had harassed Pajhwok Afghan News agency, including through NDS interrogations of its director, following its June 22 reporting that ventilators intended to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak had been stolen and illegally sold to a neighboring country.
At least six journalists were killed during the year, and another died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Council, as of September, three journalists were kidnapped, 12 were injured, and more than 30 were beaten or otherwise threatened.
The Taliban continued to threaten journalists, and civil society alleged the Taliban continued to attack media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.”
Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. A radio reporter was killed in police crossfire during a demonstration in Ghor Province on May 9. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals.
The law provides guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The guidelines created a joint national committee in Kabul, chaired by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported the committee met regularly during the year, referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, and pushed for the resolution of cases, but it did not increase protection for journalists. A journalist advocacy organization reported that due to these pressures and the fact that many journalists were not paid for months at a time, many outlets closed during the year.
Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, there were no female journalists in five of the country’s 34 provinces: Kunar, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Uruzgan.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Ajmal Ahmady, Afghanistan Bank governor and economic advisor to the president, blocked journalists on his Twitter feed, reportedly for being publicly critical of him. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified. Many journalists asserted that First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s statement that he would hold those who shared “disinformation” on the victims of the October 21 incident in Takhar criminally responsible was a restriction on freedom of speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe prison sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.
Women in some areas of the country said their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high data prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.
There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment. In June, Human Rights Watch reported that in many Taliban-controlled areas, Taliban authorities limited usage of or otherwise banned smartphones, which generally restricted access to information.
Academic freedom is largely exercised in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there was growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Both government security forces and the Taliban took over schools to use as military posts.
The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies; others provided only religious education. The Taliban continued to limit education for girls, especially for those past puberty. A Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch in Helmand Province, “Women’s education is to be banned [while] our country is occupied.”
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.
The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests and rallies were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. Islamic State actors fired upon a political rally in Kabul on March 6, killing 32 and wounding at least 58, according to government estimates. Islamic State actors claimed to have detonated explosions during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on March 9, although no casualties were reported.
The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without a male family member’s consent or a male relative chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. Media reported the Taliban had blocked the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan and on August 23 had notified private transportation companies operating in the area that the companies would be responsible for civilian deaths should they choose to travel on the road.
Internal population movements continued during the year because of armed conflict and natural disasters, including avalanches, flooding, and landslides. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported more than 172,490 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January to September 20. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. Thirty of the country’s 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.
Limited humanitarian access because of the poor security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived at constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP sites reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors. Severe flooding and landslides on August 26 in Parwan Province killed 190 individuals and destroyed nearly 4,000 houses. Media reported that on August 27, the Taliban killed four civilian internally displaced survivors of the floods during clashes with the ANDSF.
Intense fighting in Helmand Province in October resulted in the displacement of thousands of families over a period of just two weeks, reported the AIHRC. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 35,000 individuals were displaced but had only been able to confirm an estimated 14,000 IDPs because deteriorating security conditions interrupted phone service and prevented access.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.
The IOM reported undocumented Afghan returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 449,213 from January 1 to August 15, with 447,206 from Iran and 2,007 from Pakistan. Registered Afghan refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 551 returns as of August 25, in part because UNHCR suspended assisted returns between March 17 and August 10 due to COVID-19 and border closures impeded travel.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nonetheless, UNHCR registered and provided protection for approximately 170 refugees and 250 asylum seekers in urban areas throughout the country. UNHCR also provided protection for 72,000 persons of concern who fled Pakistan in 2014 and resided in the provinces of Khost and Paktika.
NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children in the country as a significant problem and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; while the government generally respected this right, it restricted it in the COVID-19-related state of emergency and war-related declaration of martial law.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were free to criticize the government without fear of reprisal. On April 15, the National Assembly amended the criminal code to criminalize public calls for violence. Penalties for violations include a fine of 50,000 or 100,000 drams ($100 to $200), detention for up to two months, or imprisonment for up to one month. The law is stricter for officials, who may be deprived of the right to hold office. Sexual and gender identity is not among the protected grounds enumerated in the law.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: During the first month of the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed restrictions on media, setting administrative fines for posting or publishing information on the pandemic that did not reflect reports from official government sources. The government justified the measure as needed to prevent panic and the potential spread of misinformation during the state of emergency. As a result, police officers conducted a spate of visits to the editorial offices of various media outlets, forcing them to remove certain articles under threat of fines.
Media representatives, along with local and international media watchdogs, criticized the move. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media stated: “Publishing only information provided by the authorities is a very restrictive measure which would limit freedom of the media and access to information disproportionately.” Similar views were expressed by Reporters without Borders, which stated, “control of information does not help in the fight against the epidemic but rather spreads gossip and fear.” On April 13, the government lifted all COVID-related restrictions on media.
Following the outbreak of fighting beginning September 27, the government declared martial law. Martial law restrictions included a requirement that local media outlets and broadcasters provide only official government information regarding military activity. Subsequent amendments adopted to the decree on martial law in October banned the publication of reports criticizing the government’s handling of the conflict, refuting actions of state and local government bodies and officials taken in the context of martial law and state security, and questioning or deprecating the effectiveness of those actions “in any way.”
Media outlets in general lacked diversity of political opinion and objective reporting. Private individuals or groups, most of whom were reportedly tied to the former authorities or the largest parliamentary opposition party, owned most broadcast media and newspapers, which tended to reflect the political leanings and financial interests of their proprietors. Broadcast media, particularly public television, remained one of the primary sources of news and information for the majority of the population. According to some media watchdogs, public television, which underwent leadership change during the year, continued to present news from a progovernment standpoint. On several occasions independent media experts expressed concern about cases of bias on public television, claiming such bias was especially obvious during critical political debates and coverage of developments. Nonetheless, public television was largely balanced and open and accessible to opposition voices and continued to cover more diverse topics of public interest than prior to the 2018 revolution.
Social media users freely expressed opinions concerning the government and former authorities on various social media platforms. Use of false social media accounts and attempts to manipulate media, however, continued to increase dramatically during the year. According to media watchdogs, individuals used manipulation technologies, including hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, “troll factories,” anonymous Telegram channels, and fictional Facebook groups and stories, to attack the government. There was a particular spike in misinformation on COVID-19-related topics, which led to stronger fact-checking efforts by a number of journals and other local organizations.
The country’s few independent media outlets, mostly online, were not self-sustainable and survived only through international donations and support, with limited revenues from advertising and subscription fees.
Media company ownership was mostly nontransparent. The country’s Fourth Action Plan of Open-Government Partnership Initiative of the Republic of Armenia (2018-2020) included commitments to improve ownership disclosure. The July 17 Law on Audiovisual media that replaced the Law on Television and Radio did not foster ownership transparency.
The government maintained a de facto monopoly on digital broadcasting multiplex, while most channels represented the views of the previous government. Some 10 regional television stations remained at risk of closure due to a drop in viewership and advertising. According to local media watchdogs, the July 17 Law on Audiovisual media did not provide a realistic path for the creation of private multiplexes, did not solve the issue of digital broadcasting for regional television stations, and did not reform outdated television licensing procedures.
Violence and Harassment: The local NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression reported two cases of violence against reporters in the first nine months of the year. In one case, on June 16, journalists were injured in a scuffle near the NSS building. News.am news correspondent Liana Sargsyan, Tert.am journalist Ani Ghorgyan, Yerkir.am correspondent Tatik Kostandyan, Kentron TV journalist Arthur Hakobyan, and MegaNews.am website editor Margarita Davtyan said that they incurred injuries while covering a protest by supporters of Prosperous Armenia Party head and National Assembly member Gagik Tsarukyan in front of the NSS building. Local media organizations condemned the violence against media representatives performing their professional duties and demanded that police conduct an investigation into the incident. Since the events were taking place during the state of emergency to prevent the spread of COVID-19, media organizations urged outlets to refrain from exposing their staff to crowds while covering mass gatherings and to provide clear security instructions if this was not possible.
There were cases of current or former officials impeding the work of journalists or attempting to do so. For example, on August 8, former chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan obstructed the work of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Armenian Service crew working on a report about government plans to dismantle some private houses illegally constructed near Lake Sevan. Gasparyan, who was already facing charges for abuse of office, fraud, and embezzlement, drove his vehicle towards the two reporters and reportedly came close to hitting them as they filmed near the lakeside area where his house was located. Gasparyan then threatened the reporters, saying “I’ll shoot you” and “I’ll slaughter you.” Using epithets, the former police chief demanded that the reporters not show his house in their report. Police opened a criminal case into the incident on charges of obstructing journalistic activity.
On December 1, police reportedly interfered with the work of journalists and attempted to detain Yerkir Media TV cameraman Hayk Sukiasyan during a protest against the government’s agreement to a Russia-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
There also were reports of intimidation of journalists by law enforcement bodies. For example, on July 3, police visited ArmNews and Channel 5 television stations, which were affiliated with the former government, purportedly with the aim of initiating administrative proceedings against them because their personnel were not wearing masks on air. Media watchdogs condemned the actions as abuse of power, exhorted law enforcement officials to refrain from interfering with media activities, advocated loosening pandemic-related restrictions on media outlets, and called on outlets not to violate state of emergency regulations, given their role in protecting the health of both the public and their employees.
Libel/Slander Laws: Media experts noted a decrease in the number of libel and defamation cases against media outlets by lawmakers, former officials, and others during the year. According to the Committee to Protect Freedom of Expression, 55 cases were filed with the courts during the first nine months of the year.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, and the government expressly supported academic freedom.
Observers criticized some government officials for nepotism in connection with appointments to public educational institutions. One prominent case involved the appointment of Diana Galoyan as rector of the State University of Economics. After allegations arose that parts of her doctoral thesis were plagiarized, the Higher Qualifying Committee (the government body responsible for reviewing doctoral qualifications) overturned the 2015 decision granting her a doctorate. The previous acting rector resigned over a similar issue. The Higher Qualifying Committee chairman, Smbat Gogyan, asserted that the deputy minister of education acted as Galoyan’s patron. Gogyan submitted his resignation over the case in May, but it was not accepted. On August 17, the Ministry of Education revoked the annulment of Galoyan’s doctoral thesis and degree, thereby removing the obstacle to her appointment as rector.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government generally respected these rights but restricted assembly under the COVID-19-related state of emergency and conflict-related imposition of martial law.
Freedom of assembly was restricted during the state of emergency introduced on March 16 to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. The curbs remained in force until August 12, when the government lifted most restrictions on freedom of assembly, permitting demonstrations, marches, and rallies so long as participants wore masks and observed social distancing requirements.
Freedom of assembly also was restricted under martial law, which was imposed on September 27 after the outbreak of fighting with Azerbaijan. Martial law restrictions included a ban on rallies. Although the restrictions were officially lifted on December 2, on December 21, Goris mayor Arush Arushanyan was arrested on charges of organizing an illegal rally, according to his lawyer. Arushanyan had called on local citizens to block roads to the Syunik region to prevent a visit by the prime minister, as a result of which the official visit was curtailed. The following day Yerevan’s trial court ruled the arrest unlawful, and Arushanyan was released.
From November 11 through the end of the year, the opposition held rallies and other protest actions throughout Yerevan demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pashinyan. Prior to the lifting of the ban on assemblies on December 2, police occasionally detained opposition leaders and rally participants for violating martial law provisions. While some claimed the detentions were politically motivated, human rights NGOs largely dismissed the claims.
According to the monitoring report of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, for the period from July 2019 through June, protection of freedom of assembly decreased compared with its monitoring report covering July 2018 to June 2019. According to the report, police actions were inconsistent in the strictness of their application of the ban on meetings and varied depending on who protest organizers were and the issue they raised. Separately, the report also noted that organizers and participants of certain rallies continued the use of hate speech aimed at a person’s gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious views.
According to civil society organizations, there was no progress in establishing accountability for police use of disproportionate force against protesters during the largely peaceful protests of 2018.
The constitution and law provide this right, and the government generally respected it. The law limits the legal standing of NGOs to act on behalf of their beneficiaries in court to environmental issues. The limitations contradict a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that allowed all NGOs to have legal standing in court.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights but restricted them in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In-country movement: Through April 23, internal travel was restricted, with interregional travel banned and travel within cities permitted only for a limited number of reasons. Internal movement was subsequently not restricted.
Foreign Travel: On February 24, the government closed the country’s border with Iran to individual travelers due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Armenia and Georgia jointly closed their border on March 14. Only citizens and a few restricted categories of foreigners were permitted to enter the country by air until the restriction was lifted on August 12. Land borders, however, remained closed through the end of the year. The entry restrictions and land border closure affected asylum seekers and refugees.
As of December 2018, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, approximately 8,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the estimated 65,000 households evacuated in 1988-94 were still living in displacement. Some of the country’s IDPs and refugees lacked adequate housing and had limited economic opportunities. The government did not have specific programs and policies aimed at promoting the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs. According to the government, the fall fighting displaced approximately 100,000 individuals, although some reportedly returned.
Authorities 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, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports of nonsystemic discrimination in the acceptance of applications and in detention of asylum seekers based on the country of origin, race, or religion of the asylum seeker, as well as difficulties with integration. Civil society contacts reported discriminatory attitudes and suspicion directed towards foreign migrants seeking employment.
During the year, seven foreigners seeking asylum were arrested for illegal entry after crossing the border by land or air. Despite a provision in the law exempting asylum seekers from criminal liability for illegal border crossing, authorities required them to remain in detention pending the outcome of their asylum applications or to serve the remainder of their sentences.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. During the COVID-19 state of emergency, an electronic asylum system was introduced. While processing cases of individuals in detention was suspended, processing of other cases continued. Remote interpretation (partially funded by UNHCR) was made available when needed, and consideration of most asylum claims was reported to be fair. The law accounts for specific needs of children, persons with mental disabilities, and trauma survivors and allows detention centers to receive asylum applications. The law was generally enforced to the extent resources allow. Refugees who are not ethnic Armenians may apply for facilitated naturalization, which requires passing a constitutional knowledge test. Such citizenship, however, was rarely granted.
During the COVID-19 state of emergency, there were at least two cases in which individuals who sought asylum were turned away at the border crossing with Iran. As of year’s end, 12 asylum seekers were detained, including four from Iran and two from Azerbaijan.
Shortcomings in asylum procedures included limited state funding for interpreters and deficiencies in training and capacity of eligibility determination officers, with no sustainable quality assurance mechanism and a lack of professional development of staff. Judicial practices continued to improve but were inconsistent; judges who received training on refugee and asylum law issued better quality decisions than those without such training. Asylum-related cases continued to be assigned to judges lacking in-depth knowledge of relevant law, in the absence of a system to assign specific cases to specialized judges. Judicial review remained a lengthy process as judges remained overloaded with cases. Outcomes depended upon individual judges, and there was a lack of consistency in decisions across judges. The courts generally drew more attention to the merit of asylum applications and used country of origin information more systematically than in prior years.
Authorities continued to offer ethnic Armenians from Syria who remained in the country a choice of protection options, including expedited naturalization, a residence permit, or refugee status. Quick naturalization gave persons displaced from Syria the same legal right to health care and most other social services as other citizens. Many of the countrywide reforms such as provision of increased social services, higher pensions, and more accessible health care also benefited refugees who became naturalized citizens.
While the quality of procedures and decision making for determination of refugee status improved over the last decade, concerns remained regarding adjudication of cases of asylum seekers of certain religious and gender profiles with non-Apostolic Christian and non-Armenian backgrounds.
Access to Basic Services: Many refugees were unable to work or receive an education while their cases worked their way through the legal system, despite legal provisions protecting these rights, due to a lack of job openings, difficulty in accessing opportunities, and language barriers.
Housing allocated to refugees was in limited supply, in poor condition, and remained, along with employment, refugees’ greatest concern. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the close quarters in the refugee center (a housing facility where some asylum seekers were accommodated) also gave rise to fears of infection, although no COVID-19 cases were reported in the center during the year. Many displaced families relied on a rental subsidy program supported by UNHCR and diaspora organizations. Authorities operated an integration house with places for 29 refugees and offered refugees accommodation free of charge during the first months after they acquired refugee status. Language differences created barriers to employment, education, and access to services provided for by law.
During the COVID-19 state of emergency, restrictions on internal movement and the closure of in-person services at government offices hampered access to basic services for individuals whose documents expired during this time. Although the government declared that expired documents would be considered valid until the end of the state of emergency, no instructions were issued to state authorities, including those responsible for medical care, social protection, and education, to accept the expired documents. Delayed access to services continued until the State Migration Service instructed duty officers to issue refugee certificates. Although refugees and asylum seekers were instructed to apply for support programs that the government created to assist persons during the state of emergency, many were found ineligible for technical and other reasons. Obtaining COVID-19 tests was reportedly problematic, with some individuals paying for their own tests while others did not receive their results and had to be retested. A total of 16 refugees (who lived in apartments, not the reception center) had tested positive as of August 10. Access to education for many refugees became difficult after the government suspended in-person education in March. Due to a lack of devices to access online programs, UNHCR provided 166 tablet computers to facilitate distance education throughout the year. Children were able to view educational programs on television.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement and offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory. The SMS also offered integration programs to returnees from Western European countries who either voluntarily returned or were deported by the host country. As of January 1, there were 1,319 refugees who fled from Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In November 2019 the government allocated 1.5 billion drams ($3.2 million) for permanent housing for up to 112 families who fled from Azerbaijan who were also granted citizenship along with the housing and thus no longer considered refugees. As of August, 106 applications had been approved and six refused. A second tranche of the program was approved in the spring for another 185 beneficiaries.
According to official data, as of August 10, there were 976 stateless persons, an increase from 929 in November 2019. The increase was believed to be related to the increasing number of citizens renouncing their Armenian citizenship with the aim of obtaining citizenship elsewhere, particularly in the Russian Federation. The whereabouts of these individuals was unknown, as many were believed likely to have entered the Russian Federation. There was no assessment to determine how many may have received another country’s citizenship. Authorities also considered approximately 1,400 refugees from Azerbaijan to be stateless as of July.
The law provides for the provision of nationality to stateless children born on the country’s territory.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media and journalists in the country and in exile, including their relatives.
Freedom of Speech: Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns regarding authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered five journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. A number of incarcerations were widely seen as connected to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on November 16, Polad Aslanov, the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com news websites, was convicted of alleged espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran.
The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”
In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on April 22, the Surakhani District Court sentenced Popular Front Party activist Arif Babayev to 10 days of administrative detention for dissemination of prohibited information on the internet. Authorities also continued attempts to impede criticism by reprimanding lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted in July 2019.
During the period of martial law from September 28 to December 12, which the government declared following the outbreak of hostilities on September 27, the government reportedly imposed restrictions on the work of some local and international journalists in the area of the conflict.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. In 2019 the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index noted that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and concluded that “there is no independent print media in the country.”
Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country. Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, RFE/RL, and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik, which was also originally prohibited from broadcasting, was subsequently allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.
Violence and Harassment: During the year police occasionally used force against journalists, as well as other methods, to prevent their professional activities. On February 12, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media, Harlem Desir, issued a statement deploring the previous night’s detentions, violent incidents, and mistreatment of at least eight journalists covering an election-related protest in Baku.
Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subjected to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.
Civil society activists continued to call on the government to investigate effectively the high-profile killings of journalists Rasim Aliyev in 2015, Rafiq Tagi in 2011, and Elmar Huseynov in 2005.
Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On June 19, the Khatai District Court convicted of alleged hooliganism and sentenced Azadliq journalist Tazakhan Miralamli to limitation of liberty for one year. As a result he was required to wear an electronic bracelet and was prohibited from leaving his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Miralamli and activists asserted the aim of the sentence was to limit his journalistic activities.
Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for income. Those not benefitting from such support experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.
During the intensive fighting in the fall, there were credible reports of violence against journalists by Azerbaijani forces. According to Reporters without Borders (RSF), on October 27, a group of reporters wearing bulletproof vests clearly marked with the word “Press” were targeted when leaving a town 20 miles east of Stepanakert. Tom Mutch, a freelancer from New Zealand working for the United Kingdom’s Byline Times news website, Chuck Holton, a war correspondent with Christian Broadcasting Network, and an American crew sent by the Armenian online news site Civilnet.am told the RSF that although they were in cars marked “PRESS” and there were no military objectives in the area, they were deliberately targeted after being spotted by drones.
On October 8, an Azerbaijani military aircraft bombed the Holy Savior (Ghazanchetsots) Cathedral in Shusha. Several hours after the initial bombing, as journalists were reporting live from the site on the damage to the cathedral, the cathedral was bombed a second time, with precision-guided munitions, gravely injuring three of the journalists present. Multiple international observers confirmed that there were no military targets in the vicinity of the cathedral.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council continued to require that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides for substantial fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. Conviction of insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
During the year reports continued that the government restricted or disrupted online access. During a period of martial law from September 27 to December 12 that the government imposed following the outbreak of violence, authorities blocked access to some websites and social networks. Internet blockages occurred from the beginning of the violence until November 14. Blockages included social media sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram and impeded the functioning of many virtual private networks (VPNs). Throughout the year authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views differing from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders also reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country, forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government, and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply. On multiple occasions the government selectively cut or degraded internet access during political protests.
The IREX Media Sustainability Index for 2019–the most recent year for which the index was available–reported that in 2018 the number of websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of the Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets, including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.
On March 19, the Plenum of the Supreme Court reviewed a request by the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies to block alternate means of accessing media banned in the country (through VPNs and secondary transmission of content through sites such as YouTube), including Meydan TV, Radio Azadlig, Azadlig newspaper, Turan TV, and Azerbaijan Saati, and forwarded it for consideration of the Baku Court of Appeal. A decision on the request was pending. Activists asserted that authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs.
On April 13, authorities cut the internet and telephone connections of Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli and his spouse. Their telephone connections were restored, although overnight disruptions continued throughout the year. As of December 31, Kerimli and his spouse remained unable to access the internet. On June 23, the Nasimi District Court refused to review a lawsuit Kerimli and his spouse filed challenging the government’s denial of access to the internet and telephone communications.
From May 15 through the morning of May 19, the news websites Turan.az and its affiliate Contact.az experienced a massive cyberattack and were blocked twice. The attack took place after the websites published articles criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 24, Germany-based independent media outlet Meydan TV experienced a cyberattack that resulted in the deletion of all its Facebook posts since 2018 as well as two months of its content from Instagram.
On November 3, a Baku Court convicted journalist and chief editor of the online publication Azel.TV, Afgan Sadigov, of alleged extortion and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders considered the case to be politically motivated, as Sadigov had criticized officials in his social media posts and was previously convicted for his journalism activities. Sadigov went on a hunger strike while in prison to protest the conviction.
The government requires internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and slander on the internet, which had a further chilling effect on open and free use of the medium.
There were strong indications the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online. On January 14, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported phishing attacks against several civil society figures and an online news platform. The attack sought to disable antivirus software and surreptitiously record key strokes. Based on forensic research, Azerbaijan Internet Watch and its partner Qurium–a media foundation with expertise in digital forensic investigations–concluded the attacker was connected with the government. Some activists were summoned by security forces for making antiwar posts online during the intensive fighting in the fall. For example, in November activist Latif Mammadov reported that State Security Service officials threatened to kill him and his family for his antiwar posts online.
Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report for the period from June 2019 through May again rated the country’s internet status as “not free.” The report concluded the state of internet freedom slightly deteriorated during the period covered. Despite some restrictions, the internet remained the primary method for citizens to access independent media. For example, while Meydan, Azadliq, and other media outlets were blocked, social media users were able to access their reports through Facebook, where videos and articles were shared without restrictions.
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party leaders reported their members had difficulty finding and keeping teaching jobs at schools and universities.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
The government consistently and severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force against or detaining protesters.
Prior to the imposition of restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 in March, authorities prevented attempts by political opposition groups to organize demonstrations. For example, on February 11, police violently dispersed a protest concerning the conduct of the National Assembly elections and election results in front of the Central Election Commission. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission reported it observed riot police loading protesters onto buses in a disproportionately forceful way and that some protesters were beaten while inside the buses. On February 16, police detained and put approximately 200 protesters into cars and buses, drove them to either the distant suburbs of Baku or other regions of the country, and released them there without explanation or means of return. Following the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions, these political groups did not attempt to organize demonstrations that would have otherwise been consistent with the right to freedom of assembly.
During a large and apparently unplanned mid-July gathering in support of the army during fighting along the border with Armenia, there were minor clashes between police and a group of protesters, causing damage to cars and property inside and outside the National Assembly. Police used violence to disperse the crowd. According to Human Rights Watch, police used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters.
Following a nationally televised speech in which President Aliyev accused the opposition Popular Front Party of having organized the demonstration, authorities arrested at least 16 members of the party, one member of the opposition Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Movement, and two members of the Muslim Unity Movement on criminal charges. An additional 15 or more members of the Popular Front Party were sentenced to administrative detention. Authorities made apparently politically motivated arrests in connection with the proarmy rally, although the gathering was apparently neither planned by the political parties nor in support of either the opposition or general freedom of assembly rights.
The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include substantial fines and up to one month of administrative detention.
While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission rather than merely prior notification. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations far from the city center of Baku and with limited access by public transportation. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right and severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.
A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.
Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.
The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts NGOs’ ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.
Government regulations provide for a “single window” mechanism for registering grants. Under the procedures, grant registration processes involving multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.
The Ministry of Justice is permitted by law to monitor NGO activities and conduct inspections of NGOs. The law offers few provisions protecting NGO rights and authorizes substantial fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.
The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. While the Prosecutor General’s Office dropped criminal cases against the American Bar Association and IREX and ordered their bank accounts unfrozen in July, the two groups continued to face administrative difficulties, such as a remaining tax levy imposed on IREX. Problems remained for other groups. For example, the bank accounts of the Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen, and the organization was unable to operate (see section 5).
The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate their support of “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and not be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, at least four foreign NGOs had been able to renew their registrations under these rules.
NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on their applications, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on matters related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.
During the period of martial law following the September 27 outbreak of intensive fighting with Armenia and Armenia-supported separatists, the government imposed a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in six cities, including Baku and Ganja, and 16 districts.
Foreign Travel: Authorities continued to prevent a number of opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairperson Ali Kerimli (prohibited from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.
The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses and given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported 652,326 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country as of midyear. The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers continued to state the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
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 some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.
Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,591 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many refugee children, however, were able to enroll at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.
Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.
According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 409 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.
While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.
Stateless persons generally enjoyed freedom of internal movement. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted if they left the country. The law provides stateless persons with access to the basic rights of citizens, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.
The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped one person of citizenship.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Many journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Speech: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad latitude to interpret it. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the government widely used the DSA against persons questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. On April 16, the Department of Nursing and Midwifery banned nurses from speaking to the press after the media reported the health sector’s lack of preparation in managing COVID-19. On April 23, Health Minister Zahid Maleque banned all health officials from speaking with the media.
On October 13, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release said legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
During the week of May 3, press outlets reported at least 19 journalists, activists, and other citizens were charged under the DSA with defamation, spreading rumors, and carrying out antigovernment activities. Media accounts of a police case report involving 11 accused individuals detailed Rapid Action Battalion search of mobile phones of two accused and found “antigovernment” chats with other accused individuals. According to the police, these “antigovernment” chats sufficed as evidence to charge and detain the individuals under the DSA.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge to the viewer. Civil society organizations said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On April 10, during the government instituted lockdown to control COVID-19 transmission, a police constable from Hazaribagh police station beat Nasir Uddin Rocky, a journalist with Daily Jugantar, and his brother Saifuddin Quraish, a health worker, even though both men had cards around their necks identifying themselves as essential workers. Officials relieved the constable of his duties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) reported the police had initiated an investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, NGOs, and journalists said the downward trend of the rule of law and freedom for the media went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. As of July, 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the Digital Security Act with more than 80 individuals arrested. Law referring to defamation of individuals and organizations was used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
During June and July, the RSF reported a number of societal attacks against journalists, many in connection with anger over published reports with allegations of corruption and nepotism in the government’s COVID assistance response. According to the RSF, 10 men beat journalist Shariful Alam Chowdhury with steel bars, machetes, and hammers. During the beating, Chowdhury’s arms and legs were broken. Chowdhury’s family told the RSF they believed local village council authorities called for this attack.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government banned virtual private networks and voice over internet protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
During the year the government restricted 3G and 4G mobile internet service in Rohingya refugee camps for “security reasons,” according to government officials, and ordered mobile service providers to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya refugees.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged regulating telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs.
Al-Jazeera remained blocked in the country; the government blocked it in March 2019, hours after it published an article detailing the alleged involvement of a senior security and defense figure in the disappearance of three men as part of a business dispute involving his wife. In August, Amar Desh, a popular news outlet with views favoring the opposition party, started publishing online news through a United Kingdom “.uk” domain. The government had shut down Amar Desh in 2016. Less than 24 hours after Amar Desh began operating, the government blocked the website.
In early April the BRTC blocked Radio Free Asia affiliate BenarNews after the outlet covered a leaked UN memo warning two million Bangladeshis could die from COVID-19 absent appropriate government measures. While access was partially restored in May, observers note the BenarNews website was occasionally blocked up to year’s end.
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.
In June, Begum Rokeya University authorities filed a complaint under the Digital Security Act against Professor Sirajum Munira for a Facebook post the university authorities claimed mocked the late Mohammad Nasim, a former senior government official in the health ministry. Although Munira apologized and deleted the post, police used a screenshot of the deleted post as evidence to arrest her. Several days later a private attorney filed a police complaint under the Digital Security Act against Rajshahi University professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman for making “defamatory comments” regarding Nasim in two Facebook posts. Rahman was later arrested in connection with this complaint. Media reported both Begum Rokeya University and Rajshahi University suspended these professors following their arrests.
The government limited or restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations.
According to human rights NGOs, authorities continued to use approval provisions to disallow gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations.
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau sometimes withheld its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working in areas the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7.a.).
The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).
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, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in two sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and also restricted the movement of Rohingya refugees. While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT as a result of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces. See section 6, indigenous persons.
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated it to be 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. The CHT Commission recently estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the CHT. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute over classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claims it is not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration provided assistance to approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In August 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing and other atrocities in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 860,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals.” In practice, however, the government abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country.
A National Task Force under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs led the coordination of the overall Rohingya crisis. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief coordinated the Rohingya response with support from the army and border guards. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission provided coordination. While telecommunication services in Cox’s Bazar were restored in August, the one-year restriction limited access to mobile and internet service in and around camps and hampered emergency response and coordination of life-saving services, including the Protection Hotline for reporting incidents of violence or abuse, and sharing critical information related to the coronavirus.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps, with intimate partner violence comprising an overwhelming majority–approximately 70 to 80 percent–of the cases. International organizations warned the numbers could increase further if the dearth of livelihood and educational opportunities for Rohingya men continued.
Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous in practice and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.
In May the Bangladesh navy rescued Rohingya boat refugees stranded in the open waters and later brought 306 of these refugees to Bhasan Char, a Bangladeshi, remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had no means to travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members. Bhasan Char residents had no means to exit the island, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” Despite pleas from international human rights groups to move the refugees to the mainland, the government rejected the request and said the refugees lived better lives on the island than within the cramped living conditions in Cox’s Bazar.
Authorities have not yet agreed on terms of reference with the UN for an independent protection mission or terms of reference for a technical assessment of Bhasan Char. Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups stated the Rohingya refugees relocated to the island as of September lacked medical access and proper sanitation, including supplies for safe menstrual hygiene. Those on the island state they are denied freedom of movement and have no access to sustainable livelihoods or education. On September 21, several Rohingya refugees began a hunger strike to protest their continued stay on the island. International media, including the Guardian, reported security forces on the island have sexually assaulted Rohingya refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported navy personnel beat them with rubber sticks and tree branches when they protested their stay on the island. Authorities have not investigated these reports.
International media, including The Guardian, reported authorities relocated an additional 1,642 Rohingya refugees to Bhasan Char in early December, and an additional 1,800 in late December. Future relocations are planned, and questions regarding the voluntariness of those refugees relocating remain.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees resident in the country. Prior to 2017, the government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of more than 740,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the new refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system.
Freedom of Movement: There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 memorandum of understanding between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside the two official camps. After the August 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and new arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps; the government stated the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns about violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.
Employment: The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees living in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor trafficking victims.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside of the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinates the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites which were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central issue hindering the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.
Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; it does not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level by the Bangladeshi or Burmese government, however. In January the government endorsed an education sector pilot program to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum to 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. Implementation has been delayed due to COVID-19-related closures of refugee learning centers.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care but Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all of the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and selectively enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
Since May the government undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression. The government harassed bloggers and social media users, detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in June authorities detained Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, and charged them with “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their opposition political commentary.
Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. For example, on August 17, the Ministry of Culture fired Pavel Latushka, the director of the Yanka Kupala National Theater, after he spoke out in defense of protesters who had been beaten by police. After his firing, the majority of staff at the theater tendered their resignations in protest.
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as being charged under this law.
The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations.” On March 12, a Minsk district court tried in absentia video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich on charges of calling individuals to participate in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 15 days of arrest. In a video Tsyhanovich reportedly urged supporters to show up at the state-run Belneftekhim headquarters to protest increased gas prices starting on February 25. On June 9, police detained Tsyhanovich to serve his sentence and on June 15, he was given an additional 15-day sentence for participating unauthorized mass event on May 31. On June 26, human rights groups reported that authorities charged Tsyhanovich with organizing or participating in activities that grossly violate public orders and are connected with resisting authorities’ orders. He remained in detention at year’s end on those charges.
On November 12, a court in Drahichyn fined a local resident 999 rubles ($410) for calling to assemble in the city center on October 15. Police detained the resident on the same day. He was released, but the charges remained pending the result of court hearings.
The government prohibits “extremist” information, which is defined as information materials–including printed, audio, visual, video materials, placards, posters, banners and other visuals–intended for public usage or distribution and seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.
On October 20, a Minsk district court recognized Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by pro-opposition Belarusians to organize protests, and its logo as extremist, alleging it promoted mass riots and disorder in addition to distributing other “extremist” materials (see Internet Freedom, below). In addition the government charged the channel’s founder, Stsyapan Putsila, and its former editor, Raman Pratasevich, with organizing mass riots, organizing a group activity grossly violating public order, and inciting hatred based on professional duties, in particular against law enforcement officers and public servants. Both individuals were outside Belarus but were put on the country’s wanted list. The government also prohibits content that promotes violence or war; contains information regarding illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; involves trafficking in persons or pornography; or that may harm the national interests of the country.
The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it only allows registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.
The government prohibits the spread of “fake news” on the internet but did not enforce the prohibition against regular citizens.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during the presidential election campaign period. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media.
On October 2, authorities cancelled the accreditation of all foreign press representatives as part of a process they claimed was an effort to update the accreditation process for foreign press. Prior to the cancellation, in August authorities had already begun cancelling foreign press accreditations, including those of the BBC, Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, the German ARD television channel, Deutsche Welle, the French Agence France-Presse news agency, Reuters, and Russian TV Rain. Likewise, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not grant accreditation to dozens of foreign correspondents who filed paperwork seeking to cover the August 9 presidential election. Some correspondents were reaccredited, with journalists from Deutsche Welle and BBC among the first, but a number of Belarusian-based freelance journalists were not.
Prior to the October 2 cancellation of foreign press accreditations, authorities refused to accredit some foreign media outlets, such as Polish-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined unaccredited freelance journalists working for these outlets. As of December 10, at least 17 journalists were fined in 30 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. Most of the fines in connection to accreditation or registration were levied on journalists working for Belsat Television.
Authorities deported some members of the foreign press. For example, on August 29, authorities deported two Moscow-based Associated Press correspondents as part of a series of actions that decreased the number of independent correspondents in the country.
By law, the government may close a publication–printed or online–after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. On October 1, the Ministry of Information suspended through December 30, the registration of one of the most read independent online news portals, TUT.by, as “a media network publication” after issuing four warnings concerning individual articles it published, including one that detailed accounts of the irregularities observers saw on election day. On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered removal of its official media status effective in January 2021. The organization planned to appeal, but it could not maintain its status during the appeal process.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. After a number of state television personnel resigned in protest over the allegations of presidential election fraud and subsequent police violence starting in August, Lukashenka requested assistance from the Russian state media organization RT. Starting August 17, Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press while authorities suppressed domestic independent voices and pressured the state journalists who had resigned. After August 17, representatives of Russian state-media organizations generally faced less pressure from authorities, when RT began supporting and controlling Belarusian domestic state media.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, in particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover pre- and postelection demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country and at times used violence against journalists and brought false allegations against them. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 500 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and short-term jail sentences. These cases were reportedly in connection to journalists’ alleged participation in unauthorized mass events, livestreaming demonstrations, or working without accreditation for foreign media. On October 12, the Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement noting that the situation for journalists in the country had gone “from grave to catastrophic” due to violence and other forms of pressure on journalists.
In one example of government pressure, on June 20, police detained two journalists of the independent Hantsavitski Chas newspaper, Alyaksandr Pazniak and Syarhey Bahrou, during a live stream in Hantsavichy. At the local police department, Pazniak was reportedly beaten and threatened. Authorities charged the two with resisting police and participating in unauthorized mass events. On June 22, a local court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days of arrest and fined Pazniak 810 rubles ($332).
There were reports that security forces deliberately targeted members of the press for violence during demonstrations. For example, on August 10, security officers were reported to have targeted and dispersed a group of correspondents covering postelection protests who were clearly marked as press and wearing corresponding vests and badges. Officers fired rubber bullets, injuring independent newspaper Nasha Niva journalist Natallya Lubneuskaya, who was hospitalized for more than a month.
There were reports that some journalists were seriously abused during detention. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, on August 10, an unaccredited 33-year-old journalist with the Poland-based television station Belsat, Vitaliy Dubikov was on his way to a work assignment in Minsk when two police officers stopped him and searched his belongings. Upon finding a camera and microphone with a Belsat logo, they forced him into a tiny compartment in a police van and took him to a Minsk police precinct, where riot police beat him and other detainees with truncheons, ordered them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs. Dubikov and other detainees spent the night outdoors, first flat on the ground then kneeling against a wall. In the morning he was crammed into a police van with other detainees and held there for several hours without food, water, or ventilation. On August 14, Dubikov was released without charges.
Security officials also confiscated or deliberately broke journalists’ video and audio equipment. For example, according to press reports, on August 11, security forces approached Associated Press photographer Syarhey Hryts and several colleagues while they were covering police dispersing a demonstration. According to Hryts, riot police, who were not wearing any identifying symbols, swarmed them, seized the memory sticks from their equipment, and smashed his camera.
The government reportedly prosecuted journalists in retaliation for the content of their reporting. For example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on March 25, officers of the State Control Committee detained Syarhey Satsuk, chief editor of the Yezhednevnik news website, after searching his offices and seizing documents. Satsuk had heavily criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and corruption in the health-care system. He was charged with accepting a bribe, which Reporters without Borders called retaliation for an editorial casting doubt on the official COVID-19 statistics and criticizing an order issued by Lukashenka to “deal with” media outlets that are “sowing panic” regarding the epidemic. On April 4, he was released on his own recognizance; the government investigation continued as of November.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The threat of government retaliation led the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see Internet Freedom, below).
The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines (see Freedom of Speech, above). Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad.
The government reportedly failed to reply to requests for information, and some outlets were believed to have held back coverage to avoid punishment for publishing incorrect information.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings, controls on the size of press runs of newspapers, and inflated costs for printing. For example, after popular opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the nonstate daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda (the local branch of the mass-market Russian tabloid) extensively covered violence and beatings of protesters in the days after the election, authorities began censoring further daily editions by blocking printing through two state-run distribution systems, the retail kiosk network Belsayuzdruk and the postal subscription service.
The government controlled printing presses in the country. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a few days after the protests began, the state publishing house began to refuse to print independent newspapers, citing an array of “technical problems,” including lack of materials and broken equipment, which observers believed were pretexts for the refusals. The CPJ noted that, on the same day that an independent newspaper was denied the ability to print an edition with a white-red-white flag on the cover (the symbol of anti-Lukashenka protests), a state-controlled newspaper was able to print an edition featuring an interview with a pro-Lukashenka singer.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for conviction of defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation.
On September 23, officers of the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich, searched his apartment, and confiscated computer equipment. Authorities released Martsinovich after detaining him for 72 hours, but he remained charged with libel against Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou in connection to an interview the newspaper published in which Barsukou was accused of beating detainees inside holding facilities.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, authorities detained lawyer Maksim Znak, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council. He was charged with “calling for actions aimed at harming national security.” Other members of the Coordination Council were also charged with similar offenses. The case was widely believed to be retaliation for Znak’s political activism.
The government monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing history, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without judicial oversight. All internet service providers must retain information about their customers’ browsing history for one year. Companies were also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.
The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.
Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.
Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. From August 9 to August 12, internet access in the country was severely restricted for approximately 61 hours. Only intermittent text messages and voice calls worked for most individuals. While authorities blamed foreign cyberattacks for the disruptions, independent experts attributed the disruptions to the government. Starting in August, there were repeated internet disruptions and complete internet shutdowns, usually coinciding with major protests and police actions to disperse them. Private internet service providers notified customers that the shutdowns were requested by the government on national security grounds. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations occurred.
Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also Freedom of Speech). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have a month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. On August 21, the Ministry of Information reported on that it had blocked access to more than 70 internet sites on August 9, including major independent news portals run by Euroradio, Radio Liberty, and the human rights NGO Vyasna. While most internet sites began working again by mid-August, many remained blocked for an extended period of time. Some were operational again by mid-November. In August, Lukashenka called independent media “part of the hybrid warfare against Belarus.”
There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online. On October 20, a Minsk district court ruled the Telegram channel NEXTA Live and its NEXTA logo were “extremist” and subsequently restricted access to information resources using its name. According to state-run media outlet BelTA’s announcement, the decision was made in response to the finding of “extremist activities” on the Telegram channel, including calls for “organization and public appeals to stage mass riots.” NEXTA, an encrypted channel, was a leading source of information on events in the country and published suggestions for protest routes and meeting points.
Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online. For example, on June 25, security forces raided the home of Ihar Losik, the administrator of the popular opposition Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain. He was charged with “actions that gravely violate public order,” which carries up to three years in prison if convicted, and as of November, remained in pretrial detention. Observers believed the charges to be in retaliation for his moderation of the opposition Telegram channel.
Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information.
By law, the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on users who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violations of the edict was punishable by prison sentences, although no such violations were prosecuted. These government efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages were attacked after the August 9 presidential election, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs website.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals.
The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions. For example, on August 31, the minister of culture dismissed the head of the Institute of Culture and Arts for purportedly failing to prevent students from protesting. The minister of health care replaced the heads of medical schools in Hrodna, Homyel, and Minsk after a number of doctors, medical professors, and students organized a series of protests in August.
The government restricted artistic presentations or other cultural activities. For example, in September authorities cancelled all shows at the local drama theater in Hrodna, citing the rise in COVID-19 cases, and dismissed at least two leading actors after the troupe stopped a show as a protest against the September 20 detentions of their colleagues at a local demonstration. Observers believed that the cancellation of the shows was in retaliation for the troupe’s actions, since the government did not require all theatres to cancel their shows during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.
The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions of some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals may not act as mass event organizers. Individuals who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the fine.
The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials may be issued for one of two reasons, the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Report. Authorities generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if they were held at designated venues far from city centers. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations, which the United Nations considered necessary in a democratic society and proportionate to considerations such as national security or public safety.
The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,290 rubles ($2,990); at a nondesignated venue, the price is 1.5 times higher.
Authorities often formulated pretexts to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example, on July 30, opposition presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s rally in Minsk drew 63,000 participants, making it the largest campaign rally since the country’s independence. Tsikhanouskaya was subsequently blocked from holding additional campaign rallies by local Minsk authorities. On August 2, authorities announced that state events would take place every evening at every permitted campaign rally location between August 2 and August 8, despite the fact that Tsikhanouskaya had submitted an application in mid-July to hold rallies at locations in Minsk on August 5 and August 8.
Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. For example, on October 27, a Minsk district court sentenced Zmitser Dashkevich, an opposition and civil society activist and former leader of the Malady Front opposition youth group, to 15 days’ imprisonment after being detained at an October 25 protest. Dashkevich was a key organizer of the Night of Assassinated Poets, an annual opposition commemorative event held October 29 at the Stalinist mass-killings site at Kurapaty to honor more than a hundred Belarusian poets, writers, and public figures killed in 1937.
During the year local authorities countrywide delayed answering or rejected applications for permission to stage various demonstrations. For example, during the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without government approval.
Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished at a later date.
Between August and December, police detained more than 30,000 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals detained during protests. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences of 10 to 15 days, or both. Police also opened at least 900 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between August 9 and December. In June and July, plainclothes and uniformed security officials also arbitrarily detained demonstrators who peacefully stood in lines along roads in many cities, with particular focus paid to individuals wearing opposition symbols or flying the white-red-white opposition-affiliated flag. Nondemonstrators were also detained by police. Other than during the mass detentions on August 9-11, the majority of individuals who were detained before and after the election were registered by police and released the same or next day, although authorities had the ability to apply short-term jail sentences at later dates.
Authorities detained a number of protest leaders, opposition members, and activists and jailed them for initial short-term sentences, then applied additional charges from earlier detentions to keep them jailed for longer periods of time. For example, after his May 6 arrest for participating in an unauthorized 2019 mass event, on May 29, Syarhey Tsikhanouski was detained again in Hrodna while participating in a signature-gathering event for his wife’s candidacy. On June 8, Tsikhanouski and six other detainees were charged with “disturbing public order” and “obstructing elections.” On June 16, a criminal case was opened against him for allegedly interfering in the election process and hindering the work of the Central Election Commission. On July 30, authorities announced additional criminal charges against Tsikhanouski, alleging “preparation for mass riots” and an investigation into charges of incitement of violence against police. As of December, Tsikhanouski remained in prison while investigations into these criminal charges proceeded (see also sections 1.d. and 3).
Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations.
On October 12, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Henadz Kazakevich stated that law enforcement bodies would use “special equipment and lethal weapons if need be” to “guarantee the law in the country.” Authorities used live ammunition in a few isolated instances, which led to the death of two protesters (see section 1.a.).
Human rights groups reported authorities sought to mark or tag protesters who had opposition symbols, chanted pro-opposition slogans, or resisted arrest. Water in water cannons was also reportedly dyed to allow identification of protesters later. Authorities reportedly singled out marked individuals for higher levels of physical and psychological abuse in detention facilities.
Plainclothes officers detained individuals with opposition symbols or who had been identified as protest participants or police claimed were protest leaders. When faced with large crowds at unauthorized mass events, plainclothes officers detained, and sometimes beat, suspected rally participants at random along the periphery of events and forced many into unmarked vehicles. From May to December, masked plainclothes police officers often did not announce themselves or present documentation.
In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms under criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. From August 9-11, isolated instances of demonstrators throwing rocks, firecrackers, or Molotov cocktails were filmed by media. Rock throwing also reportedly occurred during protests September 23 after Lukashenka’s inauguration ceremony. The Ministry of Internal Affairs reported at least 10 instances of motorists hitting police from August 10-12. After August 11, the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful and instances of violence on the part of demonstrators appeared to follow police use of force or violent detentions, especially by masked plainclothes officers. From June through November, isolated fist fights between security officers and demonstrators or attempts by demonstrators to resist arrest occurred in various cities, generally following security officer attempts to arbitrarily detain protesters or disperse peaceful crowds.
For example, on September 29, the Maladzechna Regional Court convicted and sentenced local residents Paval Piaskou and Uladzislau Eustsyahneyeu to up to three years and three months in a low-security prison. Authorities charged them with resisting riot police when on June 19 they attempted to prevent police from detaining a protester.
Since early May the Investigative Committee of Belarus initiated at least 900 criminal cases against individuals who were detained during protests on charges including participation in mass disturbances or riots, causing harm to national security, resistance, and violence or threat of violence against an official of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, hooliganism, incitement to hostility or hatred, and organization of or participation in actions violating public order. For example, investigators charged at least 231 individuals for allegedly organizing or participating in actions violating public order after detaining them at a protest on November 1. According to the report, this indicated a return to government criminalization of peaceful protests.
Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. For example, in April administrators expelled a fourth-year student at Minsk State Linguistic University for allegedly not attending classes. The student claimed she was in a two-week quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. The student was a member of the executive board of the opposition-affiliated Union of Belarusian Students. From March 20 to March 23, she protested alongside other students near the university, handed out free medical masks, and chanted, “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!” a criticism of authorities’ COVID-19 response. The student claimed the university administration’s decision to expel her was a politically motivated. From October to December, more than 140 students were reportedly expelled due to their political views.
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.
Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office–a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs–as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. In 2019 authorities repealed the law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups which had subjected convicted group members to penalties ranging from fines to two years’ imprisonment. The punishment was replaced with administrative fines.
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity.
On August 27, a presidential decree on foreign aid entered into force. The decree provides that only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside of a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt categories and taxable categories, that latter of which would require a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduced penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.
The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. At its formation on August 18, the group had approximately 70 members, seven of which were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were in prison.
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, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel. Following the presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of Belarusians to return home from abroad.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the country, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, was barred from re-entering the country in late August as he returned from church business in Poland. The archbishop had spoken out against police violence and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit arrested peaceful protesters. Authorities claimed they placed the archbishop on a nonentry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. By law citizenship may not be revoked if a citizen only has Belarusian citizenship and has no claim to another citizenship. Entry may not legally be denied to Belarusian citizens. In late December the archbishop was allowed to reenter the country.
On October 29, authorities abruptly closed the border with Poland and Lithuania, restricting entry into the country. On November 1, authorities temporarily closed all land borders to regular travelers, ostensibly to curtail rising COVID-19 infections. Lukashenka previewed the move in a September 17 speech, in which he did not mention COVID-19 but threatened to close the country’s Western borders because of what he purportedly saw as hostile actions from neighboring democratic governments, in particular Poland and Lithuania. On November 5, authorities further tightened restrictions, primarily against foreigners, but in some cases authorities restricted Belarusian citizens from entering the country, which observers stated was counter to the constitution. In early December the government imposed exit restrictions on citizens seeking to leave by land, reportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the country; NGOs and activists claimed that these closures restricted options for those seeking to leave the country. On December 20, these measures went into effect and restricted the frequency of departures and the categories for persons who could depart. Authorities kept airports open to international travel during this period, although limited availability and high prices imposed costs and restricted options for those seeking to leave the country.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, particularly after the August 9 election. Some others were in self-imposed exile or were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.
In July presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala fled the country with his children, reportedly fearing arrest after other presidential candidates were detained in May and June. His wife, Veranika Tsapkala, participated in Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign and in August also fled due to government pressure and fear of arrest.
After the August 9 presidential election, authorities forced opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya into exile. Authorities reportedly threatened “her children would grow up as orphans.” On May 29, her husband was detained by authorities and as of December remained in detention. Authorities also detained and threatened an associate of Tsikhanouskaya, Volha Kavalkova, who accepted exile in September after authorities threatened her with a long prison term if she did not leave the country. On September 8, two additional members of the opposition’s Coordination Council, Executive Secretary Ivan Krautsou and Spokesperson Anton Radnyankou, were forced into exile. Security forces abducted Krautsou and Radnyankou and drove them to the border with Ukraine, where they were forced to cross the border into Ukraine.
Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: There were reports that the government expelled or returned asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they were likely to face abuse. For example, on June 29, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a Turkish citizen of Kurdish nationality, Hicri Mamas, who had been denied international protection in Belarus and expelled. Turkey sought Mamas’ extradition on charges of “infringement of the unity and territorial integrity of the state.” Multiple human rights organizations believed Mamas faced a significant risk of torture if he returned to Turkey.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a process for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but are unable to return to their countries of origin.
All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. The government made an exception for one Russian citizen who sought asylum for religious reasons.
Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status as asylum seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.
Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.
Durable Solutions: Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.
Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.
As of July 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and UNHCR listed 6,300 stateless persons. According to authorities, 98 percent of these individuals had permanent residence permits.
Permanently resident stateless persons were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement bodies that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.
There is a path to citizenship for the stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued to impose ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics such as public health.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens could discuss some political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP or criticized President Xi’s leadership. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Many others confirmed authorities regularly warned them against meeting with foreign reporters or diplomats, and to avoid participating in diplomatic receptions or public programs organized by foreign entities.
Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures, as did members of their family. In addition an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities. An increasing threat of peer-to-peer observation and possible referral to authorities further eroded freedom of speech.
In January the China Independent Film Festival, established in Nanjing in 2003, abruptly suspended operations, citing challenges to its editorial independence. Over its history the festival shared documentaries that addressed topics the authorities considered politically sensitive, including the forced relocation of local communities for largescale development projects.
In April authorities sentenced Chen Jieren, an anticorruption blogger, to 15 years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” extortion, blackmail, and bribery. Chen, a former state media journalist, was detained in 2018 after he accused several Hunan party officials of corruption in his personal blog.
On September 22, a Beijing court sentenced outspoken CCP critic Ren Zhiqiang to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine of more than four million renminbi ($600,000) for his convictions on multiple charges including corruption, bribery, embezzlement of funds, and abuse of power by a state-owned enterprise official. In February, Ren published an essay online criticizing the CCP’s COVID-19 response. While not mentioning President Xi by name, Ren wrote that he saw “a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being called emperor.” Ren was detained in March. His case was largely viewed not as a corruption case, but as a crackdown for his critical public comments against Xi.
Authorities arrested or detained countless citizens for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on public health concerns, including COVID-19. From January 1 to March 26 alone, NGO China Human Rights Defenders documented 897 cases of Chinese internet users targeted by police for their information sharing or online comments related to COVID-19. Based on research conducted by China Digital Times, during the same period authorities charged 484 persons with criminal acts for making public comments about the COVID-19 crisis.
This trend remained particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government imposed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped Muslims and members of non-Han ethnic minorities and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate.
During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists.
Numerous ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
The government sought to limit freedom of speech in online gaming platforms. The popular Chinese-made online game Genshin Impact censored the words “Taiwan” and “Hong Kong” among others in its in-game chat program. Users noted the program’s censorship covered all users, regardless of the country of citizenship or where the game was being played.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all. The government’s propaganda department issued daily guidance on what topics should be promoted in all media outlets and how those topics should be covered. Chinese reporters working for private media companies confirmed increased pressure to conform to government requirements on story selection and content.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) directly manages internet content, including online news media, and promotes CCP propaganda. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The CCP continued to monitor and control the use of non-Mandarin languages in all media within the country. In April live streamers working in the southern part of the country accused Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, of suspending users who spoke Cantonese on its livestreaming platform. One user who regularly used Cantonese in his livestream programs said he had received three short suspensions for “using language that cannot be recognized.” He noted the app included automatic guidelines prompting users to speak Mandarin “as much as possible.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over technologies such as livestreaming and continued to pressure on digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the CCP does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories.
Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, and his colleague Ke Chengbing remained in detention on charges of “picking quarrels.” Detained in March 2019, as of March 19, Wei had not been allowed to meet with his lawyer. An NGO reported that authorities installed surveillance cameras at the home of Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan.
In June after two years in custody, Chongqing entrepreneur Li Huaiqing went on trial for “inciting subversion of state power;” a verdict had not been announced by year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. Dozens of Uyghur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
Restrictions on domestic and foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments increased significantly.
Journalists faced the threat of demotion or dismissal for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. During the year the scope of censorship expanded significantly with several Chinese journalists noting “an atmosphere of debilitating paranoia.” For example, long-standing journalist contacts declined off-the-record conversations, even about nonsensitive topics. In one case, a reporter noted a fear of talking to foreign journalists and said that journalists and editors were even frightened to talk to one another. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media. The government also silenced numerous independent journalists by quarantining them under the guise of pandemic response.
In December, Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was arrested at her apartment complex on suspicion of “endangering national security.” Details surrounding the reasons for her arrest were unclear at year’s end.
In June, Lu Yuyu, founder of the blog Not News, was released from prison after four years following a 2017 conviction for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an ill-defined offense regularly used to target journalists. According to testimony he provided the Committee to Protect Journalists, Lu was seriously beaten twice while incarcerated. Lu said that while in the Dali City detention center he was regularly taken to a special interrogation room, tied to a tiger chair to immobilize his arms and legs, and then shown videos of other persons’ confessions. On one occasion he said he was placed in shackles and handcuffs and then beaten in his cell by at least two guards.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s annual report on media freedoms found 82 percent of surveyed correspondents said they experienced interference, harassment, or violence while reporting; 70 percent reported the cancellation or withdrawal of interviews, which they knew or believed to be due to actions taken by the authorities; 25 percent were aware of sources being harassed, detained, called in for questioning, or otherwise suffering negative consequences for interacting with a foreign journalist; and 51 percent said they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials.
In February authorities expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters. In March the government designated the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Voice of America as foreign missions, forcing all three to report details to the government about their staffing, finances, and operations within the country. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club described the use of press accreditation as the most brazen attempt in the post-Mao era to influence foreign news organizations and to punish those whose work the government deems unacceptable.
Authorities used the visa renewal process to challenge journalists and force additional foreign reporters out of the country. In May officials refused to renew a work permit for a New York Times correspondent, who was then forced to leave the country. In September a Washington Post correspondent departed voluntarily, but authorities declined to issue a new work permit for her successor, leaving the Post without a single reporter in the country.
In late August, Chinese authorities stopped renewing press credentials for journalists regardless of nationality working at U.S. news organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead issued letters in lieu of press cards that it warned could be revoked at any time.
Local employees working for foreign press outlets reported increased harassment and intimidation, in addition to authorities’ continued tight enforcement of restrictions on these employees. Foreign news bureaus are prohibited by law from directly hiring Chinese citizens as employees and must rely on personnel hired by the Personnel Service Corporation, affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The code of conduct threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.” Previously, media outlets reported they were able to hire local staff but had to clear them with government officials. More recently, they said, all hiring must be preapproved and new staff were wary of taking on responsibilities that might be considered politically sensitive, limiting their portfolios and contributions.
In March the Beijing Personnel Service Corporation for Diplomatic Missions ordered the dismissal of at least seven Chinese nationals who worked at U.S. news organizations in Beijing.
According to a foreign reporter, one of his drivers was briefly separated from his car and authorities planted a listening device in his clothing and ordered him to monitor the reporter’s conversations during a trip to Inner Mongolia. On a reporting trip to Inner Mongolia, a different foreign reporter was detained for more than four hours. During the reporter’s detention, one officer grabbed her by the throat with both hands and pushed her into a cell even after she identified herself as an accredited journalist.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the 2019 Foreign Correspondents’ Club report, 94 percent of reporters who traveled to Xinjiang were prevented from accessing locations. Reporters documented cases of staged traffic accidents, road blockages, hotel closures, and cyberattacks. Nearly all foreign journalists reported constant surveillance while they worked in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Reporters noted local contacts warned them any resident seen talking to foreigners would almost certainly be detained, interrogated, or sent to a “re-education camp.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Regulations grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties.
The government sought to exercise complete control over public and private commentary regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, undermining local and international efforts to report on the virus’s spread. COVID-19 information on Chinese social media was closely guarded from the outbreak’s earliest manifestation. Beginning on December 31, 2019, and continuing into 2020, the popular livestreaming and messaging platforms WeChat and YY imposed new censorship protocols, including on words related to the virus causing COVID-19, SARS, and potential disease vectors. On January 2, PRC state media aggressively highlighted the detention of eight doctors in Wuhan who warned about new virus reports via social media in late December, including Dr. Li Wenliang. Li, who later died from the virus, was condemned for “making false statements” on the Internet and was forced to write a self-criticism saying his warnings “had a negative impact.” Top national television news program Xinwen Lianbo reported the detentions while Xinhua published a call from Wuhan police for “all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors.” On January 14, plainclothes police detained journalists trying to report from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital and forced them to delete their television footage and hand in phones and cameras for inspection.
On February 2, government authorities told media outlets not to publish negative coronavirus-related articles. On February 6, the government tightened controls on social media platforms following a Xi Jinping directive to strengthen online media control to maintain social stability. On the same day, citizen journalist and former rights lawyer Chen Qiushi disappeared in Wuhan after posting mobile-phone videos of packed hospitals and distraught families. On February 9, citizen journalist and local businessman Fang Bin disappeared after posting videos from Wuhan that circulated widely on Chinese social media. On February 15, activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested after publishing a February 4 essay calling on Xi Jinping to step down for suppressing information about the virus. On February 16, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest, barred from social media, and cut off from the Internet after publishing an essay declaring, “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” On February 26, citizen journalist Li Zehua, who quit his job at state broadcaster CCTV to report independently from Wuhan, was detained. With security officers at his door, Li recorded a video testament to free speech, truth, and the memory of the Tiananmen movement.
In March, Renwu magazine published an interview with a frontline doctor that included allegations the outbreak started in December but that officials warned doctors not to share information about the virus. The story was deleted several hours after it went online.
In April authorities charged three persons with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for their volunteer work with the “Terminus 2049” project, which republishes social media and news reports likely to be censored by the government, including coronavirus outbreak pieces.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon character on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent Xi. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films were subject to government censorship. The CCP issued a series of internal notices calling for films to highlight Chinese culture and values and promote the country’s successful growth. The popular World War Two historical drama The Eight Hundred, released in August, was originally scheduled for release in July 2019 but was abruptly pulled from distribution after censors noted the movie’s heroes rallied around the historically accurate Republic of China flag, which is still in use as the flag of Taiwan. The film was re-edited (and the flag altered) before the August release.
Foreign movies shown in the country were also subject to censorship. In December authorities ordered theaters to stop showing the fantasy action movie Monster Hunter after one day because of a short scene where soldiers made a joke involving the English-language words “knees” and “Chinese.” The movie remained banned even after the German producers apologized and deleted the scene. In September before its release in the country, domestic media outlets were ordered not to cover the new movie Mulan.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects, including for example portions of the U.S. vice-presidential debate when China was a topic of discussion.
Government regulations restrict and limit public access to foreign television shows, which are banned during primetime, and local streamers had to limit the foreign portion of their program libraries to less than 30 percent.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
Media reported in May that Chongqing announced a reward of up to 600,000 renminbi ($90,000) for reporting cases concerning imported illegal overseas publications.
Media reported in June that authorities in many rural counties, such as Libo County in Guizhou Province, were cracking down on “politically harmful publications.”
After schools reopened following the COVID-19 outbreak, school libraries in at least 30 provinces and municipalities expunged many titles from their libraries. Government officials ordered school officials to remove books according to a 2019 directive that sought to eliminate any books in school libraries that challenged the “unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory, books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear, or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.”
Authorities often justified restrictions on expression on national security protection grounds. In particular government leaders cited the threat of terrorism to justify restricting freedom of expression by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, government censors stifled online discussions of the virus. According to Citizen Lab research, between January and May, authorities suppressed more than 2,000 key words related to the pandemic on the messaging platform Wechat, which had an estimated one billion users in the country.
In January and February, authorities censored and otherwise attempted to control online references to Li Wenliang, a local doctor who first raised concerns regarding the outbreak with his colleagues. Li died on February 7, triggering widespread nationwide reactions on social media referring to him as a “whistleblower,” “hero,” and “martyr” for his attempts to warn his colleagues of a “SARS-like virus” as he treated patients in Wuhan. Upon his death, national authorities sent officials from the anticorruption agency National Supervisory Commission to investigate “issues related to Dr. Li Wenliang.” Official media released on March 19 investigation results that acknowledged a police “reprimand letter” issued to Li for his “SARS-related messages in a WeChat group.” The March 19 report called the reprimand letter “inappropriate” while also saying “some hostile forces, aiming to attack the CPC and the Chinese government,” had given Li “untrue” labels.
WeChat similarly blocked private discussions alluding to reports that government officials had allegedly informed foreign governments about the pandemic before they said anything to their own citizens. By March, WeChat began censoring and controlling references to international medical organizations, including the Red Cross and the World Health Organization. During the same period, internet company JOYY Inc.’s video streaming app YY blocked phrases that included any criticism of President Xi or the country’s pandemic response.
On February 3, Xi Jinping told local authorities to ensure the internet is “always filled with positive energy” as part of epidemic prevention efforts. Local authorities issued complementary directives warning citizens not to post information that ran counter to CCP information related to COVID-19 on any social media platforms, including in private messaging groups.
On March 23, Nanjing Normal University’s School of Journalism and Communication published a report estimating more than 40 credible news reports referencing the outbreak published by mainstream Chinese outlets had disappeared since January 23.
Domestic internet authorities led by the Cybersecurity Defense Bureau targeted individuals accused of defaming the government online, whether in public or private messages. Media reports detailed individual cases of police detaining citizens who were identified via search engines. Victims were frequently questioned for hours until they agreed to sign letters admitting their guilt and promising to refrain from “antisocial” behavior. In several cases citizens told reporters that police warned suspects their children could be targeted for their parents’ crimes.
The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to communicate freely.
The Cybersecurity Law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and it criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
CAC regulations require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature reflects government positions and priorities. These regulations extend long-standing traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.
The government expanded its list of foreign websites blocked in the country, which included several thousand individual websites and businesses. Many major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and the Economist, as well as websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Authorities blocked many other websites and applications, including but not limited to Google, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Authorities also blocked access to scores of foreign university websites.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as the 2019-20 Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users in the country, including government and party officials and prominent journalists and media figures. During the year individuals reported that authorities forced them to give security personnel access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their posts.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On April 22, prominent blogger Liu Yanli was sentenced to four years in prison by Dongbao District Court in Jingmen City, Hubei Province, on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” During her trial the court cited 28 social media posts and articles penned by Liu that criticized past and current Chinese leaders, decried widespread corruption and lack of transparency, demanded protection for military veterans, and called for democratic reform.
Online references to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned based on a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts or relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction.
While censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting content deemed sensitive, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as the Ministry of Public Security and law enforcement authorities.
The government continued to restrict academic and artistic freedom and political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, and civil society) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. The government’s most recent publicly available education planning document, Education Modernization Plan 2035, specifies 10 strategic tasks, the first being to study Xi Jinping thought, implement it throughout the education system, including at primary and secondary education levels, and strengthen political thought education in institutes of higher education. In October the Ministry of Education ordered 37 of the country’s top universities to offer courses about Xi Jinping’s political theories and to require all students to take the courses.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with CCP thought. In July, Beijing police detained Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun for six days as they investigated him for alleged solicitation of prostitutes in Chengdu in December 2019. Authorities also detained, but did not release, Xu’s publisher Geng Xiaonan and her husband Qin Zhen. Police were investigating Geng for “illegal business operations” ostensibly related to her private publishing business. Observers and Professor Xu’s close associates believed the prostitution charge was fabricated so police could punish him for expressing opinions criticizing the CCP and national leaders. These observers also believed Geng was being punished for publicly supporting Xu after his detention.
In November media reported a growing number of professors being penalized after having been reported by classroom informants for making statements or sharing views perceived as challenging CCP official narratives. For example, a renowned historian was delivering a live-streamed speech at an academic seminar on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union when an hour into the lecture, the feed was suddenly cut due to such a tip, according to the Beijing university that hosted the seminar.
Academics who strayed from official narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic faced increased harassment, censorship, and in some cases interventions by universities and the police. In April, Hubei University investigated a professor for her expression of support for a novelist who documented the government’s lockdown of the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first erupted. The Free to Think 2020 report released in November by Scholars at Risk noted additional examples, such as the arrest in April of Chen Zhaozhi, a retired University of Science and Technology Beijing professor. Professor Chen commented in an online debate that the coronavirus should be referred to as a “Chinese Communist Party virus” rather than a Chinese virus. According to a media report, in March a primary school teacher in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, was banned from teaching and demoted for making a “wrong” comment on COVID-19 in Wuhan.
Media reports suggested that ideological education was on the rise in primary and secondary schools. In May the Shandong provincial education bureau released a document requiring primary and middle schools to hold Children’s Day activities to instill core socialist values in students and to establish “a sense of honor and mission as communist successors.” On June 1, the Ministry of Education issued the Notice on Studying and Implementing President Xi Jinping’s Children’s Day Message to Masses of Children, urging schools to deepen students’ comprehension of “the great significance of Xi Jinping’s message.” In June schools were reportedly required by the Shandong education bureau to establish “ideological control teams” to ensure teachers did not criticize the government or its socialist system and to monitor references to religious beliefs in class.
In August the Inner Mongolia’s Department of Education announced a new program to change the language of instruction in several core elementary and secondary classes from Mongolian to Mandarin. The policy change sparked a regionwide school boycott and protests among those who viewed the program as an attempt at cultural erasure through education policy. By September 17, approximately 90 percent of student boycotters were back in school after local authorities pressured their parents. According to media reports, nine ethnic Mongolians, mostly teachers and students, committed suicide after coming under such pressure. In August the CCP stepped up moves to eliminate the Mongolian language in schools in Inner Mongolia, ordering Mongolian-language primary schools to switch to Chinese-language teaching by the third grade.
During the academic year, schools faced new prohibitions on the use of international curricula. In January the Ministry of Education announced a ban on foreign textbooks and teaching materials in primary and secondary schools. The CCP’s management of teaching materials spanned nearly all levels of education.
Foreign universities establishing joint venture academic programs in the country must establish internal CCP committees and grant decision-making power to CCP officials. Foreign teachers reported being ordered not to discuss sensitive topics in their classrooms.
Authorities on occasion blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uyghurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. For example, in response to the Hong Kong national security law passed in July, which allows PRC authorities to prosecute acts deemed to violate Chinese law wherever they occur, U.S. professors and universities proposed allowing potentially vulnerable students to opt out of classroom discussions that China might view as problematic and incorporating warning labels into class materials for similarly sensitive information. Chinese students studying abroad reported self-censoring because they understand they were being watched and reported on to the PRC even in the classroom, and U.S. professors also reported cases of suspected PRC intelligence gathering in their classes. An online PRC government portal that allows informants to report on behavior believed to harm China’s image saw a 40 percent increase in reports since October 2019.
Authorities in Xinjiang continued to disappear or detain Uyghur academics and intellectuals. Some prominent officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed still to be held in the camps or otherwise detained included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; Yalqun Rozi, writer, and Gulshan Abbas, retired doctor. Feng Siyu, a Han Chinese student of Rahile Dawut, was also detained. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all remained disappeared as of December. Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained detained on charges of “separatism;” some human rights groups reported he had been sentenced to death. Economist Ilham Tohti remained in prison, where he was serving a life sentence after his conviction on separatism-related charges in 2014. For the first time since the 1950s, a non-Uyghur was appointed to lead Xinjiang University, the top university in the autonomous region. Some observers expected this development would likely further erode Uyghur autonomy and limit Uyghurs’ academic prospects.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views. For example, police in Huizhou detained human rights activist Xiao Yuhui who had retweeted a WeChat post calling for individuals to save Hong Kong.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
Police continued to detain Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, who had both been arrested in December 2019 after they met earlier that month in Xiamen, Fujian, to organize civil society and plan nonviolent social movements in the country. They were charged with “incitement to subvert state power” and “subversion of state power;” the latter crime carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence. Authorities continued to deny the families and their lawyers access to Xu and Ding. Some others indirectly connected were detained but ultimately released during the year, such as disbarred human rights lawyer Wen Donghai and activists Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun, and Dai Zhenya. Those who fled the country did not return.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, and other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Many such events were canceled during the year due to COVID-19 controls.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by charity law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: as a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities and sponsoring included burdensome reporting requirements. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding.
According to a 2016 CCP Central Committee directive, all domestic NGOs were supposed to have a CCP cell by the beginning of the year, although implementation was not consistent. According to authorities, these CCP cells were to “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” Authorities are also to conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations or for one-time activities. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned. In November 2019 the Foreign Ministry publicly confirmed for the first time that public security authorities had investigated and penalized a foreign NGO, in this case the New York-based Asia Catalyst, for carrying out unauthorized activities; Asia Catalyst did not undertake any PRC-focused activities during the year.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the NGO law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Many government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional supervisory units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of November 2, approximately 550 foreign NGO representative offices (representing 454 distinct organizations) had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with nearly half of those focusing on industry or trade promotion activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2019, there were more than 860,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs, or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, foreign NGOs must maintain a representative office in the country to receive funds, or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict, evict, and investigate local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times did not respect these rights.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Uyghurs faced draconian restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, authorities still made identification checks for individuals entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang security officials operated checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uyghurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
The government operated a national household registration system (hukou) and maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, although many provinces and localities eased restrictions. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in provincial capitals, but outside those cities many provinces removed or lowered barriers to move from a rural area to an urban one.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2019 National Economic and Social Development, published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 280 million individuals lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, faced foreign travel restrictions. The government used exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police sometimes cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country, although often authorities provided no reason for such exit bans. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, as well as their family members and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise being prevented from traveling overseas.
Uyghurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. Foreign national family members of Uyghur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country, in part due to COVID-19 travel restrictions although restrictions predated the pandemic. Because of COVID-19 the government relaxed its efforts to compel Uyghurs studying abroad to return to China. Authorities refused to renew passports for Uyghurs living abroad.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although in previous years authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities greatly reduced the total number of travelers who could enter the country, including PRC citizens.
Disbarred lawyers, rights activists, and families of “709” lawyers faced difficulties applying for passports or were barred from leaving the country. For example, disbarred human rights lawyers Wang Yu (also a 709 lawyer) and Tang Jitian remained under exit bans. Family members of some 709 lawyers, such as Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, had their passport applications denied.
Although restricting access to border areas, the government regularly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
Refoulement: The government continued to consider North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and returned many of them to North Korea without appropriate screening. In North Korea such migrants would face harsh punishments including torture, forced abortions, forced labor, sexual violence, or death. The number of such migrants greatly decreased during the year due to border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of October, PRC authorities held more than 200 defectors because the North Korean government, which had shut its border due to COVID-19, refused to accept them.
North Koreans detained by PRC authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities, purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylum status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees in China. Asylum applicants and refugees remained in the country without access to education or social services and were subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriage as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued forcibly to repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, including trafficking victims, generally deeming them to be illegal economic migrants. The government detained and attempted to deport them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
UNHCR reported that Chinese officials continued to restrict its access to border areas. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees generally did not have access to public health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
According to international media reports, as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were trafficked and married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent. Chinese fathers reportedly sometimes did not register their children to avoid exposing the illegal status of their North Korean partners.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on the condition that the expression “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” The law bans criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda, with penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of Speech: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs, and it limited public debate of topics considered politically sensitive. Several laws criminalize aspects of freedom of expression.
Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an artist and a leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), an organization promoting cultural independence. Several MSI members, such as rapper Maykel Osorbo and Otero Alcantara’s partner Claudia Genlui, were arrested, beaten while in custody, blackmailed by state security, and fined during the year. While some of these arrests were in conjunction with political events or Otero Alcantara’s art, many arrests were arbitrary.
Otero Alcantara, arrested dozens of times in conjunction with his performance art, was charged once, for “defiling national symbols,” a case that was dropped after he spent 13 days incarcerated. He was arrested, among other times: on February 7, for walking around Havana wearing a hard hat in protest of several individuals killed when their state-owned house collapsed; on February 11, for protesting a state television decision to censor a kiss between two men; on September 8, moments after stepping outside his home holding a sign with a black and white sunflower, referencing the country’s patron saint; and on October 10, after gathering individuals to celebrate the anniversary of the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, the 1868 start of the country’s independence struggle).
Otero Alcantara was also arrested several times while demonstrating for the freedom of fellow MSI member Denis Solis, including on November 12 when Otero Alcantara and another activist attempted to present a writ of habeas corpus for Solis. Otero Alcantara was arrested on November 26 when authorities raided his house to break up a hunger strike of MSI members. At year’s end he remained on house arrest, despite the government’s not levying charges against him.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing matters deemed controversial. The organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or for affiliating with independent organizations.
Alexander Raul Pupo Casas told independent media outlet CiberCuba that he was forced out of his residency program in neurosurgery at the Ernesto Che Guevara Hospital. His supervisor, Ponce de Leon Noriega, viewed Facebook posts from Pupo Casas that were critical of the government, including its low salaries for medical professionals. Noriega then publicly denounced Pupo Casas as “counterrevolutionary” and started proceedings to expel him from the hospital.
Religious groups reported increased restrictions on expressing their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, with authorities sometimes using COVID-19 restrictions to prevent persons from worshipping. Most members of the clergy exercised self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state-sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all government-controlled outlets. The government controlled all printing presses and nearly all publications. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government limited the importation of printed materials.
Foreign correspondents had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. Foreign correspondents struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. The government harassed and denied access to correspondents who reported stories deemed critical of the government. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, foreign journalists rarely published stories on human rights violations while inside the country. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, journalists belonging to state media institutions who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred them from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations.
After Camila Acosta started working as an independent journalist in August 2019, she endured nearly constant state harassment and other abuses for her work. Since February she was forced to move at least six times (including several times during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak) due to police harassment of her landlords for “hosting a dissident.” She was arbitrarily arrested, detained, abused, fined, threatened, and interrogated at length on many occasions. For example, on July 31, she was waiting for friends in a park in Havana when two officers approached her, asked for her identity document, arrested her, and took her to a police station. Inside her bag they found several facemasks reading, “No to Decree 370,” a reference to legalized surveillance of electronic communication without a court order. The officers forced Acosta to strip and searched her further. Police fined her and threatened further prosecution for protesting the decree. On March 9, police arrested Acosta while she covered a demonstration for the freedom of artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (see section 2.a., Freedom of Speech). Police gave her a large fine and threatened her with “deportation” to her home province, Isla de la Juventud.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists frequently faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions were of independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad. On November 22, security forces allowed a progovernment mob to block registered foreign media teams from reporting on protests for the freedom of Denis Solis in Havana’s central park. Foreign media reported the mob “pushing, shoving, and punching one cameraman four or five times in the body.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers and magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.
The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character law to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons with the vague crime of “contempt of authority.”
The government restricted access to the internet, and the country had a low internet connectivity rate. All internet access was provided through state monopoly companies, and the government has unrestricted and unregulated legal authority to monitor citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and unrestricted surveillance to censor information critical of the regime and to silence its critics. Despite heavy restrictions, citizens circumvented government censorship through grassroots innovations. Access to blocked outlets was generally possible only through a virtual private network.
For most internet users, the cost of accessing non-Cuban sites remained higher than the cost of accessing domestic ones, most of which were controlled by the government. Some individuals could connect at low or no cost via state institutions where they worked or studied. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers, as well as the backbone internet infrastructure, which was directly controlled by the government.
The government selectively granted censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors, and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.
During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots and increased mobile service that allowed persons greater access to the internet on their cell phones through the state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi. The cost of this improved service was far beyond the means of most citizens; the cost of basic internet packages exceeded the average monthly wage.
In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of blocked websites fluctuated. The government blocked approximately 20 websites on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CiberCuba, 14yMedio, CubaNet, ADNCuba, Tremenda Nota, Marti Noticias, and other websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government blocked access to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report. The government blocked internet tools and websites that the government considered contrary to its interests.
Public reports revealed that the government monitored citizens’ internet use and retaliated against them for their speech. The government selectively blocked the communications of government critics to prevent them from communicating with one another, sharing content, or reporting on government harassment. This occurred, for example, when activists attempted to gather in protest of the killing of Hansel Hernandez on June 30 (see section b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). At least 20 activists and journalists had their connectivity to the internet severed by the state that day.
Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected the telecommunication service of human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, artist and activist Tania Bruguera reported that her internet access was blocked for at least 45 days after she participated in protests on November 27 and was subsequently illegally confined to house arrest.
Human rights activists reported government employees (“trolls”) tracked the social media accounts of activists. Activists also reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a grassroots system of user-owned and user-operated wireless networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that provides uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in 2019, and networks outside of government control essentially ceased to exist.
The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also technically illegal, but information on enforcement of this restriction was not available. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure problems, a growing number of citizens maintained news sites and blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from persons living outside the country, often expatriate Cubans. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, and other social networks to report independently, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention, physical abuse, and often the destruction or confiscation of their internet equipment and devices.
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing PCC rule through “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval. Government monitors were sometimes present at these meetings. Those persons permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives in Cuba. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced out of their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.
Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, academics and their students faced increased discrimination based on ideology and politics during the year.
On October 8, the NGO Observatory of Academic Freedom, founded in July by Cuban exiles, published the first of two reports on ideological discrimination in Cuban universities. In remarks accompanying the presentation, “Political Discrimination in Cuban Higher Education as a Violation of Academic Freedom,” several former Cuban academics described the censorship and punitive actions that led to their dismissals from university positions.
During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.
Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so carries a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or PCC officials. Some reported they received warnings from agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.
Independent activists and political parties other than the PCC faced greater obstacles than religious groups. State security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrations or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.
The government routinely arrested individuals who attempted to assemble, by either placing them under house arrest or taking them into custody if they left their residences.
On November 27, a group of persons assembled outside the Ministry of Culture to demonstrate against the government’s efforts to suppress protests. This was the sole example of a protest successfully forming and being allowed to disperse peacefully. At this event, well known cultural figures protested the government’s treatment of the MSI and its members and demanded the “right to have rights.”
On June 24, police killed Hansel Hernandez Galiano, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man, in Havana (see section 1.a.). Prominent activists soon adopted a #Justice4Hansel campaign and called for protests on June 30 at Havana’s Yara Theater. On the eve of the planned protests, the government arrested scores of potential protesters and deployed a sophisticated media campaign modeled on the #BlueLivesMatter countermovement. Reportedly, no one actually arrived at the protest site because at least 35 individuals were arrested and another 33 were held under house arrest before the planned protest.
State communications monopoly ETECSA, part of the Ministry of Communications, cut off internet access for targeted activists and independent journalists. A state security official informed one activist he would not be allowed to leave his house on June 30 and that whoever tried to attend the protest for Hansel Hernandez Galiano would be arrested for “propagation of an epidemic.” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of UNPACU and the most prominent opposition leader, endorsed the calls to protest. On June 30, police locked the front door to his house from the outside, and when Ferrer and his 17-year-old son climbed out from the roof to join the protest, police arrested them both. Two activists, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and rapper Maykel Castillo, were also arrested and taken into custody. (Days earlier, Otero Alcantara and Castillo had associated themselves with the #Justice4Hansel movement.) Police subsequently violently abused them and prevented them from filing a complaint. Everyone arrested for the June 30 protest was released within two days, except for Diario de Cuba reporter Jorge Enrique Rodriguez, who was held for five days after filming police violence against two young persons.
On October 10, the anniversary of the Grito de Yara proclaiming Cuban independence from Spain, the regime arrested–sometimes violently–more than 20 artists and activists in a crackdown on a peaceful demonstration for political change organized by the San Isidro Movement in Havana. According to media reports, the majority of the activists were held for approximately seven hours by police.
On numerous occasions, the government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” by crowds organized to assault and disperse persons who assembled peacefully. Persons in these crowds arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those who had peacefully assembled. The persons targeted by this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims, and they did not respond to victims’ complaints. Instead, government security officials frequently orchestrated activities against protesters or took direct part in physical assaults.
The government routinely denied freedom of association to citizens and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings.
For example, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), an association of female political activists originally formed to protest the detention of their male relatives, was subjected to arbitrary arrest whenever it tried to meet, constant surveillance of the house that served as their headquarters, and harassment by state officials and local PCC members.
Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the PCC’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities; it exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons and often limited freedom of movement for independent pastors.
Groups are required to register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities ignored applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups, women’s rights organizations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights organizations. The lack of official recognition left group members open to potential charges of illegal association.
The government gave preferential treatment to persons who took an active part in PCC activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government. Preferential treatments included valued public benefits such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
There were increased restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting and expelling persons from Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred some citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that these visitors were critical of the government, had “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors, or had defected when they were abroad as athletes. The government prevented many Cubans who normally were residents in another country but who were caught in Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic from leaving the country.
When former government employees emigrated from the country, sometimes their family members lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a moderate fine for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart the country clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were less frequent than in previous years. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly under quarantine as a precaution against COVID-19. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.
Under the terms of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally, assuming they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants in these circumstances, however, alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.
In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, establishing residence in Havana was restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization and send them back to their legally authorized residence. There were reports that authorities provided only limited social services to illegal Havana residents and at times restricted food purchases to a person’s official neighborhood of residence. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.
The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision, authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces, or that authorities detained and returned the dissidents to their homes, even though the dissidents had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to require persons from several professional and social categories to obtain permission to emigrate. The affected persons included highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists.
The government prohibited human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists from traveling outside the country to attend events related to human rights and democracy. The government used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad.
The government arbitrarily designated some persons as regulados (regulated persons), meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and officials denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse for an appeal. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression, because it was routinely applied when individuals attempted to travel to speak at conferences.
The government allegedly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Information about the extent of that cooperation was not publicly available.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their principles or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism, however, to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance pending third-country resettlement. In addition the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved.
The government regularly rendered citizens de facto stateless persons when it withheld consular services from employees and their families as punishment for abandoning a foreign work mission. There were reports of Cubans residing abroad who were refused a passport or other proof of identity or citizenship, including for direct return to Cuba. Children born abroad to Cuban citizens in these circumstances were unable to obtain recognition of their Cuban citizenship and may not have citizenship in their country of birth. Cubans residing outside of Cuba for more than 24 months may lose full citizenship rights.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government did not always respect this right. The press frequently and openly criticized public officials and public policy decisions. Individuals generally could criticize the government, its officials, and other citizens in private without being subject to official reprisals. Public criticism, however, of government officials and corruption sometimes resulted in intimidation, threats, or arrest. Provincial-level governments also prevented journalists from filming or covering some protests. Through June 30, the UNJHRO documented human rights abuses against at least 47 journalists and other media professionals. An HRW report in July stated that provincial-level officials were using the national state of emergency related to COVID-19 to restrict press freedoms and detain journalists and activists who criticized them or their policies.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits insulting the head of state, malicious and public slander, and language presumed to threaten national security. Authorities sometimes intimidated, harassed, and detained journalists, activists, and politicians when they publicly criticized the government, president, or SSF.
On July 9, Henri Maggie, the vice-president of the youth league for former president Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for contempt of President Felix Tshisekedi, under provisions of a 1963 ordinance that prohibits individuals from publicly insulting the head of state.
On May 9, in Lisala, Mongala Province, three activists–Peter Tetunabo, Taylor Engonga, and Yannick Mokanga–along with journalist Fabrice Ngani, were arrested when they delivered a note to the provincial parliament criticizing the governance record of Governor Crisbin Ngbundu Malengo. By June 8, all four had been released. According to Reporters without Borders, on June 17, provincial authorities revoked reporting credentials from Ngani and five other journalists.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law mandates the High Council for the Audiovisual and Communications to provide for freedom of the press and equal access to communications media and information for political parties, associations, and citizens. A large and active private press functioned in Kinshasa and in other major cities, and the government licensed a large number of daily newspapers. Radio remained the principal medium of public information due to limited literacy and the relatively high cost of newspapers and television. The state owned three radio stations and three television stations, and the former president’s family owned two additional television stations. Government officials, politicians, and to a lesser extent church leaders, owned or operated the majority of media outlets.
The government required newspapers to pay a one-time license fee and complete several administrative requirements before publishing. Broadcast media were subject to a Directorate for Administrative and Land Revenue advertisement tax. Many journalists lacked professional training, received little or no set salary, could not access government information, and exercised self-censorship due to concerns of harassment, intimidation, or arrest.
In November local NGO Journalists in Danger (JED) reported 116 cases of attacks on media from November 2019 to October and attributed 35 of these attacks to ANR and PNC agents. Another 48 were attributed to provincial and local political authorities. JED reported one journalist killed, one disappeared, nine incarcerated, and 31 detained for more than the legal limit of 48 hours without being charged. At year’s end the government had not sanctioned or charged any perpetrator of press freedom violations.
Violence and Harassment: Local journalists were vulnerable to intimidation and violence by the SSF.
HRW reported that on May 8, government security forces stopped three journalists working for Radio Fondation–Daniel Madimba, Serge Kayeye, and Jean-Baptiste Kabeya–at a roadblock on the outskirts of Mbuji-Mayi, Kasai Oriental Province. The two were accused of insulting Provincial Governor Jean Maweja Muteba and were subsequently assaulted. The following day, police arrested the radio station’s program director, Faustin Mbiya, interrogated him, and accused him of “contempt of authority” and “public insult.” On May 13, Mbiya was released without charge.
Local media reported that on July 4, PNC officers in Kinshasa detained Ange Makadi Ngoy, a journalist for the online news site 7sur7.cd, as she filmed protests. Ange stated the officers confiscated her press badge and equipment.
Local media also reported that on July 12, the ANR arrested Patrick Palata, director of the Tala Tala TV station in Matadi, Kongo Central Province, for having broadcast a report on the shooting death of a local woman. Authorities confiscated his recordings, which contained witness testimony alleging that guards of Governor Atou Matubouana killed the woman. On July 14, Palata was released without charge.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: While the High Council for Audiovisual and Communications is the only institution with legal authority to restrict broadcasts, the government, including the SSF and provincial officials, also exercised this power.
Media representatives reported they were pressured by provincial government authorities not to cover events organized by the opposition or report news concerning opposition leaders.
JED reported that on May 26, Crispin Ngbundu, governor of Mongala Province, ordered the closure of four radio stations: Radio Mongala, The Voice of Bumba, The Rural Radio of Bumba, and Radio Mwana Mboka. Ngbundu’s orders accused radio journalists of defamation and insulting provincial authorities. On June 17, Mongala provincial authorities issued an order for the immediate dismissal of six journalists from three of those stations: Fabrice Ngani, Victor Mbonzo, Tresor Emaka, and Jose Lingili from the Voice of Bumba; Olivier Peguy Yenga of Radio Mongala; and Benjamin Mondonga of Radio Mwana Mboka.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law does not consider the veracity of reported facts in the case of a defamation complaint. Instead, the judge is only to consider the damage to the accused from revelations in a journalist’s work.
The national and provincial governments used defamation laws to intimidate and punish critics. On April 24, according to HRW, police in Gemena, Sud Ubangi Province, arrested Alexandre Robert Mawelu, a reporter for Radio Liberte, after he had criticized the provincial governor in a social media forum linked to his radio show. On April 29, Mwelu was granted provisional release, but he still faced official charges of “contempt for a member of the government” and “defamatory statements” as of the end of July.
National Security: The national government used a law that prohibits anyone from making general defamatory accusations against the military to restrict free speech.
Nongovernmental Impact: IAGs and their political wings regularly restricted press freedom in the areas where they operated.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were some reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no reported government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but government authorities restricted this right and prevented those critical of the government from exercising their right to peaceful assembly, especially in Upper Uele, North Kivu, and Tanganyika Provinces. The law requires organizers of public events to notify local authorities in advance of the event. The government sometimes used this advance notification requirement to decline to authorize public meetings or protests organized by opposition parties or civil society groups critical of the government. During the COVID-19-related state of emergency, which lasted from March 24 through August 15, public gatherings of more than 20 persons were banned. The SSF beat, detained, or arrested persons participating in protests, marches, and meetings. The SSF also used tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times live ammunition, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and injuries.
Local media reported that on January 17, meetings called by opposition leader Martin Fayulu were banned in six cities. Protesters in Kinshasa and Kindu were violently dispersed.
The United Nations recorded 57 human rights violations committed by state agents related to the COVID-19 state of emergency. For example, on April 4, PNC officers arrested 14 members of the youth activist group LUCHA in Kinshasa as they were preparing to submit documentation to a COVID-19 working group. Police also beat some of them. The victims were accused of failing to comply with the state of emergency’s limit on gatherings of more than 20 individuals.
On July 9, local media also reported that police in Kinshasa broke up a street protest against the COVID-19-related closure of the Zando market. During the scuffle three persons were killed, two were electrocuted by downed power lines, and one was crushed by the stampeding crowd.
MONUSCO reported that the majority of human rights abuses during the state of emergency came from individual SSF agents taking advantage of the situation to mistreat, arbitrarily arrest, or extort victims. The UNJHRO reported that on April 4, PNC officers arbitrarily arrested a woman and her daughter in Nyaragongo, North Kivu Province, under the pretext that the provincial governor’s public health orders allowed police to arrest anyone caught chatting in the streets. The two women were forced to give police a bribe in order to be released.
The UNJHRO reported more restrictions on democratic space and human rights violations related to fundamental freedoms, compared with the same period in 2019. In the first six months of the year, the office documented 573 violations of democratic space, compared with 461 violations recorded during the same period in 2019. These included restrictions on freedom of assembly, the right to liberty and security of person, and of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Civil society organizations and NGOs are required to register with the government and may receive funds only through donations; they may not generate any revenue, even if it is not at a profit. The registration process was burdensome and very slow. Some groups, particularly within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community, reported the government had denied their registration requests. Many NGOs reported that, even when carefully following the registration process, it often took years to receive certification. Many interpreted registration difficulties as intentional government obstacles for impeding NGO activity.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government sometimes restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: The SSF established barriers and checkpoints on roads and at airports and markets, both for security reasons and to track movement related to the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks. Travel was significantly restricted during the COVID-19 state of emergency. The SSF routinely harassed and extorted money from civilians for supposed violations, sometimes detaining them until they or a relative paid. The government required travelers to submit to control procedures at airports and ports during domestic travel and when entering and leaving towns. IAGs engaged in similar activity in areas under their control, routinely extorting civilians at checkpoints and holding them for ransom.
Local authorities continued to collect illegal taxes and fees for boats to travel on many parts of the Congo River. There also were widespread reports FARDC soldiers and IAG combatants extorted fees from persons taking goods to market or traveling between towns (see section 1.g.).
The SSF sometimes required travelers to present travel orders from an employer or government official, although the law does not require such documentation. The SSF often detained and sometimes exacted bribes from individuals traveling without orders.
Foreign Travel: Because of inadequate administrative systems, passport issuance was irregular. Officials accepted bribes to expedite passport issuance, and there were reports the price of fully biometric passports varied widely.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that, including individuals displaced for longer than 12 months, there were 5.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), including 3.2 million children, in the country. The government was unable to consistently protect or assist IDPs adequately but generally allowed domestic and international humanitarian organizations to do so. The government sometimes closed IDP camps without coordinating with the international humanitarian community. UNHCR and other international humanitarian organizations worked to close IDP sites where the security situation was relatively stable.
Conflict, insecurity, and poor infrastructure adversely affected humanitarian efforts to assist IDPs. In August, UNHCR stated there were 1.7 million IDPs in Ituri Province; the agency had no access to certain zones in the region due to insecurity and inability to travel. Due to lack of funding, the humanitarian response plan for the country targeted only half of the persons in need in Ituri Province. Population displacements continued, particularly in the east. Many areas with IDPs continued to experience insecurity, such as North Kivu’s Beni Territory, Ituri Province, South Kivu’s Fizi Territory, and Maniema and Tanganyika Provinces. Intercommunal violence and fighting among armed groups in the east resulted in continued population displacement and increased humanitarian needs for IDPs and host communities.
Due to the remote location, weak civilian authority, and insecurity of the Kasai region, humanitarian access was difficult, and IDPs lived in poor conditions without adequate shelter or protection. Women and girls were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence, including gang rape. UNHCR representatives stated that 4,500 Congolese were forcibly repatriated from Angola in May and June. Seventy percent of returnees lingered along the DRC-Angola border, waiting to return to Angola if and when the situation there improved.
Combatants and other civilians abused IDPs. Abuses included killings, sexual exploitation of women and children (including rape), abduction, forced conscription, looting, illegal taxation, and general harassment.
The government occasionally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
As of June 30, UNHCR reported 528,752 refugees in the country, primarily from seven adjacent countries, of whom approximately 214,000 were from Rwanda. Of the refugees in the country, 63 percent were children.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Continuing conflict in North and South Kivu, Ituri, Upper Uele, and Tanganyika Provinces harmed refugees and IDPs in the regions, with attacks often resulting in deaths and further displacement. UNHCR reported Rwandan refugees in the Masisi Territory of North Kivu were subject to cyclical displacement as a result of FARDC and IAG operations and were forced to relocate to South Kivu Province.
Incursions by South Sudanese forces into areas of northern DRC affected security for asylum seekers, refugees and Congolese returnees, as well as local populations.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government established a rudimentary system for providing protection to refugees. The system granted refugee and asylum status and provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
As of June 30, there were 2,807 asylum seekers in the country. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees and asylum seekers with welfare and safety needs. The government assisted in the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes by allowing their entry into the country and facilitating immigration processing. In establishing security mechanisms, government authorities did not treat refugees differently than citizens.
Durable Solutions: As of September, more than 1,100 refugees returned to the Central African Republic from the northern part of the country. COVID-19 restrictions prevented other voluntary returns.
The country did not invoke the cessation clause effective in 2013 for Rwandan refugees who fled Rwanda before the end of 1998. In 2016 the government joined other refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR to commit to facilitating repatriation of Rwandans from countries of asylum. To implement the tripartite agreement from 2014, the National Commission on Refugees and UNHCR began in 2016 the process of biometrically registering Rwandan refugees who opted to remain in the country. Refugees received long-term, renewable permits to remain in the country. The program included a path to citizenship. Conflict impeded the process in North Kivu, where most of the refugees were located. UNHCR continued to support voluntary repatriation, and between January and August it assisted in repatriating 499 Rwandan refugees.
In late December 2019, local media reported that 1,919 Rwandan refugees in South Kivu Province were repatriated following a FARDC offensive against IAGs in the area. The population included former combatants and their family members. Of this population, 529 were refugees registered with UNHCR. UNHCR was unable to meet with the refugee population prior to the event to ascertain whether their return to Rwanda was voluntary. The event was not in accord with the UNHCR-DRC-Rwanda Tripartite Agreement on refugee returns.
As of September 30, UNHCR reported 281 refugees voluntarily returned to Burundi.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to an undetermined number of individuals who may not qualify as refugees (see section 1.g.).
The country has a population of de facto stateless residents and persons at risk of statelessness, including persons of Sudanese origin living in the northeast, Mbororo pastoralists in the far north, forced returnees from Angola and former Angolan refugees, mixed-race persons who are denied naturalization, and Congolese citizens without civil documentation. There were no accurate estimates of this population’s size. The law does not discriminate in granting citizenship on the grounds of gender, religion, or disability; however, the naturalization process is cumbersome and requires parliamentary approval of individual citizenship applications. Persons whose names are not spelled according to local custom were often denied citizenship, as were individuals with lighter colored skin. Persons without national identification cards were sometimes arbitrarily arrested by the SSF.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the law provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, the government severely restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech: The government severely restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government in public or in private through intimidation by national security forces.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law bans private broadcast media and foreign ownership of media. The government controlled all domestic media, including one newspaper published in four languages, three radio stations, and two television stations.
The law requires journalists to be licensed. The law restricts printing and publication of materials. The printing of a publication by anyone lacking a permit and the printing or dissemination of prohibited foreign publications are both punishable under the law. Government approval is required for distribution of publications from religious or international organizations.
On May 6, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 16 journalists in detention.
The government did not prevent persons from installing satellite dishes that provided access to international cable television networks and programs. The use of satellite dishes was common nationwide in cities as well as villages. Access to South Africa’s Digital Satellite Television required government approval, and a subscriber’s bill could be paid only in hard currency, but access to free Egyptian satellite television was common. Satellite radio stations operated by diaspora Eritreans reached listeners in the country. Citizens could also receive radio broadcasts originating in Ethiopia.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not provide information on the location or health of journalists it detained and who were held incommunicado.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law requires submission of documents, including books, to the government for approval prior to publication. Most independent journalists were in detention or lived abroad, which limited domestic media criticism of the government. Authorities required journalists to obtain government permission to take photographs. Journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of government reprisal.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel as a misdemeanor and prescribes a punishment of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine. The law also criminalizes “malicious injury to honor or reputation,” which covers true statements communicated solely to damage a person’s reputation, and prescribes a punishment of less than one month in prison and a fine. It is unclear if these provisions were enforced.
National Security: The government repeatedly asserted national security concerns were the basis of limitations on free speech and expression.
The government monitored some internet communications, including email, without appropriate legal authority. Government informants were reported to frequent internet cafes, prior to their closure as an anti-COVID-19 measure. Some citizens expressed fear of arrest if caught viewing opposition sites. Nonetheless, the sites were generally available.
In February a media report described the deployment of a 30-member intelligence unit to monitor internet activities. The report also claimed that an unspecified number of technology experts and cyber cafe owners arrested in 2019 on accusations of disseminating material from the diaspora and supporting an opposition group in exile remained in detention.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
With few exceptions, secondary school students must complete their final year of high school at the government’s Sawa National Training and Education Center. Students also had to complete a four-month military training program at Sawa to be allowed to take entrance exams for institutions of higher education (see section 6, Children).
The government sometimes denied passports or exit visas to students and faculty who wanted to study or do research abroad.
The government censored film showings and other cultural activities. It monitored libraries and cultural centers maintained by foreign embassies and in some instances questioned employees and users. The government directly sponsored most major cultural events or collaborated with various embassies and foreign cultural institutions in sponsoring musical performances by international performers. All cultural centers, cinemas, and libraries were closed, however, in April as a COVID-19 countermeasure.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. For some public gatherings, the government intermittently required those assembling to obtain permits. Authorities investigated and interfered with large gatherings lacking prior approval, with the exception of gatherings of government-affiliated organizations that were social in nature, or of religious observances of the four officially registered religious groups.
The law provides citizens the right to form organizations for political, social, economic, and cultural ends. It specifies their conduct must be open and transparent and that they must be guided by principles of national unity and democracy. The government did not respect freedom of association. It prohibited the formation of civil society organizations except those with official sponsorship. The government generally did not allow local organizations to receive funding and other resources from, or to associate with, foreign and international organizations.
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, but the government restricted all these rights.
In-country Movement: The government requires citizens to notify local authorities when they change residence, although many did not. When traveling within the country, particularly in remote regions or near borders, authorities required citizens to provide justification for travel at checkpoints.
Travel restrictions on noncitizens lawfully in the country remained in effect. The government required all diplomats, international humanitarian workers, UN staff, and foreigners to request permission from the government at least 10 days in advance to travel more than 15 miles (25 kilometers) outside of Asmara. During the year, however, the government on many occasions approved requests with fewer than 10 days’ advance notice.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government required citizens, sometimes including dual nationals, to obtain exit visas. Requirements for obtaining passports and exit visas were inconsistent and nontransparent. The government often denied citizens passports and exit visas because they had not completed their military or national service duties or for arbitrary or unstated reasons. Authorities generally did not give exit visas to children older than age five. Categories of persons most commonly denied exit visas included men younger than 40, regardless of whether they had completed the military portion of national service, and women younger than 30. Authorities were more likely to approve exit visas for married women and those with children. All land borders remained closed, preventing legal overland travel.
Exile: In general, citizens had the right to return, but citizens residing abroad had to show proof they paid the two percent tax on foreign earned income to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be eligible for some future government services and documents, including exit permits, birth or marriage certificates, passport renewals, and real estate transactions. The government enforced this requirement inconsistently.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government did not cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regarding treatment of refugees inside the country. The government defined refugee status differently than do the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The government continued downsizing the Umkulu Refugee Camp. Of the more than 2,100 refugees housed at the camp in 2018, only 80 remained in the country as of October. Most of those who left have relocated to refugee camps in Ethiopia.
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 government did not recognize Ethiopians, Sudanese, or South Sudanese as refugees, instead considering them economic migrants. The government, however, allowed these refugees to remain in the country.
Employment: Refugees were not granted formal work permits, but some worked informally.
Access to Basic Services: Persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin living in the country sometimes claimed they received social entitlements commensurate with the perceived degree of their loyalty to the government, including ration coupons to buy essentials at government-subsidized prices.
Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Somalis were able to access basic government services upon procuring and presenting residency permits.
Durable Solutions: Although the government did not grant persons of Ethiopian and Sudanese origin asylum or refugee status, authorities permitted them to remain in the country and to live among the local population instead of in a refugee camp. Authorities granted them residency permits that gave them access to government services. Authorities granted Sudanese and Ethiopians exit visas to leave the country for resettlement and study.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government regularly encroached upon this right. Although an independent press, an impartial judiciary, and unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters, human rights advocates claimed that those rights were increasingly jeopardized or already being eroded. Some SAR and Chinese central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence or self-determination.
Freedom of Speech: There were legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. In July some of the initial NSL arrests included individuals carrying stickers and signs with slogans critical of the government. In September the government charged an activist for chanting antigovernment slogans under a colonial-era sedition statute that had not been used since the SAR’s handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong activists and legal scholars raised concerns that the sedition statute is incompatible with the freedoms listed in Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, since 2016 the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates, in order to run for office, to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China. In July the commission disqualified several candidates for speech made before passage of the NSL. In November the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing issued a decision that any public or elected officials found to be engaged in “unpatriotic” behavior, including speech, would immediately be disqualified for the positions they held. The decision was applied to four sitting Legislative Council members earlier disqualified for running for re-election. The SAR government subsequently announced the four members were immediately disqualified for the remainder of the Legislative Council session. There was no judicial recourse.
In November the government announced plans to require all civil servants to swear oaths of loyalty to the SAR government and the Basic Law. Government officials began to conduct the oaths in December. According to media reports, civil servants may lose their jobs if they refuse to swear the oath and may face criminal charges, including under the NSL, if they later engage in behavior, including speech, deemed to violate the oaths. Hong Kong authorities and Beijing officials insinuated that interactions with foreign diplomats could be considered “collusion” under the NSL.
Any speech critical of the central or local government or its policies may be construed as prosecession, subversive, or inciting hate against the government. On November 8, when a crowd of protesters chanted protest slogans as they gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of student Chow Tsz-lok, whose cause of death remained unknown but occurred in the proximity of protests, police warned protesters that their actions could violate both the NSL and COVID-19 restrictions.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, although they were increasingly constrained. In August, Hong Kong immigration authorities denied a visa to Hong Kong-based Irish journalist Aaron McNicholas, the newly selected editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website. In September, SAR police told media organizations that journalists would henceforth have to be credentialed by and registered with police to cover public events, such as demonstrations or conferences. Police claimed this was required to deter “fake” reporters at protests, while media advocates stated that the SAR’s real objective was to control access to information. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club stated that the change disregards the vetting and membership processes of Hong Kong’s independent journalist associations.
SAR police in November arrested a producer of a documentary on a violent incident in 2019, when rod-wielding men attacked protesters at the Yuen Long subway station. Activists and protesters claimed that police were deliberately slow to respond to the incident; many accused police of colluding with the mob. Police arrested the producer for violating a traffic ordinance by using license plate information from a publicly available government website to identify owners of vehicles, including police, near the subway station. Media outlets reported that for years many journalists routinely used the website to inform their reporting. While the law exists, authorities did not enforce it until after reportedly changing the website to remove the option of stating such research was for journalistic purposes.
Violence and Harassment: On August 10, Jimmy Lai, owner of the independent newspaper Apple Daily, as well as his two sons and four senior executives, were arrested on suspicion of fraud. All were subsequently released on bail. That same day, police raided the Apple Daily offices, permitting only progovernment journalists to cover their search. A court later found the search and seizure of reporting material illegal and required it be returned. In 2019 the personal information of 132 members of Apple Daily’s staff was published online anonymously; the newspaper reported that its investigation traced the leak to PRC national security agencies. Several journalists from other outlets alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them, a claim supported by the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. Some media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship. In August staff at i-Cable Communications Limited, a television and internet broadcaster, protested management’s decision to replace several executives and the news director with persons perceived as more progovernment. Former i-Cable staff reported that the coverage and editing of stories were increasingly designed to reduce the presence of pro-opposition themes and personalities. In May the public broadcasting service Radio Television Hong Kong suspended a satirical television program after the Communications Authority issued it a warning for “denigration of and insult to police,” reportedly after pressure from the police commissioner. In September, Radio Television Hong Kong extended the employment probation of a reporter following complaints from progovernment groups about her tough questioning of SAR officials. In December there were media reports that a Hong Kong bookstore chain refused to stock a book on Hong Kong history because of concerns about the NSL.
The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use. Messages posted on Facebook, Telegram, and LIHKG (a local website) led to arrests under the NSL, causing concern and self-censorship. In December police cited Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai’s use of Facebook and Twitter as circumstantial evidence in the decision to charge Lai with collusion under the NSL. NGOs and some media outlets reported focusing on digital security to protect their privacy, partners, and sources.
When handling issues related to national security violations, the national security divisions of the police force may require a person who published information or the relevant service provider to remove the content or assist the national security divisions. Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, and Twitter reported denying the SAR government access to individuals’ data.
There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events.
Universities allowed contracts to lapse or fired prodemocracy professors. In July the University of Hong Kong fired Benny Tai, a tenured law professor and prodemocracy activist. The decision was made by a board appointed by the chief executive.
Academics and prodemocracy advocates reported NSL-related changes to secondary education texts. In August some textbook publishers agreed to a government-initiated voluntary review of liberal arts textbooks and subsequently, removed the phrase “separation of powers,” images related to Hong Kong’s protests, and some criticism of the Chinese political system, according to media reports.
SAR officials encouraged teachers to avoid voicing political opinions in academic settings. In October officials revoked the registration of a primary school teacher who allegedly used materials related to Hong Kong independence in a classroom discussion of freedom of speech, effectively banning the teacher from working in Hong Kong’s education sector for the rest of his life. In November officials revoked the registration of a second teacher for alleged factual misrepresentation in a history lesson. In July officials announced they had begun nearly 200 investigations of teachers for participation in the 2019 protest movement.
COVID-19 precautions limited cultural events. In September a museum dedicated to memorializing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre opened in a new, permanent location after several years of temporary locations and difficulties maintaining a lease due to alleged landlord pressure.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government, however, restricted public gatherings, claiming COVID-19 concerns.
While the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government cited COVID-19 restrictions to ban peaceful assembly, although civil rights organizations stated the denial was based more on political than public-health considerations. Before 2019 police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and central government. After violence occurred during some of the 2019 protests, police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches.
In April police arrested 15 high-profile prodemocracy leaders, including former chairs of the Democratic and Labor parties, for “organizing and participating in unlawful assembly” in 2019.
Because of the strict limits on any public gathering due to health restrictions, police have not issued any “letters of no objection” for public demonstrations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time since 1990, police denied a permit for a June 4 Tiananmen Square vigil, citing social distancing concerns. Police also refused to allow the Chinese National Day prodemocracy protest in October, although official gatherings did take place. Protesters marched in defiance of the ban, flanked by a heavy police presence; there were dozens of arrests.
SAR law provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it if the group was deemed a national security concern. Several proindependence political parties and activist groups disbanded in June after the NSL was announced, due to fear their freedom of association would no longer be respected.
Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison and fined. Those convicted of providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government sometimes confiscated travel documents and enforced travel bans for democracy activists and opposition politicians facing charges. Activists reported that the Hong Kong Police Force monitored a group of 12 activists seeking to travel from Hong Kong to Taiwan by speedboat and shared information on the group with mainland Chinese authorities, leading to their detention by the Chinese Coast Guard. Since the group’s detention, Shenzhen authorities have prevented the activists from hiring lawyers of their choice and from communicating with their family members, contrary to PRC regulations regarding the treatment of detainees. The youngest of the group are minors. COVID-19 health precautions also limited immediate foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In January immigration officials denied entry to Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, stating the department did not comment on individual cases, but that it would “fully consider all relevant factors and circumstances of a case before deciding whether the entry should be allowed or not.” Chinese central government authorities “sanctioned” democracy-focused NGO employees and others for their advocacy and work in Hong Kong, blocking them from traveling to Hong Kong. Neither the Hong Kong government nor central government would provide information on what the ‘sanctions’ entail.
Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government. Hong Kong authorities blocked some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators from visiting the mainland.
The government cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were the frequent target of negative commentary by some political parties and media organizations.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, but the SAR government has established a system for providing limited protection to persons who would be subject to torture or other abuses in their home country.
The SAR government uses the term “nonrefoulement claim” to refer to a claim for protection against deportation. Persons subject to deportation could file a nonrefoulement claim if they either arrived in the SAR without proper authorization or had overstayed the terms of their admittance. Filing such a claim typically resulted in a period of detention followed by release on recognizance. Activists and refugee rights groups expressed concerns about the quality of adjudications and the very low rate of approved claims, fewer than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice that the Hong Kong Bar Association previously noted created concerns about the consistency and transparency of decisions. Persons whose claims were pending were required to appear periodically before the Immigration Department.
Employment: “Nonrefoulement claimants” have no right to work in the SAR while their claims are under review, and they must rely on social welfare stipends and charities. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to work legally in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking. The SAR government, however, frequently granted exceptions to this rule for persons granted nondeportation status and awaiting UNHCR resettlement.
Access to Basic Services: Persons who made “nonrefoulement” claims were eligible to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. The children of such claimants could attend SAR public schools.
Temporary Protection: Persons whose claims for “nonrefoulement” are substantiated do not obtain permanent resident status in the SAR. Instead the SAR government refers them to UNHCR for possible recognition as refugees and resettlement in a third country. In some cases, individuals waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.
Freedom of Speech: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of provisions of law on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted these provisions to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm such violations of law as arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. This was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.
Security services and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.
On March 21, the government declared a state of emergency for one month due to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The Media Policy Institute (MPI) reported the restrictions introduced in the state of emergency hampered the ability of journalists to report on the effects of COVID-19. MPI noted that the Commandant of Bishkek, the office in charge of the COVID-19 response in the capital, initially refused to accredit journalists to permit them to travel to report on the epidemic. Additionally, MPI reported that only state media was able to report from medical centers, despite the Commandant’s claim that journalists would not receive accreditation due to health and safety reasons. Law enforcement also warned that anyone publishing “false” information about the epidemic could be charged with a crime.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.
In a 2019 investigation, local Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)-affiliate Azattyk, online Kloop media, and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an expose that implicated former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov in a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme. In the aftermath of the report, RFE/RL relocated some of their journalists to Prague amid serious threats to their lives and families, for fear of political reprisal. On April 10, former Osh customs officer Emilbek Kimsanov released a video showing purported text messages from Matraimov offering to pay Kimsanov for the return of Ali Toktokunov, one of the journalists who broke the corruption scandal, to the country “dead or alive.”
On January 9, two men assaulted Bolot Temirov, the founder of Factcheck.kg, a local investigative reporting website, after publishing an investigation into former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov detailing how the Matraimov family spent far more than their reported income would suggest. After the assault, Temirov stated that the attackers only stole his phone, which caused him to believe the attack was motivated by intimidation.
In June unknown assailants firebombed the Talas office of a small independent television channel, 3 Kanal. No one was injured in the attack; however, the head of the broadcaster estimated that the damage totaled approximately $15,000.
On October 5, during protests against parliamentary elections, there were multiple reported cases of violence against press. During a live broadcast, police fired a rubber bullet directly at a correspondent for Nastoyashchee Vremya, a Voice of America affiliate, and during a live recording, police seized a phone from a 24.kg reporter. On October 6, while a journalist from independent media outlet Kaktus broadcast live from a hotel hosting a meeting by some members of parliament, supporters of Sadyr Japarov reportedly attacked the reporter, surrounding her and demanding she stop filming. On October 10, 20-30 individuals tried to force their way into the Sputnik.kg office, demanding that the outlet send a reporter to cover a pro-Japarov protest occurring in the city. The mob allegedly threatened the editorial staff, saying Sputnik.kg had 30 minutes to begin broadcasting, otherwise they would break down the door and attack the office.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from government offices to report in a particular way or to ignore specific news stories.
NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.
In April local media reported that private citizens who criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 were coerced by government officials into recanting their reports and publicly apologizing to the government. The GKNB, the agency publishing videos of the apologies, denied they had pressured anyone to apologize and claimed the videos were submitted voluntarily. A doctor who posted a message on Twitter about the poor quality of personal protective equipment for medical workers claimed he was forced to apologize and later deleted his Twitter account.
Libel/Slander Laws: While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.
In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite some improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. In January former deputy customs head Raimbek Matraimov, along with his brother MP Iskander Matraimov, sued Kloop, Azattyk Radio, and 24.kg in response to the publication of an investigative series on a multimillion-dollar corruption scheme centered on Raimbek Matraimov. Initially, the judge in the case froze the assets of all of the media organizations but later reversed the decision. The Matraimovs dropped their suit against 24.kg after a retraction published on their website.
On August 19, Jalalabad police summoned AKIpress reporter Bekmamat Abdumalik uulu, purportedly in connection to a libel case. Abdumalik uulu asserted he was questioned in relation to a blog post critical of the government. A Ministry of Interior spokesperson claimed they had received a formal complaint that accused the journalist of disseminating “false rumors harmful to reputation and honor.” The Media Policy Institute, a press advocacy organization, issued a statement that noted libel laws are matters for civil litigation, and the police therefore illegally questioned Abdumalik uulu.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including social media sites. There were no public credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The Civic Initiative on Internet Policy reported on 371 internet resources that are blocked by the government, including archive.org, soundcloud.com, and numerous links to Facebook and YouTube. The Civic Initiative for Internet Policy noted there were some sites the government blocked without a court order, including Change.org, which was blocked after a petition appeared calling for the impeachment of the president.
NGOs reported that security services have shifted to online monitoring of social media accounts, and media reported that the government targeted bloggers and social media users for critical internet posts. On July 15, the GKNB interrogated comedian Nazgul Alymkulova over satirical posts about the president and the government. Two days later, police detained Argen Baktybek uulu, an administrator of the Facebook group Memestan, over posts critical of the government. Baktybek was detained due to “the dissemination of information that demeans the authorities.” On July 28, the GKNB interrogated Eldiyar Zholdoshev after he posted a video online that criticized the government’s response to COVID-19 and called President Jeenbekov the worst president in the history of the country. The GKNB claimed that Zholdoshev had violated the law against incitement of racial, ethnic, religious, or interregional hatred.
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community reported that authorities regularly monitored chatrooms and dating sites in an effort to punish and extort those who were seeking homosexual sex through online venues.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Institutions providing advanced religious education must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The constitution provides for this right, although it limited peaceful assembly in Bishkek and Talas, with local governments refusing to issue permits for peaceful marches. Organizers and participants are responsible for notifying authorities of planned assemblies, but the constitution prohibits authorities from banning or restricting peaceful assemblies, even in the absence of prior notification. Local authorities, however, have the right to demand an end to a public action and, in the event of noncompliance, are empowered to take measures to end assemblies.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the government reportedly used public health concerns as a pretext for preventing peaceful protests. On March 5, during preparation for the annual Women’s March, a district court ruled that the event would not be allowed to proceed due to concerns about COVID-19. On March 6, the court reversed its decision, and allowed the march to take place. During the march, ultranationalists attacked the demonstrators, in some cases physically assaulting women marchers. The police allowed the attack to continue with impunity, and arrested the peaceful marchers. After the arrests, multiple human rights NGOs reported lawyers were denied access to their clients. After several hours, the police released the detainees, and the Prosecutor General’s Office declined to press charges. On March 10, members of Kyrk Choro (Forty Knights), the ultranationalist group that attacked the march, were fined for their part in the violence.
The law provides for freedom of association, although the government increased harassment of NGOs. NGOs are required to have at least three members and all other organizations at least 10 members. The Ministry of Justice did not refuse to register any domestic NGOs. The law prohibits foreign-funded political parties and NGOs, including their representative offices and branches, from pursuing political goals.
During the first half of the year, targeted harassment of NGOs and their workers by the government and ultranationalist groups increased significantly. These attacks appear to have centered on NGOs opposing proposed legislation to increase the requirements for the registration of NGOs. NGOs reported harassment from government security agencies, including unannounced visits to NGO offices, and threats. Additionally, ultranationalist groups repeatedly threatened NGOs. During one public meeting on the potential effects of the proposed legislation, a group of ultranationalists assaulted the security staff, gained entrance to the meeting, and publicly threatened to burn down the office of an NGO. Under pressure from civil society groups, parliament decided to delay consideration of the proposed law.
The government continued to maintain bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Kurdish People’s Congress, the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky.
Numerous human rights activists reported continued arrests and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature (see section 1.d.). Most arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members occurred in the southern part of the country and involved ethnic Uzbeks.
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.
Foreign Travel: The law prohibits travel abroad by citizens who have or had access to information classified as state secrets until the information is declassified.
Citizenship: The law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The government did not use the law during the year.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to provide some protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In April the State Migration Service reported there were 193 refugees in the country, including 87 from Afghanistan.
Refoulement: In August the GKNB arrested Bobomorud Abdullayev, an Uzbek journalist who alleged he was tortured in Uzbekistan for his work. According to the GKNB, the government of Uzbekistan requested his arrest. Despite his request for asylum, the GKNB allegedly refused to permit Abdullayev access to his lawyers, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, or the UNHCR. Despite calls from civil society not to extradite Abdullayev, the government handed over Abdullayev to Uzbek authorities on August 22, without an extradition hearing as required by law. On August 28, Abdullayev’s lawyers alleged that the GKNB tortured Abdullayev during his detention.
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 on refugees includes nondiscrimination provisions covering persons who UNHCR did not grant refugee status to when they left their country of origin and extends the validity of documents until a final decision on status is determined by a court. Despite local law the government has ignored asylum requests from asylum seekers likely to be tortured upon their return to their home country.
Employment: The government grants legal permission to work to individuals UNHCR has determined are refugees and to whom the government has granted official residency status in the country. Not all refugees qualify for residency status according to the government. Individuals who UNHCR has determined are refugees, but to whom the government has not conferred legal residency, are not legally permitted to work, access medical services, or receive identity documents. Therefore, they are susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities.
Access to Basic Services: The government deemed individuals whom UNHCR determined ineligible for refugee status, as well as asylum seekers who lacked official status, as ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.
Freedom of Speech: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government. In June 2019 Australian citizen Alek Sigley was detained and deported after the government cited “antistate incitement” in articles Sigley published in international publications. In its September 2019 report entitled North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial, the HRNK asserted that all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically may be punished, including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported that expression of political opinion differing from that of North Korean authorities, negative reference to the Kim family, and positive reference to South Korea constituted “misspeaking” and often resulted in extrajudicial detention in a kwanliso political prisoner camp.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government sought to control virtually all information; independent media do not exist. Domestic journalists had no freedom to investigate stories or report freely. The government tightly controlled print media, broadcast media, book publishing, and online media through the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Within the department, the Publication and Broadcasting Department controls all media content, including content used on television, in newspapers, and on the radio. The law allows for up to one-year sentences to a labor camp for individuals who access or disseminate unapproved broadcasts or content and up to five years for multiple offenses.
The government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists, and at times expelled or denied foreign journalists’ entry to the country. During visits by foreign leaders, authorities permitted groups of foreign journalists to accompany official delegations and file reports. In all cases the state strictly monitored journalists. Government officials generally prevented journalists from talking to officials or to persons on the street.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Strict enforcement of domestic media censorship continued, with no toleration for deviation from official messages. The government prohibited listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators were subjected to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, received only domestic programming; radios obtained from abroad were altered for the same end. Elite citizens and facilities for foreigners, such as hotels, had access to international television broadcasts via satellite. The government continued attempts to jam all foreign radio broadcasts, but the HRNK’s Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive noted a proliferation of foreign broadcasting transmitters had in recent years begun to overwhelm the jamming effort. Officials imprisoned and punished citizens for listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts and, in some cases, for simply owning radio or television sets able to receive nongovernment broadcasts.
National Security: Defector and NGO reports included accounts of individuals detained and punished, including by execution, for antistate crimes such as criticism of the government and Kim Jong Un.
Internet access was limited to high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including selected university students. In December 2019 the HRNK reported that the government maintained complete visibility of all network traffic. The Korea Computer Center, which acts as the government’s gatekeeper to the internet, granted access only to information it deemed acceptable, and employees constantly monitored users’ screens.
A tightly controlled and regulated intranet was reportedly available to a growing group of users centered in Pyongyang, including an elite primary school; selected research institutions, universities, and factories; and a few individuals. The NGO Reporters without Borders reported some email access existed through this internal network. Government employees sometimes had limited, closely monitored access to email accounts. The 3G cell phone network was described by the HRNK in an October report as antiquated and limiting users’ access to an internal intranet. The HRNK separately reported that the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that, among other things, log every webpage visited and randomly take undeletable screenshots.
The government continued its attempt to limit foreign influence on its citizens. Individuals accused of viewing or possessing foreign films were reportedly subjected to imprisonment and possibly execution. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, defectors reported varying penalties for consuming South Korean media ranging from three to 10 years in a correctional labor prison, as well as proclamations stating that those caught would be sentenced to death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, the number of persons executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content increased in recent years, with additional reports of correctional labor punishment. In December 2019 the HRNK reported the government’s introduction of a file watermarking system on Android smartphones and on personal computers that adds a user- or device-specific data string to the end of the filename of any media file each time it is shared.
Based on defector interviews conducted in 2015, InterMedia estimated as many as 29 percent of defectors listened to foreign radio broadcasts while inside the country and that approximately 92 percent of defectors interviewed had seen foreign DVDs while in the country. The HRNK reported that younger individuals preferred foreign digital video content to foreign radio broadcasts.
The government maintained efforts to prevent the import of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas. According to media and NGO reports, police could search homes to enforce restrictions on foreign films. According to the HRNK, the government added a software-based censorship program known as the “signature system” to all domestic mobile telephones. This system makes it impossible to view foreign media on mobile phones. Mobile phones were randomly inspected physically for illegal media, and a history of all activity on the device was available for export upon inspection through monitoring software called TraceViewer. In October 2019 NW News reported that Kim Jong Un created a special police unit to restrict and control the flow of outside information into the country.
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled artistic works. School curricula were highly controlled by the state. The government severely restricted academic travel. The primary function of plays, movies, operas, children’s performances, and books was to buttress the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and support of the regime.
The state carried out systematic indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations. Such indoctrination involved mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this provision and continued to prohibit public meetings not previously authorized and not under government control.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government failed to respect this provision. There were no known organizations other than those created by the government. Professional associations existed primarily to facilitate government monitoring and control over organization members.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for the “freedom to reside in or travel to any place”; however, the government did not respect this right.
In-country Movement: The government restricted freedom of movement for those lawfully within the state. Those who violated travel regulations were subject to warnings, fines, or forced labor. Only members of a very small elite class and those with access to remittances from overseas reportedly had access to personal vehicles. Security checkpoints on main roads at entry and exit points from every town hampered movement. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province as the use of bribery as a means to circumvent the law became more widespread. An increasing number of persons traveled without a permit, only to pay a bribe when caught.
The government strictly controlled permission to reside in, or even to enter, Pyongyang, where food availability, housing, health, and general living conditions were much better than in the rest of the country. Foreign officials visiting the country observed checkpoints on the highway leading into Pyongyang.
Due to fears regarding the spread of COVID-19, media and NGOs reported the government tightened in-country movement restrictions, making internal movement extremely difficult since March. NGOs, foreign diplomats, and UN agency personnel were not allowed to leave Pyongyang. This severely hampered foreign observers’ already extremely limited ability to monitor human rights and humanitarian aid conditions in the country.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government limited issuance of exit visas for foreign travel to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers. Short-term exit papers were available on a very limited basis for some residents to visit relatives, undertake short-term work opportunities, or to engage in small-scale trade.
The government did not allow emigration, and media and NGOs reported that due to fears of importing COVID-19, it continued to tighten security on the border, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China with and without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols and surveillance of residents of border areas and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes.
The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in a third country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases the state subjects asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2019, most repatriated defectors were detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyeong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyeongan Province.
Many would-be refugees who returned involuntarily from foreign states were imprisoned under harsh conditions. OHCHR reporting included the accounts of several forcibly repatriated escapees who said authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners or religious groups or who had spent time in South Korea, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.
Media reported in 2018 that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors to pressure them to return home. Defectors reported that family members in the country contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from government officials. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification website, the number of defectors leaving the country remained nearly the same from 2017 (188) to 2018 (168), rose slightly in 2019 (204), and fell to 39 as of March.
Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced only to a few months of forced labor or in some cases merely issued a warning) and persons who crossed repeatedly for “political” purposes (who were sometimes sentenced to harsher punishment), including those who had alleged contact with religious organizations based near the Chinese border. The law stipulates a sentence of up to two years of “labor correction” for illegally crossing the border.
Exile: The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens. In the past it forcibly resettled thousands of persons from Pyongyang to the countryside. Sometimes this occurred as punishment for offenses and included those judged to be politically unreliable based on their family’s songbun, or loyalty-based class.
The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
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 for refugees. The government did not grant refugee status or asylum. The government had no known policy or provision for refugees or asylum seekers and did not participate in international refugee fora.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. In January 2018 the government issued a new penal code that generally increased maximum penalties for crimes related to “undermining the state.” International human rights organizations expressed concern that the penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.
Authorities reportedly used intimidation to discourage some activists from calling for reforms or writing about the country’s political situation following the death of Sultan Qaboos, a human rights organization said in January. According to the report, one activist living in exile said that he and members of his family in Oman received threats from Omani officials, who instructed his family to prevent him from posting anything on social media.
In July the sultan reportedly pardoned four exiled Omani political activists, social media and press sources said, although no official government channel released information regarding these pardons. Two of the reported pardon recipients returned to Oman and professed loyalty to the sultan in social media videos. Press reports alleged that the activists who returned also agreed to limit their social media engagement.
In April authorities postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 the trial of Musallam al-Ma’ashani, according to a human rights organization that reported on this matter. In November 2019 human rights organizations reported that authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani at the Sarfait border crossing upon his return from Yemen. These groups and social media users claimed authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar, which he intended to submit to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair. According to social media posts, authorities later released al-Ma’ashani in November on bail after approximately two weeks in detention.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.
Courts issued fines and prison sentences and ordered the confiscation of several individuals’ phones for disseminating rumors and messages violating public order, the Supreme Committee on COVID-19 announced in April.
Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.
Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products including books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. There was only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials. The government confiscated or prohibited more than 20 books during the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair, human rights organizations said in February.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment.
National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”
The law restricts free speech exercised via the internet, and the government enforced these restrictions. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message that “violates public order and morals” sent via any medium. The law details crimes that take place on the internet that “might prejudice public order or religious values” and specifies a penalty of between one month and a year in prison. Authorities could apply the law against bloggers and social media users who insult the sultan. Authorities placed individuals who abused social media in custody for up to two weeks and provided them with “advice and guidance,” the OHRC said in September.
In June police arrested and detained Awadh al-Sawafi, an activist and blogger, for social media posts in which he criticized the government for threatening citizens, according to human rights organizations. Reports said that a court issued al-Sawafi a suspended one-year prison sentence and banned him from using social media for one year.
In June a court of appeals sentenced a citizen to three years’ imprisonment, confiscated the defendant’s phone, and closed his Twitter account for “provoking and inciting hatred and division among the country’s population,” according to the Public Prosecution.
Human rights observers expressed concern that the country’s new Cyber Defense Center, established in June under the Internal Security Service, would further compromise internet freedom and freedom of expression.
Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most VoIP technologies, but in March the TRA lifted its ban on VoIPs such as Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, and WebEx during what the TRA called the “exceptional period” of COVID-19.
Social media users exercised self-censorship and shared warnings exhorting users to follow local laws and regulations.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Academics largely practiced self-censorship. Colleges and universities were required to have permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Higher Education before meeting with foreign diplomatic missions or accepting money for programs or speakers.
The government censored publicly shown films, primarily for sexual content and nudity, and placed restrictions on performances in public venues. The law also forbids dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Under the penal code, gatherings of 10 or more persons in a public place are unlawful if they “endangered the public security or order” or “influenced the function of authorities.”
The law provides for freedom of association for undefined “legitimate objectives and in a proper manner.” Examples of such associations include registered labor unions and social groups for foreign nationalities.
The government limited freedom of association by prohibiting associations whose activities it deemed “inimical to the social order” or otherwise inappropriate. Citizens joining groups deemed harmful to national interests could be subject to revocation of citizenship.
Associations must register with their corresponding ministries, which approve all associations’ bylaws and determine whether a group serves the interest of the country. The time required to register an association ranged from two months to two years. Approval time varied based on the level of preparedness of the applying organization, the subject matter of the organization, its leadership, and the organization’s mission. The law limits formal registration of nationality-based associations to one association for each nationality and restricts activities of such associations. The government sometimes denied permission for associations to form.
The penal code forbids associations from conducting any kind of fundraising without government approval, including for charitable causes. Individuals convicted of accepting unlawful funding for an association may receive up to one year in jail. Foreign diplomatic missions are required to request meetings with nongovernmental associations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by diplomatic note. Associations may not meet with foreign diplomatic missions and foreign organizations without prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government enforced this law, and all foreign-funded educational and public diplomacy programs required prior government review.
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 and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although this right is not codified.
In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic employees had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice.
Employers have a great amount of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers generally cannot work for a new employer in the country within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans. In May, however, the ROP issued a decision that as of January 1, 2021, expatriates would no longer require a “no-objection certificate” to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts.
Foreign Travel: Foreign workers must obtain exit permits from their employer to leave the country legally. Exit permits may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. In theory courts provided recourse to workers denied exit permits, but the process was opaque with domestic workers consistently alleging that existing dispute resolution mechanisms were inadequate to protect them.
The government generally did not allow asylum seekers to remain in the country. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel locally. The Committee for International Humanitarian Law considers issues of refugees and displaced persons, according to the OHRC.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The country has a large number of female migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Uganda, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. Nongovernmental organizations based outside the country and embassies of labor-sending countries alleged that domestic workers faced maltreatment, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The law criminalizes slavery and trafficking, and the government was making efforts to combat trafficking. Although forced labor is punished under the labor law, domestic workers are excluded from the law’s protections. In 2019 courts convicted seven individuals for human trafficking crimes. For the first time, the government convicted two Omani nationals of trafficking.
Refoulement: The government did not provide comprehensive protection to asylum seekers from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, subjecting them to the possibility of refoulement. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for asylum seekers.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refuge for displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement was not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It was policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones such as Yemen, although the government provided temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens. In practice there are no substantive legal protections for asylum seekers in the country.
Temporary Protection: The government provided emergency medical care to certain Yemeni citizens who demonstrated they could not receive adequate care in Yemen. These Yemenis and one accompanying family member per patient were offered status in Oman during the treatment period.
Under the law citizenship is passed only through the father. Therefore, children born to foreign fathers and Omani citizen mothers in Oman were at risk of statelessness.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Belarus, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, COVID-19, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters further stifled freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of August the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,080 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of approximately 80 items from 2019. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 585 extremism cases in 2019, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
On March 27, the State Duma passed legislation criminalizing the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events. This law in effect toughened a March 2019 law that prohibited the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” Authorities used the law to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 15, Agora International Human Right Group published a report showing that over the course of 450 days, authorities initiated approximately 200 cases against the dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information.” A total of 33 of the cases were filed between April 3 and June 9 and involved criminal complaints that mainly targeted activists, journalists, bloggers, and legislators.
In early May prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the activities of Grigoriy Vinter, the head of the Vologda chapter of the NGO For Human Rights, after posts criticizing authorities for transporting prisoners who showed COVID-19 symptoms were published on a social media page that he administered. Vinter had previously faced similar politically motivated investigations for his human rights advocacy.
By law authorities may close any organization a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, Russian media reported that on July 10, LGBTI artist and activist Yuliya Tsvetkova was fined by a local court in the Russian Far East for social media posts and drawings depicting same-sex couples with their children, rainbow-colored cats, and matryoshka dolls holding hands. Tsvetkova was also under investigation for spreading pornography among minors for her body-positive projects in 2019. On September 22, her case was returned to the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Kray for further investigation in what experts believe was an attempt to prolong the trial.
Authorities investigated individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, at the end of January, popular stand-up comic Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation into one of his performances from 2019. Media reported that an audience member complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, possibly with a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. In March, Dolgopolov announced that he had returned to Russia; the status of the investigation was unclear.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 8, media reported that the Investigative Committee opened a case against Voronezh resident Aleksandr Khoroshiltsev for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on the website of the Immortal Regiment, the name given to the yearly procession of individuals with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Authorities told journalists that posts such as Khoroshiltsev’s were aimed at rehabilitating the Nazi regime.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On May 15, a district court in Kemerovo sentenced Vladislav Koretskiy, an 18-year-old student, to 10 days incarceration for publishing social media posts in 2016 and 2017 containing images of swastikas.
The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 3, a district court in Tomsk fined activist Sergey Chaykovskiy, the executive director of the National Bureau for the Development of Democracy, for an Instagram post that showed a speech by Nancy Pelosi accusing Putin of interfering in the conflict in Ukraine. Chaykovskiy captioned the post “Vladimir Putin will answer for his crimes in Ukraine” and was found guilty of disrespecting authorities online.
During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, in January the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders to block the distribution of an article by independent journalists chronicling the story of a heroin user. Free speech advocates expressed concern that the law allowed the government to ban any nonfiction article on drug use it deemed inappropriate.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, in March authorities opened an administrative case against the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for publishing a text from the Open Russia movement on its website. Prosecutors accused the foundation, which aids drug addicts and advocates for changes to laws on narcotics, of cooperating with an “undesirable foreign organization.”
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of August there were 11 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this legislation would be used to further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($133 to $66,500).
A parliamentary commission investigated alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. After the September 13 regional elections, the commission reported that “foreign agent” NGOs tried to discredit the election and undermine the confidence of Russians in the democratic procedures. According to the commission, the interference tactics were diverse and included disinformation on social networks and round-the-clock hacker attacks on the servers of the Russian Central Election Commission.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included one killing, 42 attacks, 97 detentions by law enforcement officers, 46 prosecutions, 27 threats, and six politically motivated firings. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, according to press reports, on June 30, a police officer severely injured David Frenkel, a journalist with the independent MediaZona outlet, as he was reporting on the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in St. Petersburg. Frenkel was at a polling station investigating alleged violations of voting procedure. The head of the local voting commission requested that police remove Frenkel from the premises for purportedly interrupting the polling station’s work. A video widely circulated on social media showed the police officer tackling Frenkel, breaking his collarbone in the process. Frenkel was charged with three administrative offenses for allegedly interfering with the election commission’s work, ignoring police orders, and violating COVID-19 restrictions. Frenkel was eventually fined a nominal sum for the violations. His fines were upheld on appeal. Frenkel filed a lawsuit against the police officer involved; a preliminary investigation of the officer’s actions was reportedly launched but found no grounds for the opening of a case.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, on May 5, OVD-Info reported that police detained journalist Sergey Poznyakov as he was traveling to the editorial office of the newspaper Communists of Russia, where he worked as a correspondent. Police claimed they detained him because he did not show his documents, although Poznyakov asserted that he did. Police allegedly blocked the entrance to the newspaper’s office for five days, possibly in retaliation for its staff releasing red balloons, a symbolic gesture to communism, during a May Day celebration.
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July. Safronov was working as an aide to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, at the time of his arrest. The charges alleged Safronov was recruited by Czech intelligence agents in 2012 to pass sensitive Russian military information to another foreign government. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. Safronov was subsequently fired from Kommersant, according to some accounts, due to government pressure on the publisher. Safronov’s supporters noted the treason charges complicated his defense in that independent examination of the evidence would likely be impossible. If convicted, Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison. As of December Safronov remained in custody.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, in July police raided the offices and private homes of the opposition organization MBK Media and its associated human rights foundation, Open Russia. These raids were ostensibly connected to the continuing investigation of the Russian groups’ founder, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, for alleged tax violations in 2003. Independent journalists believed the raids were actually tied to planned protests against recent constitutional amendments. MBK Media representatives pointed out that many of the staff members were only children in 2003, emphasizing their view that the raids were intended to interfere with their work.
In another example, in January Leonid Krivenkov, a retired cameraman for a major Russian state television broadcaster, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants. The attack came several weeks after Krivenkov gave multiple interviews detailing political censorship and corruption at the broadcaster. Krivenkov alleged the two men disparaged him for not respecting his homeland as they beat him. He was treated for a broken nose and severe bruising.
On October 15, journalist Sergey Plotnikov was abducted and beaten by unidentified persons in Khabarovsk, where he had been reporting on continuing protests in the city. He was reportedly handcuffed, driven into the forest outside the city, and threatened by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet. Plotnikov sustained a wound on his temple and was released the following morning.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. On April 13, Chechnya head Kadyrov posted a video statement on social media condemning Novaya Gazeta over an article alleging that local authorities’ response to COVID-19 was abusive. Kadyrov made death threats against the newspaper, stating that Russian authorities needed to stop Novaya Gazeta journalists before Chechen authorities would be forced to “commit a crime.” The article’s author, Yelena Milashina, had previously suffered an attack in Chechnya in February after she was ambushed and beaten by unknown assailants at her hotel. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed Kadyrov’s statement by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary in Kadyrov’s reaction to Milashina’s reporting. On September 29, a Moscow court fined Novaya Gazeta for disseminating “fake” information in the article.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, the founder and editor of the independent news site Koza.Press, Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina), was subjected to various forms of harassment and substantial fines by law enforcement in recent years. On October 1, law enforcement officers forcibly entered her Nizhny Novgorod apartment, ostensibly with a search warrant related to the civil society organization Open Russia. On October 2, Murakhtayeva committed suicide by self-immolation outside a regional Ministry of Internal Affairs building, writing on Facebook, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on June 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ center for combating extremism searched a printing house in St. Petersburg. Authorities detained three activists who ordered leaflets that opposed proposed constitutional amendments and criticized President Putin. The activists were charged under an article on production or distribution of campaign materials in violation of the law during elections and referenda.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on June 15, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal libel case against anticorruption crusader, opposition activist, and prominent blogger Aleksey Navalny after he used social media to criticize a WWII veteran’s participation in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package. Navalny faced penalties ranging from a substantial monetary fine to 240 hours of community service if convicted.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, Russian military historian Andrey Zhukov was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Zhukov was arrested in 2018 on allegations linked to “the history of the Russian Armed Forces and his vigorous activity online.” According to Zhukov’s colleagues, his interests included the formation, reassignment, and deployment of the country’s military units from World War I to the present. Before his arrest, Zhukov was also researching participants in World War II, their relatives, and their military awards.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, in June 2019 security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiyev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. Conviction on the charges may result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders emphasized the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiyev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case. They maintained that the case against him was fabricated. Gadzhiyev has remained in detention awaiting trial after a court repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In April additional charges were filed against Gadzhiyev in Dagestan accusing him of participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry up to an additional 10 years in prison if Gadzhiyev is convicted. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, on July 6, Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined in relation to a 2018 radio piece that delved into the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office. In the piece Prokopyeva discussed whether the country’s repressive political environment might have influenced the attack. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva, who was ultimately required only to pay a fine and was able to avoid incarceration. As she had been charged under antiterrorism laws, however, Prokopyeva was placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” barring her from foreign travel as a result.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.).
The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity. Internet advocates asserted the measure allows for surveillance by intelligence agencies and enables state authorities to control information and block content. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. In July the Account Chamber announced that the proposed plan to create an independent DNS did not meet its deadline, citing COVID-19 related delays.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. The law provides that companies refusing to localize Russian users’ data may be subject to penalties ranging from 5,000 rubles ($66) to six million rubles ($78,700), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($236,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In February a Moscow district court fined Twitter and Facebook 4.7 million rubles ($62,800) each for refusing to store the data of Russian users on servers located inside Russia. The two companies were also reportedly at risk of further fines for noncompliance with this requirement.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Companies are fined up to six million rubles ($79,300) if they refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of five million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On August 10, a Moscow court fined Google for repeatedly failing to filter contents prohibited in Russia.
The law requires owners of internet search engines (news aggregators) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search-engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.”
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In March, Roskomnadzor announced the launch of an automated system for checking proxies, VPNs, and search engines for compliance with the requirements for blocking access to prohibited sites.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June 2019 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. In March the Digital Revolution hackers group announced that the FSB had purchased the Fronton program, which allows for cyberattacks to crash servers and hack smart devices. On May 5, a political activist in St. Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, reported a spam attack on the anniversary of an anti-Putin protest. Mikhailov noted that he received several hundred telephone calls from unknown numbers on that day.
The government took further steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks, curricula, and other school materials. For example, in January the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) published amendments to its student rules and labor regulations. These changes limited the rights of students to make political statements on behalf of student groups, effectively prohibiting activities by students or faculty deemed “socially divisive” by university administrators. Student newspapers also lost their status as student groups at the university, eliminating their school funding. The policy changes were seen as a direct response to a number of high-profile student political protests and the appearance of an opposition leader on a student talk show in 2019.
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, or political views. In August the HSE decided not to renew the contracts of five lecturers due to the “reorganization” of the university. Among the lecturers was Kirill Martynov, a political correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Martynov claimed the official explanation for HSE’s failure to renew his contract was dubious, suggesting that it was related to his journalistic work. The university also failed to renew the contract of world-renowned sociologist Ella Paneyakh. Media outlets reported that HSE administrators asked their faculty members not to criticize Russian authorities while publicly identifying with the university.
During the year authorities in Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. In July Chechnya head Kadyrov announced that singers who appear in public (including at weddings) must have their lyrics approved by the Chechen Ministry of Culture and a special commission that checks them for compliance with “the Chechen mentality.”
In June a Moscow court convicted well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov of embezzlement and sentenced him to a fine, three years of probation, and a three-year ban on leading a state-funded cultural institution in Russia. Serebrennikov had been on trial since 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. The prosecution was widely seen by observers as a warning to the artistic community as a whole.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from threats and physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, on January 30, The Economist magazine reported that teatr.doc, an experimental theater company based in Moscow, was attacked by an ultraconservative group during a play that explored LGBTI themes. The agitators allegedly entered the theater, stopped the play, and shouted homophobic slurs. Police were called in and a fight broke out, but no charges were brought. On another occasion, bomb threats were called in to the theater, forcing the performance to stop and providing authorities an opportunity to check audience members’ documents.
There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” cancelation of the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, on January 28, Novaya Gazeta reported that the Prosecutor’s Office in the Kaluga region warned the organizers of a concert by the ska-punk band Distemper that the band’s lyrics contained “propaganda of radical anarchist views” and reminded them that they faced criminal liability for “incitement to extremist activity.” As a result the organizers decided to cancel the concert.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While some public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. Many public demonstrations were restricted or banned due to COVID-19 measures. Each region enforced its own restrictions. As of September, Moscow and St. Petersburg had banned all mass events.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. In July the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that single-person pickets are considered mass events and violate the COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Protesters convicted of multiple violations within six months may be fined substantially or imprisoned for up to five years. The law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by fines, 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests or detentions for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. The July 9 arrest of Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal sparked more than four months of continuous protests in the region, with solidarity protests occurring in other Russian Far East cities including Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, and on Sakhalin Island. None of the protests was sanctioned by authorities. According to official Khabarovsk Kray statistics, between July 11 and September 6, a total of 4,126 citations were issued for drivers participating in motor rallies that “interfered” with the flow of traffic, 173 citations were issued for participation in an unsanctioned meeting, and 22 individuals were detained. Among those detained and fined was Father Andrey, an Orthodox priest who did not chant slogans or hold placards. He received the largest fine during the series of protests and was detained for three days.
In another example, on April 20, authorities detained at least 69 protesters in North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, who opposed the government’s policy imposing self-isolation due to public-health concerns. The 2,000-person protest demanded economic support during the pandemic.
Police often broke up protests that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 19, police officers reportedly severely beat Academy of Science biochemist Anton Rasin, who was participating in a march in Vladivostok in solidarity with the Khabarovsk protests. Rasin claimed officers beat him when he asked plainclothes officers to produce their identification. On July 20, he was convicted and sentenced to five days in jail by the court for failure to obey law enforcement directions.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on April 26, police detained Andrey Boyarshinov in Kazan while standing in a single-person picket to protest the demolition of a prerevolutionary building. Police claimed that Boyarshinov was in violation of a self-isolation order in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use the “foreign agents” law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, stigmatize, and, in some cases, halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 75 NGOs. NGOs designated as “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, as of August the human rights NGO Memorial was fined at least 24 times for purported violations of the “foreign agents” law. The fines totaled more than five million rubles ($66,500). On December 3, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) initiated a search of Memorial’s Moscow headquarters to verify compliance with the “foreign agents” law. Media reported that the PGO’s “verification” would continue through December 29 and involve requests to review hundreds of documents, in what Memorial characterized as an effort to harass the NGO and hinder its work.
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September 2019, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 31 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the European Endowment for Democracy, the Jamestown Foundation, Project Harmony, Inc., seven organizations associated with Falun Gong, the Prague Civil Society Center, and the Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if it is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities. Any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found guilty of continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
Authorities imposed criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On October 2, a Krasnodar court convicted and sentenced Yana Antonova, a pediatric surgeon and a former coordinator of Open Russia in Krasnodar, to 240 hours of forced labor for “participating” in activities of “undesirable foreign organization.” Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017. Authorities opened a criminal case against Antonova in March 2019 for reposting articles on her social media accounts and for conducting a single-person picket.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that received support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, prohibiting all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country and effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and its regional branches were placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, and members were subject to imprisonment, detention, house arrest, or criminal investigation participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization” (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, media outlets reported that on August 13 in St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Shurshev, a lawyer at the local office of Aleksey Navalny’s team, was beaten for the fourth time in a year. According to Shurshev, police did not respond to any of his reports of attacks.
In multiple cases, authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
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, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a different location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 10 million Russians were unable to leave the country because of debts in 2019.
Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis. For example, in April the Internal Affairs Ministry stripped the citizenship of Feliks Makhammadiyev and Konstantin Bazhenov, two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted of “extremism” on the basis of their religious beliefs. Makhammadiyev was left stateless as a result. As of November Makhammadiyev was still serving a three-year prison term. In another case Yevgeniy Kim, who served more than three years in a Russian prison for conviction of “extremism,” was rendered stateless in January 2019 when Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant him citizenship after he had given up his Uzbek citizenship. Since his release in April 2019, Kim has been held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, where authorities continued to refuse to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of December 2019. Of the 5,300 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 1,800 were due to conflict and violence.
According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 9,485 in 2019 to 5,323 in June, of whom 1,085 were IDPs. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. According to Svetlana Gannushkina from the independent NGOs Civic Assistance Committee and Memorial, most IDPs in the country were displaced by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 and the Chechen wars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The Ossetian-Ingush conflict displaced Ingush people from the territory of North Ossetia-Alania, and the Chechen wars displaced Chechens. The government provided minimal financial support for housing to those who are registered as IDPs, but the Civic Assistance Committee criticized the government’s strict rules to qualify and the long line to wait for housing support.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum, refugee, and stateless persons problems. The Civic Assistance Committee reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons.
The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
In March the country closed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, trapping many migrants within the country. Many lost their jobs during that time and faced erratic and ad hoc repatriation measures. Lacking information and fearing the reintroduction of more stringent in-country travel restrictions, many found themselves on the street or stuck in makeshift camps near a transport hub until the country gradually opened up the borders after several months. For example, on September 21, Human Rights Watch reported on a temporary tent camp in the Samara region that housed approximately 4,500 Uzbek migrants who were waiting for a train to take them back to their country. Many had been there for months, living in extremely cramped, substandard conditions with no certainty of when they would be able to leave the country safely. On September 24, the department of the All-Russian Congress of Uzbekistanis in the Samara region announced that these migrants were granted permission to leave the country by October 3.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated in the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution. While there were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions, in May the Civic Assistance Committee reported “the scale of expulsion of refugees must be considerable.”
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties among senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.
In an example of clandestine repatriation, on September 1, Shobuddin Badalov, an activist from the Group 24 movement that is banned in Tajikistan, reportedly disappeared in Nizhny Novgorod. His lawyer and associates believed he was kidnapped and extradited without judicial process to Tajikistan. Badalov had been granted temporary asylum status in 2019. On October 3, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that Badalov had voluntarily flown from Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport to Dushanbe on September 1. On November 3, the government of Tajikistan confirmed Badalov’s detention in Tajikistan.
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. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($440) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. NGOs also noted difficulty in applying for asylum due to long queues and lack of clear application procedures. GAMI approved only a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum, except for Ukrainians whose applications had a much higher chance of approval.
Human rights organizations noted the government’s issuance of refugee and temporary asylum status decreased steadily over the previous few years, pointing to the government’s systematic and arbitrary refusal to grant asylums. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin.
Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them. NGOs reported that refugees and migrants were vulnerable to exploitation in the form of forced labor because of the lack of proper documents and insufficient Russian language skills.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration or who did not speak Russian. The Civic Assistance Committee reported that approximately one-third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of January 1, some 41,946 persons, 96 percent of whom were citizens of Ukraine, held a certificate of temporary asylum in Russia. A person who does not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality. The Civic Assistance Committee noted that most stateless persons in the country were elderly, ill, or single former Soviet Union passport holders who missed the opportunity to claim Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union broke up. The NGO reported various bureaucratic hurdles as obstacles to obtaining legal status in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to curb freedom of speech through detentions, prosecutions, the threat of heavy fines, the passage of strict and overreaching slander legislation, and the forced closure of media outlets.
In 2016 parliament amended the criminal code, originally passed in 2007, which provides for criminal responsibility for public insult or slander, including on the internet, against the president. The amendment also criminalizes such speech against the “leader of the nation.” Such an offense in both instances can carry an imprisonment term of up to five years.
In January and February, independent and private television and radio stations received two directives signed by Tojiddin Karimzoda, the head of the State Inspectorate for Television and Radio Broadcasting of the State Radio and Television of Tajikistan. The first, dated January 31, required private television and radio stations to submit their broadcasting schedule to the State Inspectorate on a weekly basis. The second, dated February 4, contained recommendations to promote issues “related to state policy.” Both directives stated that, if the recommendations are ignored, “punishment” would occur. When questioned, Karimzoda denied the recommendations represented inappropriate interference in the editorial freedom of private television and radio.
On July 4, President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the code of administrative offenses that impose fines and criminal penalties on individuals who disseminate “inaccurate” COVID-19 information, spread infectious diseases, or fail to wear protective masks in public. Prior to the amendments, the Ministry of Health had complained publicly about independent, factual reporting on COVID-19 in the country, claiming that such reporting mischaracterized the situation and would lead to panic. The president signed the law, approved by parliament on June 10, despite multiple appeals from media watchdogs and civil society organizations that argued the new law would undermine freedom of expression and critical media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following passage of the law, news sites began reporting less frequently on suspected deaths from COVID-19. An independent website that maintained an unofficial list of COVID-19 deaths based on reporting from surviving family members stopped posting regular updates, allegedly because families had become concerned about government reprisals for sharing information about deaths due to COVID-19. When COVID-19-like illnesses were officially reported as pneumonia by authorities, local news outlets typically refrained from questioning the diagnosis.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media faced significant and repeated government threats. Although some media published political commentary and investigatory material critical of the government, journalists observed that authorities considered certain topics off limits, including, among other matters, questions regarding financial improprieties of those close to the president or content regarding banned groups such as IRPT and Group 24.
Several independent television and radio stations were available in a small portion of the country, but the government controlled most broadcasting transmission facilities. A decree issued by the government, Guidelines for the Preparation of Television and Radio Programs, stipulates that the government through a state broadcast committee has the right to “regulate and control the content of all television and radio networks regardless of their type of ownership.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not renew the accreditation for RFE/RL’s Russian-language Current Time correspondent Anushervon Aripov after it expired on August 1. According to Radio Ozodi’s local bureau director, Muhammadvafo Rahmatov, the ministry expressed dissatisfaction over two articles published on RFE/RL’s website, claiming biased reporting by its correspondents and Aripov. In one of the articles, Aripov criticized President Rahmon’s campaigning methods during the 2013 presidential election. As of September 1, a total of 13 Radio Ozodi and Current Time employees were without accreditation. Of this group, the Foreign Affairs Ministry informed seven journalists that their accreditation was forthcoming, and they could therefore continue their work in the country. The other six, including Aripov, did not have permission to work as journalists for RFE/RL and another three journalists hired by RFE/RL had not been accredited as of October. In addition, three employees that Radio Ozodi planned to hire in summer 2019 never received accreditation and eventually pursued other employment opportunities.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to renew the accreditation of the last three acting heads of Radio Ozodi’s Dushanbe branch and issued limited three-to-six month accreditations to all other employees whose accreditations were renewed after October 2019 (the standard length was 12 months). According to Radio Ozodi leadership, the ministry declined (in most cases) to offer specific explanations to Radio Ozodi for withholding or delaying accreditations to their staff. Public statements by the foreign minister and the country’s mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) indicated the reason for withholding accreditations was the outlet’s publication of interviews and quotes from members of banned opposition groups, primarily the IRPT and Group 24.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation by government officials. Radio Ozodi reported that several of its contacts and family members of its staff were questioned by authorities about the activities of its journalists and in some cases had their telephones confiscated for examination. Journalists from the Prague-based independent news website Akhbor were also warned by local authorities not to report on certain topics. On November 13, Akhbor editor in chief Mirzo Salimpur announced the media outlet had to shut down due to legal problems brought on by the Tajik government.
Two unknown assailants physically assaulted Asia-Plus journalist Abdulloh Ghurbati on May 11 near Dushanbe’s Korvon Market. According to an Asia-Plus article, Ghurbati received several threatening telephone calls from unknown individuals prior to the attack. The report also alleged that Ghurbati, known for covering sensitive topics, had come under online attack from a government “troll farm,” allegedly created by the country’s security services to silence government critics online. Other media outlets reported that immediately after the incident, Ghurbati sought medical treatment at three Dushanbe hospitals, but the hospitals turned him away, claiming they were under a COVID-19 quarantine. He finally received treatment at a local burn center, and he reported the attack to police. Media also noted that Ghurbati had been covering issues related to the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
On May 29, unknown assailants assaulted Ghurbati again in the Khuroson District of the Khatlon Region as he was reporting on the victims of damage caused by heavy rains and a mudslide that took place earlier in the district. Ghurbati reported that one of his assailants claimed to be the head of the Jamoat (municipality). On May 30, the Ministry of Interior Affairs released a statement regarding the attack alleging that Ghurbati attempted forcibly to enter a tent where victims of the recent rains were residing in order to film family members, especially minors. The residents reportedly resisted Ghurbati by driving him away. The ministry also claimed he wanted to awaken in residents a sense of discontent with the state and government. Ghurbati disputed this version of events, reporting he was not allowed to approach the areas of residences before he was accosted. On June 2, a court in the Khuroson District fined three local residents who perpetrated the attack on Ghurbati for petty hooliganism in the amount of 580 somoni ($58).
On July 3, the prosecutor general’s office in Dushanbe summoned and questioned two relatives of exiled journalist Mirzo Salimpur, the founder and chief editor of Akhbor. Salimpur told the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in a telephone interview that he believed his relatives were interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office in an attempt to pressure him to stop publishing criticism of the administration prior to the country’s presidential elections. During the incident, a man who identified himself as an official with the Prosecutor General’s Office interrogated two of Salimpur’s sisters-in-law who lived in the town of Hissor for several hours to learn about Salimpur’s other relatives. Salimpur said that his sisters-in-law felt intimidated and threatened by the interrogations.
On April 16, the Shohmansur District Court of Dushanbe sentenced independent journalist Daler Sharifov to one year in prison for allegedly inciting national and religious hatred. The GKNB detained Sharifov on January 28 and held him in custody for two months while his case was investigated. Sharifov pleaded not guilty but had no plans to appeal the verdict, as he would likely finish his sentence before the appeals process would finish. The guilty verdict came after a two-day closed trial. Sharifov’s lawyer and parents were permitted to attend the trial, but journalists and human rights activists were denied entry, allegedly as a COVID-19 preventative measure. According to Sharifov’s lawyer, the state prosecutor demanded that the judge sentence the journalist to two years and four months in prison, but the court sentenced him to a shorter term, because it was his first offense and he had young children. In December the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected the Penitentiary Department’s recommendation to transfer Sharifov to a less restrictive colony settlement for “good behavior,” ostensibly based on a determination that Sharifov was “a danger to society.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists regularly practiced self-censorship to avoid retribution from officials, according to media reports and journalists. Opposition politicians had limited or no access to state-run television. The government gave opposition parties minimal broadcast time to express their political views, while the president’s party had numerous opportunities to broadcast its messages.
Newspaper publishers reported the government exercised restrictions on the distribution of materials, requiring all newspapers and magazines with circulations exceeding 99 recipients to register with the Ministry of Culture. The government continued to control all major printing presses and the supply of newsprint. Independent community radio stations continued to experience registration and licensing delays that prevented them from broadcasting. The government restricted issuance of licenses to new stations, in part through an application process described as excessively complex. The National Committee on Television and Radio, a government organization that directly manages television and radio stations in the country, must approve and then provide licenses to new stations. The government continued to deny the BBC a renewal of its license to broadcast on FM radio.
Libel/Slander Laws: In 2012 the government repealed the law criminalizing libel and defamation and downgraded the offenses to civil violations, although the law retains controversial provisions that make publicly insulting the president an offense punishable by a fine or up to five years in jail.
Individuals and groups faced extensive government surveillance of internet activity, including emails, and often self-censored their views while posting on the internet. Authorities blocked some critical websites and news portals and used temporary blackouts of all internet services and messaging to suppress criticism. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities periodically cut access to mobile and messaging services when critical statements about the president, his family, or the government appeared online.
There were regular government restrictions on access to news websites, such as RFE/RL’s Radio Ozodi, Asia-Plus, and Akhbor. Independent and opposition news agencies and websites located outside the country have been blocked by the government for several years. The State Communications Service, the official communications regulator, routinely denied involvement in blocking these sites, but the government admitted to periodically implementing a law that allows interruption of internet content and telecommunications “in the interest of national security.” The government continued to implement a 2015 law enabling the GKNB to shut off internet and telecommunications during security operations.
In May, kvtj.com, a website created by a group of civil society activists to track those who died from COVID-19 and pneumonia, became inaccessible without a virtual private network. The website showed that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was several times larger than that reported in official government statistics. Some of the website’s authors received warnings from the government about laws penalizing “false” or “misleading” information around COVID-19.
The law gives law enforcement bodies the right to track citizens using the internet, an ability they continue to exercise regularly. According to the law, security agencies can monitor internet traffic and have access to information about which internet sites citizens visit and the type of information they seek. In 2018 parliament further amended the criminal code to criminalize the use of the “like” or “share” function on social media regarding “terrorism” and “extremism-related” topics, with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Parliament also amended the law criminalizing public calls for the commission of terrorist crimes or publicly justifying terrorist activities, to include statements or calls made via the internet.
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code that bans wearing the hijab in schools and government institutions. Authorities allowed women to wear a traditional version of the head covering–a scarf that covers hair but not the neck–to schools and universities. Some female students wore the hijab to and from school but removed it upon entering the school building. Parents and school officials appeared to accept this arrangement. The ministry also maintained its ban on beards for all teachers. Students with beards reported being removed from class, questioned, and asked to shave. A Ministry of Education decree obliges all female teachers, university students, and schoolchildren to wear traditional dress during the academic year.
Government authorities increased the urgency of their effort to dissuade citizens from wearing “foreign clothing,” primarily focused on the hijab, which covers the hair, ears, and neck. According to media reports, the government’s Committee on Women and Family Affairs, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, conducted informational campaigns, or “raids,” in public areas against women wearing the hijab, threatening those who refused to remove their hijab with a large fine and six months’ imprisonment. Addressing these media reports, the ministry denied that such measures existed and claimed the government was conducting a public campaign to promote national culture and clothing.
A Ministry of Education directive requires school administrators to inform students of the Law on Parental Responsibility, which bans all persons younger than 18 from participating in public religious activities, with the exception of funerals. The law provides that, with written parental consent, minors between the ages of seven and 18 may obtain a religious education during their free time from school and outside the state education curriculum and may worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.
The government requires all persons studying religion abroad to register with the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent.
The Ministry of Education reportedly issued a regulation in 2018 requiring students and academic staff to request government permission before any education-related travel abroad. During the year the ministry issued an amendment to the regulation that requires students who wish to travel abroad for educational purposes to provide detailed personal information about close relatives but does not specify consequences for noncompliance. Civil society organizations requested the ministry to exclude the data requirement, as it allegedly violates the provisions of the law on personal data, but the ministry has not yet responded.
There were several reports throughout the year that academics writing on sensitive subjects regarding politics, religion, and history feared publishing or even submitting their articles for review because of possible government retribution.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association through requirements to obtain permission from local governments and through frequent inspections by various government agencies.
The constitution provides the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government required that individuals obtain permission from the government to stage public demonstrations. Individuals considering the staging of peaceful protests reportedly chose not to do so for fear of government reprisal.
Many female activists were subjected to anonymous harassment and attempts to denigrate them in social networks, including by falsely portraying them as sex workers, in retaliation for their participation in protests. In January the Vahdat police department refused to open a criminal case regarding the distribution of a video, which first appeared in September 2019, containing sexual scenes of activist D.M. with a man whose face on the video was erased. D.M. was among those who in April 2019 collected signatures requesting the president cancel the order to increase fees for mobile internet. The letter from the Investigative Department of Vahdat stated that no criminal case was opened due to the absence of evidence of a crime on the part of the man in the video.
On March 17, the GKNB detained and interrogated the former Dushanbe-based director of RFE/RL’s Tajik service Radio Ozodi, Nisso Rasulova. Observers believed the GKNB targeted Rasulova for attending a women’s empowerment event on March 13. The GKNB reportedly attempted, and failed, to prevent the event from taking place. After finding a venue and holding the event, several participants reported they were contacted, threatened, and blackmailed by GKNB agents.
On July 16, a Khatlon District Court sentenced 10 Khuroson residents to up to 10 days in prison for blocking a major highway on May 17 in a protest demanding government action in response to a mudslide. After heavy rain on May 14-16 caused extensive damage to critical infrastructure across the Khuroson region, dozens of residents took to the streets in protest. Police responded by dispersing the protestors with force. On May 18, the governor of Khatlon met with disaster victims, promising that government aid would be forthcoming, but also warning that “a tough response would follow any provocation.” As of October, in addition to the 10 convictions on July 16, six additional criminal cases against other protestors were still pending.
The constitution protects freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. In 2019 President Rahmon signed into law amendments to the Law on Public Associations (PAs) which require all PAs to post detailed financial reports on their websites and impose burdensome reporting requirements. As in the previous year, civil society organizations reported a noticeable increase in the number and intensity of registration and tax inspections by authorities.
On January 2, the president signed amendments to the code on administrative offenses. The penalty for managing the activities of unregistered, suspended, or prohibited public or religious associations increased fourfold, up to $1,200. Participation in the activities of such associations is now punishable by a penalty of up to $600, a sharp increase from the previous maximum penalty of $42. Individuals and organizations charged with funding the activities of illegal organizations also face fines.
The government continued to enforce the ban on activities held under the banner of the IRPT. As a result of a 2016 constitutional referendum, religious-affiliated political parties are banned.
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 foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some restrictions. According to the constitution, restrictions on the rights and freedoms of a person and a citizen are allowed only for ensuring the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protecting the foundations of the constitutional order, state security, national defense, public morality, public health, and the territorial integrity of the republic.
The government rarely cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, or other persons.
In-country Movement: The government prohibits foreigners, except diplomats and international aid workers, from traveling within a 15-mile zone along the borders with Afghanistan and China in the Khatlon Region and the Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officials did not always enforce the restrictions along the western border with Afghanistan, although the government continued to require travelers (including international workers and diplomats) to obtain special permits to visit the GBAO. The government also continued to enforce a policy barring Afghan refugees from residing in urban areas.
Foreign Travel: Individuals in some cases do not have the right to leave the country due to arbitrary and inconsistent restrictions. Civil society organizations asserted that a new regulation requiring the Ministry of Education’s approval for all students wishing to study abroad is a restriction of citizens’ rights to freedom of movement inside and outside the country and is a violation of the country’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In response, the ministry stated that the decree is necessary to better regulate international education programs, safeguard students, and better maintain education statistics.
At times border security guards placed arbitrary restrictions on citizens wishing to travel abroad. On February 21, border control officers refused to allow a citizen named Abdu Vohidov to cross into the Kyrgyz Republic because he lacked a certificate from the military department office stating he was not a conscript. Such a certificate is not required for travel abroad. The press center of the Border Guards office refused to respond to a media inquiry on the incident.
Refoulement: National security concerns continued to dominate decisions related to protection and human rights, which often heightened the risk of deportation of asylum seekers and refugees. During the year there were six refugee families (28 persons) whose status the government revoked and who continued to be at risk of penalty and subsequent deportation a law that prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from living in major urban areas, including Dushanbe. In June the government amended the law to exclude deportation. Despite the update to the law, the risk of refoulement remains.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the access to asylum, and individuals may seek refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The refugee status determination process, as well as judicial procedures, does not comply with international standards. The criminal code criminalizes asylum seekers who entered the country illegally, in contrast to the country’s Refugee Law, which states that illegal entry is not a crime. These conflicting legal codes mean asylum seekers run the risk of arrest and subsequent deportation without access to asylum procedures. According to law, in order to seek asylum legally, asylum seekers must enter the country legally with valid travel documents and a visa obtained in advance.
The government provides asylum seekers with temporary certification while processing asylum applications through the National Refugee Status Determination Commission and, upon granting refugee status, refugee identification cards as a proof of legal stay. Government-recognized refugees enjoy socioeconomic rights on par with local nationals and can legally reside in the country. Formal notifications of administrative and legal decisions provided little insight into the rationale for adjudications.
The government continued to place significant restrictions on asylum seekers and registered refugees, and officials continued to enforce a 2000 law prohibiting them from residing in the capital and all major cities in the country. Security officials regularly monitored refugee populations. Police subjected them to raids if they were believed to be residing in prohibited areas.
National law grants refugee status for as long as three years. Since 2009 the Department of Citizenship and Works with Refugees, under the Passport Registration Services within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has had responsibility for refugee issues. Refugees must check in annually with authorities to verify their address, but this is not a reregistration of their status. According to government statistics, there was a significant increase in the number of newly arrived asylum seekers in the first half of the year. The country had approximately 5,000 registered refugees, 99 percent of whom were Afghans.
Freedom of Movement: According to Government Resolution 325, refugees are not permitted to live in major urban areas, including Dushanbe, which restricts their ability to find work and go to school.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers shared unhindered access to social, education, and health services with Tajik citizens. Although UNHCR’s activities were mostly focused on advocacy and protection, it maintained a limited humanitarian component to render assistance to the most vulnerable families. Thus, UNHCR through its NGO partner Refugees, Children, and Vulnerable Citizens (RCVC) provided books, school uniforms, and some language classes to children from vulnerable families and assistance with medical expenses. When refugees and asylum seekers faced legal issues, UNHCR’s legal assistance partner assisted clients in obtaining judicial redress while providing training and awareness-raising sessions to local authorities to strengthen their understanding of refugee rights.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for expedited naturalization, leaving refugees on equal standing with nonrefugee foreigners when applying for citizenship. As a prerequisite, refugees should denounce their refugee status and apply for a temporary residence permit to be able to apply further for naturalization. To date no such precedent has been recorded.
The total population of stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality identified and registered by UNHCR and its partners was 47,746 persons (14,430 men and 33,316 women). The government, UNHCR, and NGO partners continued to implement a project to identify and find solutions for stateless persons and persons with undetermined nationality–such as former USSR citizens–in three pilot provinces of the country (Khatlon, Sughd, and Districts of Republican Subordination). UNHCR, NGOs, and local authorities worked together to find solutions–including confirming nationalities and issuing citizenship and identification documents–for 42,695 persons, both adults and children, with the remaining 5,051 still needing assistance to resolve their situation.
In December 2019 the government adopted an Amnesty Law allowing stateless persons and foreign nationals illegally residing in the country in violation of the rule of stay (for former USSR citizens) to legalize and regularize their legal status. The Amnesty Law is valid until December 2022, at which time all persons falling under the scope of the law must submit their applications for legalization. UNHCR evaluated the law as a major step in combating statelessness in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Neither in law nor practice were constitutional provisions providing for freedom of expression respected.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan regions punished persons for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Radio Free Asia reported in February that seven Tibetans were detained for “spreading rumors” about COVID-19. Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent, including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention for “undermining social stability and inciting separatism.”
In July media sources reported that a court in the northeastern TAR sentenced Tibetan lyricist Khadro Tseten to seven years’ imprisonment and singer Tsego to three years’ imprisonment for a song praising the Dalai Lama that circulated on social media. The court found Tseten guilty of “incitement to subvert state power” and “leaking state secrets.” Local authorities had detained the two in April 2019. The song was posted on social media by an unnamed woman who was also detained but was reportedly released after a year of detention, according to Tibetan language media.
In December, Rights Defender, a Chinese blog site, reported a Chinese court sentenced Lhundhup Dorje, a Tibetan from Golog Prefecture in the TAR, to one year in prison on charges of “inciting separatism.” In March, Lhundhup Dorje posted a graphic on Weibo that used the phrase “Tibetan independence.” In May he posted a photo of the Dalai Lama on Weibo. Due to these social media posts, he was arrested on July 23.
According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan language education, and interrogated the account owners.
There were no reported cases of self-immolation during the year. The practice was a common form of protest of political and religious oppression in past years. It has declined in recent years, reportedly, according to local observers, because of tightened security by authorities, the collective punishment of self-immolators’ relatives and associates, and the Dalai Lama’s public plea to his followers to find other ways to protest PRC government repression. Chinese officials in some Tibetan areas withheld public benefits from the family members of self-immolators and ordered friends and monastic personnel to refrain from participating in religious burial rites or mourning activities for self-immolators.
The law criminalizes various activities associated with self-immolation, including “organizing, plotting, inciting, compelling, luring, instigating, or helping others to commit self-immolation,” each of which may be prosecuted as “intentional homicide.”
During the year, the TAR carried out numerous propaganda campaigns to encourage pro-CCP speech, thought, and conduct. These included a “TAR Clear and Bright 2020” program, designed to crack down on persons “misusing” the internet, including by making “wrong” comments on the party’s history and “denigrating” the country’s “heroes and martyrs.” The TAR Communist Party also launched specialized propaganda campaigns to counter support for “Tibetan independence” and undermine popular support for the Dalai Lama. The PRC’s continuing campaign against organized crime also targeted supporters of the Dalai Lama, who were considered by police to be members of a criminal organization. In September the TAR Communist Party secretary Wu Yingjie publicly urged everybody to follow Xi Jinping and criticize the Dalai Lama.
A re-education program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland” continued to expand. Participants in the program received state subsidies and incentives for demonstrating support for and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and quotations from past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Mandarin Chinese.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. CCP propaganda authorities were in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
In January the TAR People’s Congress passed the “TAR Regulations on Establishing a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress,” which mandated media organizations cooperate with ethnic unity propaganda work and criminalized speech or spreading information “damaging to ethnic unity.”
In April the TAR Department of Propaganda held a special region-wide mobilization conference on political ideological issues, and some journalists and media workers in the region reported they had officially promised to implement the CCP’s line and resolutely fight separatism and “reactionary press and media” overseas.
Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted such permission. When authorities permitted journalists to travel to the TAR, the government severely limited the scope of reporting by monitoring and controlling their movements, and intimidating and preventing Tibetans from interacting with the press.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2020 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation, particularly after they received messages or calls from friends overseas or from foreigners based in other parts of the PRC. Some of these persons deleted their social media contacts or shut down their accounts completely.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment. Authorities banned some writers from publishing; prohibited them from receiving services and benefits, such as government jobs, bank loans, and passports; and denied them membership in formal organizations.
Police in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, arrested Tibetan writer and poet Gendun Lhundrub in December and held him at an undisclosed location, according to Radio Free Asia. In October the former monk released an anthology of poems and wrote on the website Waseng-drak that writers require freedom of expression.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
In May the TAR city of Nakchu seized and destroyed “illegal publications” as well as illegal equipment for satellite signal reception.
There was no internet freedom. In May, TAR party secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely control the internet, strengthen online propaganda, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and make the masses listen to and follow the Party.”
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in many parts of the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage.
Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information.
In July in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, many locals reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to send any messages, organize gatherings, or use symbols that would imply a celebration of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique. In May the TAR Cyber Security and Information Office held its first training program for “people working in the internet news and information sector” with the goal of spreading “positive energy” in cyberspace.
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as by making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants. Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal, including the loss of their jobs and the risk of imprisonment.
The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its July conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “show loyalty to the party” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage. In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan culture, living patterns, and customs. Forced assimilation was pursued by promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, weakening Tibetan language education in public schools, and weakening monasteries’ role in Tibetan society, especially with respect to religious education.
The government gave many Han Chinese persons, especially retired soldiers, incentives to move to Tibet. Migrants to the TAR and other parts of the Tibetan plateau were overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. Government policies to subsidize economic development often benefited Han Chinese migrants more than Tibetans.
The PRC government continued its campaign to resettle Tibetan nomads into urban areas and newly created communities in rural areas across the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Improving housing conditions, health care, and education for Tibet’s poorest persons were among the stated goals of resettlement. There was, however, also a pattern of settling herders near townships and roads and away from monasteries, the traditional providers of community and social services. A requirement that herders bear a substantial part of the resettlement costs often forced resettled families into debt. The government’s campaign cost many resettled herders their livelihoods and left them living in poverty in urban areas.
A September report by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) alleged a PRC so-called government vocational training and job placement program during the first seven months of the year forced approximately 500,000 Tibetan rural workers away from their pastoral lifestyle and off their land into wage labor jobs, primarily in factories, and included many coercive elements.
Government policy encouraged the spread of Mandarin Chinese at the expense of Tibetan. Both are official languages of the TAR and appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
PRC law states that “schools and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many students at all levels had limited access to officially approved Tibetan language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious subjects, particularly computer science, physical education, the arts, and other “modern” subjects. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, only used Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan language or culture courses. Mandarin was used in courses that taught technical skills and qualifications.
“Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, only used Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan language or culture courses. Mandarin was used in courses that taught technical skills and qualifications.
In February many Tibetans posted articles and photos on social media to celebrate International Mother Language Day. That month Lhasa police detained five Tibetans and sent them to a week-long re-education program for discussing the importance of the Tibetan language in a bar. Security officials reportedly told them that discussing Tibetan language instruction was a political crime.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structures, where they exercised control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. Requirements introduced by the party included geographic residency limitations on who may attend each monastery. This restriction, especially rigorous in the TAR, undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced religious instruction from a select number of senior teachers based at monasteries across the Tibetan plateau.
In August the TAR Religious Affairs Bureau held a training course for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and CCP cadres working in convents. Nuns were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with Socialism,” and the CCP cadres promised to manage the monasteries and convents with firm determination.
Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
Tibetans do not enjoy the rights to assemble peacefully or to associate freely.
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize. Persons who organize public events for any purpose not endorsed by authorities face harassment, arrest, prosecution, and violence. Unauthorized assemblies were frequently broken up by force. Any assembly deemed by authorities as a challenge to the PRC or its policies, for example, to advocate for Tibetan language rights, to mark religious holidays, or to protect the area’s unique natural environment, provoked a particularly strong response both directly against the assembled persons and in authorities’ public condemnation of the assembly. Authorities acted preemptively to forestall unauthorized assemblies. In July for example, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces received official warnings not to organize gatherings to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
In accordance with PRC law, only organizations approved by the CCP and essentially directed by it are legal. Policies noted above designed to bring monasteries under CCP control are one example of this policy. Persons attempting to organize any sort of independent association were subject to harassment, arrest on a wide range of charges, or violent suppression.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
PRC law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The outbreak of COVID-19 led to countrywide restrictions on travel, which affected movement in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. From January to April, the TAR and other Tibetan areas implemented a “closed-management” system, meaning all major sites, including monasteries and cultural sites, were closed.
In addition to COVID-19 restrictions, People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. These roadblocks were designed to restrict and control access for Tibetans and foreigners to sensitive areas. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subjected to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports. Tibetans without local residency were turned away from many Tibetan areas deemed sensitive by the government.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from leaving the TAR or traveling to it without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Some Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. Such restrictions made it difficult for Tibetans to practice their religion, visit family, conduct business, or travel for leisure. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to Han Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported travel remained difficult beyond their home monasteries for religious and educational purposes; officials frequently denied them permission to stay at a monastery for religious education.
Foreign Travel: Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue new or renew old passports created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
Sources reported that Tibetans and certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a PRC passport. For Tibetans the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to undertake only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel. Many Tibetans with passports were concerned authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist and therefore did not travel.
Tibetans encountered particular obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their family homes and threatened their relatives in Tibet if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that extrajudicial punishments included blacklisting family members, which could lead to loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to social services such as health care and government aid. The government restricted the movement of Tibetans through increased border controls before and during sensitive anniversaries and events.
Government regulations on the travel of international visitors to the TAR were uniquely strict in the PRC. The government required all international visitors to apply for a Tibet travel permit to visit the TAR and regularly denied requests by international journalists, diplomats, and other officials for official travel. Approval for tourist travel to the TAR was easier to secure but often restricted around sensitive dates. PRC security forces used conspicuous monitoring to intimidate foreign officials, followed them at all times, prevented them from meeting or speaking with local contacts, harassed them, and restricted their movement in these areas.
Exile: Among Tibetans living outside of China are the 14th Dalai Lama and several other senior religious leaders. The PRC denied these leaders the right to return to Tibet or imposed unacceptable conditions on their return.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government restricted these rights for both online and offline media.
Freedom of Speech: The government exercises official and unofficial restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government or to discuss matters of general public interest. The law restricts criticism of the president, and publicly insulting the president is a crime for which conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison. The law specifically prohibits publication of articles that incite religious conflict and ethnic discord or that advocate subverting or overthrowing the constitutional order.
On August 9 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, local authorities arrested Uzbekistani journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev at the request of the Uzbekistan government. Abdullayev was charged under Articles 158 (Offense against the President) and 159 (Attempt to Overthrow the Constitutional Order) of Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code. The charges stemmed from authorities’ accusation Abdullayev was writing under the pen name “Qora Mergan,” (Black Sniper), an author that publishes allegations of corruption against Uzbekistan government officials, which Abdullayev denied. On August 22, Kyrgyz officials forcibly repatriated Abdullayev to Uzbekistan. He was released after signing a nondisclosure agreement, and after several weeks authorities dropped the charges.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media did not operate freely because the state exercises control over media coverage. All media entities, foreign and domestic, must register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. Print media must also provide hard copies of publications to the government. The law holds all foreign and domestic media organizations accountable for the accuracy of their reporting, prohibits foreign journalists from working in the country without official accreditation, and subjects foreign media outlets to domestic mass media laws. The government used accreditation rules to deny some foreign journalists and media outlets the opportunity to work in the country. For example, the government continued to deny Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s accreditation request. Others, such as BBC, Voice of America, and Eurasianet, were accredited.
In January the government’s Public Fund for Support and Development of National Mass Media began operating. The main purpose of the Public Fund is to help media outlets develop and maintain equal rights in the media market and to promote the rights of journalists and bloggers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, print newspapers and magazines could not be published for several months. In their place was increased reporting from popular online media outlets, such as Kun.uz and Daryo.uz, as well as through channels on the social messaging app Telegram.
On November 20, the Agency of Information and Mass Communications (AIMC) sent warning letters to leading news websites Kun.uz, Gazeta.uz, and Podrobno.uz, for questioning the legitimacy of official COVID-19 statistics reported by the Ministry of Health. The letter from AIMC noted: “the publication of information based on unverified data and the attitude expressed in this regard led to the formation of the wrong opinion among the public.” AIMC’s letter warned that “publication of such unverified information in the future may lead to serious legal consequences.” Subsequently, AIMC Director-General Asadjon Khodjayev accused several media outlets such as Kun.uz, Daryo.uz, and Gazeta.uz on November 26 of bias and again threatened “serious legal consequences.”
On December 29, President Mirziyoyev supported media freedom in his annual address to parliament, saying, “It should be especially noted that the mass media, along with objective coverage of the large-scale changes taking place in our country, draw the attention of government agencies and the public to the urgent problems on the ground and encourage leaders at all levels to solve these problems. Today they are increasingly becoming the ‘fourth power.’”
The law holds bloggers legally accountable for the accuracy of what they post and prohibits posts potentially perceived as defaming an individual’s “honor and dignity.”
The government prohibited the promotion of religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism as well as the instigation of ethnic and religious hatred.
Articles in state-controlled newspapers reflected the government’s viewpoint. The main government newspapers published selected international wire stories. The government prohibited legal entities with more than 30 percent foreign ownership from establishing media outlets. The government allowed publication of a few private newspapers with limited circulation containing advertising, horoscopes, and some substantive local news, including infrequent stories critical of the government’s socioeconomic policies. Some government-controlled print media outlets published articles that openly criticized local municipal administrations.
A few purportedly independent websites consistently reported the government’s viewpoint. The government-run Ozbekistan is a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts current affairs and news in Uzbek, Russian, and English.
Violence and Harassment: Police and security services subjected print and broadcast journalists to increased arrest, harassment, and intimidation.
Even before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, some journalists reported a “negative trend” in terms of media freedom, citing daily reports of harassment of journalists and bloggers. Some journalists said they believed the security services used the pandemic as a way to remind media that “they are still in charge,” despite the president’s public claims that journalists and bloggers are a vital part of the country’s reform process.
In April authorities detained Sharifa Madrahimova, a correspondent of Ma’rifat newspaper, after she filmed a documentary video in local bazaars to report on price gouging on basic food items during the COVID-19 quarantine.
In May, following the collapse of a dam in Sardoba that displaced hundreds of villagers, two journalists at a popular sports channel were fired after publicly criticizing how a state-run news channel covered the story. Bobur Akmalov (editor) and Jamoliddin Babajanov (producer), at “Sport,” made their remarks during a radio program broadcast on May 18.
On July 26, the Prosecutor’s Office summoned the chief editors from three Karakalpakstan news websites after printing unconfirmed reports about the death of Karakalpakstan parliament’s chairman, Senator Musa Yerniyazov, who tested positive for COVID-19. In addition, the Ministry of Interior summoned a blogger in Karakalpakstan who posted the same story. The three online outlets, as well as the blogger, all later retracted their reports about the senator’s death. A Tashkent-based website also published the news, only to claim later that “this unconfirmed information was published as a result of hacking.” Bloggers and journalists in Karakalpakstan reported that the dissemination of information in the region in general was “severely restricted” and the local authorities were covering up the real number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
On August 22, police arrested a popular vlogger who frequently called for changes in the local leadership in Fergana (where the governor is widely seen as corrupt). Authorities detained Dadakhon Haydarov, a 22-year-old from Sokh District of the Fergana Region and who had a large YouTube following, and detained him for 10 days. According to his father, officials took Haydarov from his parent’s home and transferred him by helicopter to Fergana City.
In May unknown assailants attacked the cameraman accompanying a journalist from the internet publication “Effect Uz” while investigating a story in the Fergana Region. The journalist told media that “unknown persons sprayed a gas canister into the (camera) operator’s eyes and broke the car windows. In addition, the attackers stole a video camera, which is the property of the publication.” The cameraman suffered injuries from the attack.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists and senior editorial staff in state media organizations reported that some officials’ responsibilities included censorship. In many cases the government placed individuals as editors in chief with the expressed intent that they serve as the main censor for a particular media outlet. Continuing the past trend of moderate criticism of the government, online publications such as Kommersant.uz and Nuz.uz published some critical stories on issues such as demolitions, ecological problems, electricity outages, currency, trade, and the black market. In addition, Adobiyat Gazetesi, a literary journal, published stories by authors who were still on a “black list” that limited their ability to publish elsewhere.
In 2019 the government unblocked the website of privately owned Kun.uz, which had been blocked in 2018. The outlet published articles critical of the government, including about regional and district officials’ involvement in illegal demolitions.
There was often little distinction between the editorial content of government and privately owned newspapers. Journalists engaged in limited investigative reporting. Widely read tabloids occasionally published articles that presented mild criticism of government policies or discussed problems that the government considered sensitive, such as trafficking in persons.
Libel/Slander Laws: The criminal and administrative codes impose significant fines for libel and defamation. The government used charges of libel, slander, and defamation to punish journalists, human rights activists, and others who criticized the president or the government. Some bloggers and activists nonetheless openly criticized the government on social media without legal reprisal.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens began to complain about the government’s response in online social forums, the government restricted access to social media, Facebook in particular, with frequent service interruptions. Users noted that while the government did not block the site, it became extremely difficult to load pages and view content. Users noted improvement of Facebook functionality only in August, once the nationwide quarantine was lifted. The media law defines websites as media outlets, requiring them to register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. The government blocked the website of Forum 18, a human rights news site.
Several active online forums allowed registered users to post comments and read discussions on a range of social problems. To become a registered user in these forums, individuals must provide personally identifiable information. It was not clear whether the government attempted to collect this information, although provisions of the law require internet cafe proprietors to log customers’ browser history.
In March the government amended the criminal code to include prohibitions against spreading “false” information regarding COVID-19. On March 31, Dr. Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in Karakalpakstan Region, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any coronavirus cases in Karakalpakstan. Five officials then came to the hospital to question Sultonov, known for publicly discussing freedom of religion and belief on his social media pages. The officials asked Sultonov if he had any religious texts on his person. He said he had Muslim texts on his computer, so officials confiscated it. Authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly spreading false information on lockdown measures under the new criminal code. On November 23, the court of the Ellikalansky District of Karakalpakstan sentenced him to 14 months’ of restrictions on his freedom of movement, including time served since March, for the “Illegal Manufacturing, Storage, Importation, or Distribution of Materials of Religious Content” as well as for “Distribution of Information about the Dissemination of Quarantine and Other Hazardous Infections.”
A decree requires all websites seeking the “.uz” domain to register with the government’s Agency for Press and Information. The decree generally affected only government-owned or government-controlled websites. Opposition websites and those operated by international NGOs or media outlets tended to have domain names registered outside the country.
The government implemented procedures for restricting access to websites that include “banned information.” Based on these regulations, a website or blog could be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography, or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order.
The government continued to limit academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities occasionally required department-head approval for university lectures, and university professors generally practiced self-censorship.
The government sometimes restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of assembly. While the government restricted this right, it sometimes allowed individuals to exercise this freedom without reprisal.
On March 20, an Andijan regional court sentenced Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov to 15 days’ detention for conducting a nikah ritual (an unregistered religious marriage ceremony). Although performing nikah is not itself illegal, Bobojonov was sentenced under Article 201 of the administrative code, “violation of the procedure for organizing, holding meetings, rallies, street processions, or demonstrations.” After the intervention of Bobjonov’s lawyer, human rights activists, and local bloggers, the court reduced his sentence to five days.
Authorities have the right to suspend or prohibit rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. Although the law requires demonstrators to obtain permits, most demonstrators proceeded without filing permit applications. In some incidents, authorities subjected citizens to large fines, threats, arbitrary detention, or abuse for violating procedures for organizing meetings, rallies, and demonstrations or for facilitating unsanctioned events by providing space, other facilities, or materials. Organizers of “mass events” with the potential for more than 100 participants must sign agreements with the Ministry of Interior for the provision of security prior to advertising or holding such an event. Officials broadly applied this regulation, including to private corporate functions.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. Authorities sought to control NGO activity, internationally funded NGOs, and unregulated Islamic and minority religious groups. The operating environment for independent civil society, in particular human rights defenders, remained restrictive, although several activists reported improved cooperation with government officials. Several independent NGOs continued to face barriers to registering locally due to earlier court orders against them or other objections by officials.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the registration of NGOs, requires NGOs to obtain the ministry’s approval to hold large meetings with nonmembers, including foreigners; to seek the ministry’s clearance on any event where materials are to be distributed; and to notify the ministry in writing of the content and scope of the events in question.
The government has a legal framework for public oversight of the activities of government bodies and government officials. In accordance with the law, citizens, citizens’ self-government bodies, noncommercial organizations, and mass media have the right to exercise oversight regarding activities of government bodies and officials.
There are legal restrictions on the types of groups that may be formed. The law requires that organizations with an operating budget and funds register formally with the government. The law allows for a six-month grace period for new organizations to operate while awaiting registration from the Ministry of Justice, during which time the government officially classifies them as “initiative groups.” Several NGOs continued to function as initiative groups for periods longer than six months.
In 2018 the government issued a number of regulations that affected NGO activity. The Ministry of Justice no longer requires NGOs to obtain approval in order to conduct events, but they still need to notify the ministry of plans to conduct public programs. The minimum period for informing the ministry of planned activities is 10 days before the start of an event without the participation of foreign citizens, and 20 days before the start of event with the participation of foreign citizens. The ministry provides NGOs with written notice only in cases of refusal to conduct the event. The law also requires that NGOs file annual reports to the government. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice adopted the Regulation on Monitoring and Studying Activities of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, which establishes a separate procedure on monitoring and studying NGOs’ activities.
The law grants the Ministry of Justice authority to inspect and audit NGOs.
Due to the burdensome challenges registering NGOs, many prominent and respected organizations have not received registration from the government. As a result, civil society remains stifled and the level of regulations prevents organizations from gaining a footprint in the country.
On January 18, shortly after Ezgulik assisted blogger and activist Nafosat Olloshkurova as she fled the country, authorities seized the registration certificate, charter, computers, and other documents of the Ezgulik branch office in the Jizzakh Region. According to Ezgulik, prosecutors stated they had a warrant to conduct the search but did not produce it when asked. The next day the prosecutor’s office filed a corruption case against the head of the branch office, Zifa Umrzakova. In June the Criminal Court of Jizzakh sentenced her to two years of “restricted movement.” The case was pending appeal, with a hearing scheduled for January 11, 2021.
The administrative liability code imposes large fines for violations of procedures governing NGO activity as well as for “involving others” in “illegal NGOs.” The law does not specify whether the term refers to NGOs suspended or closed by the government or merely NGOs not officially registered. The administrative code also imposes penalties against international NGOs for engaging in political activities, activities inconsistent with their charters, or activities the government did not approve in advance.
Registered NGOs are allowed to receive grants from domestic and foreign donors. Receiving organizations must notify the Ministry of Justice of their grants and present a plan of activities to the ministry that details how the NGO would allocate the funds. If the ministry approves, no other government approvals are required. The ministry requires yearly financial reports from NGOs.
Parliament’s Public Fund for the Support of Nongovernmental, Noncommercial Organizations, and Other Civil Society Institutions continued to conduct grant competitions to implement primarily socioeconomic projects. Some civil society organizations criticized the fund for primarily supporting government-organized NGOs. The law criminalizes membership in organizations the government broadly deemed “extremist.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and laws provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: Authorities required citizens throughout the country to have a domicile registration stamp (formerly known as propiska) in their internal passport before traveling domestically or leaving the country. The government at times delayed domestic and foreign travel and emigration during the visa application process. Previously, individuals needed permission from local authorities to move to Tashkent City or the Tashkent Region from other parts of the country.
On May 13, the president signed an amended law governing residence registration in Tashkent and specifically the list of categories of citizens “subject to permanent registration in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region.” The new law enables citizens to register at the addresses of their relatives “in a direct line” along first and second degrees of kinship, and canceled the requirement that a couple must live together for one year after marriage in order to retain their residence permit. A new stipulation was introduced that specialists (with some exceptions) who have been working continuously for five years or more in government bodies and organizations located in the city of Tashkent and Tashkent Region, together with their family members, also have the right to permanent registration. Effective September 1, residents from other regions visiting Tashkent or Tashkent Region may stay for up to 15 days without filing for temporary registration with the police, extended from 10 days.
The government requires hotels to register foreign visitors with the government on a daily basis. The government requires foreigners staying in private homes to register their location within three days of arrival. Authorities recently simplified these registration procedures, which allow foreigners to register through an online portal.
Foreign Travel: In 2019 the government officially abolished the Soviet-era exit visa, which citizens previously needed for most foreign travel. Citizens must obtain a separate passport issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purpose of foreign travel. This passport has a 10-year validity for adults and a five-year validity for minors, as opposed to a two-year exit visa validity for all ages with previously issued passports. The government generally granted passports to travel or emigrate outside the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Girls and women living in the capital are no longer required to be interviewed by the migration and citizenship departments to obtain permission to travel abroad. In addition, girls and women no longer need permission from their spouse or a warrant from an authorized person, certificates from the mahalla, or any tests in order to qualify for foreign travel.
On December 9, the government announced it had repatriated 98 Uzbekistani women and children from Syria, where they had “suffered bitter consideration due to the mistakes of spouses or fathers.” The government pledged to assist them and provide necessary support for their return to society.
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, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. According to a 2018 UNHCR publication, “Uzbekistan is the only country in Central Asia and the CIS that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, there is no national legislation to deal with asylum seekers and refugees. Rather, asylum seekers are dealt with according to migration legislation.” There were no known cases of refoulement during the year.
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.
During the year, there were 14 individuals (10 cases) remaining under the UNHCR mandate. UNHCR–through its regional offices, as it does not have an office in-country–undertakes the following activities in coordination with the UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tashkent, through its staff under UNDP contract, and under the overall supervision of the UN resident coordinator: issuing mandate refugee certificates to existing refugees, monitoring their rights situations and providing counseling and making interventions for them when necessary, and providing financial assistance to some of the refugees, based on their specific vulnerability. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most refugees lost access to their livelihoods, and in May, UNHCR provided a one-time financial assistance to all refugees in the country.
In addition, UNHCR or UNDP staff provides counselling to asylum seekers when they arrive.
In the past some refugees from Tajikistan were officially stateless or faced the possibility of becoming officially stateless, as many carried only old Soviet passports rather than Tajikistan or Uzbekistan passports. Children born to two stateless parents could receive Uzbekistani citizenship only if both parents had a residence permit.
On March 13, the president signed a new law on citizenship. While the new law did not come fully into effect until September 13, the provision that confers citizenship to registered stateless persons who were granted permanent residence in the country before January 1, 1995, went into effect on April 1. According to the UNHCR representative for Central Asia, of the more than 97,000 stateless persons residing in the country, 49,228 individuals benefited from the new provision and would be recognized as citizens. In a statement on March 17, UNHCR welcomed the law and noted its role in providing recommendations to national authorities during its drafting. The UN Secretary-General’s Office issued a statement on March 19 congratulating the country on passing the new law, noting it was a significant contribution toward the United Nations’ global effort to end statelessness by 2024.
On December 29, in his end-of-the-year address to parliament, President Mirziyoyev announced plans to grant Uzbekistan citizenship to stateless persons resident in the country since 2005. Media reported this would give 20,000 more persons the opportunity to become citizens.