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 and Cultural Events
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/.
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 provides for freedom of speech and press, and independent media outlets regularly criticized and satirized government officials and policies, but the government on some occasions restricted these rights. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists. Some media figures alleged the government used its control over most printing houses and large amounts of public sector advertising preferentially, and that the lack of clear regulations over these practices permitted it to exert undue influence on press outlets.
Freedom of Speech: While public debate and criticism of the government were widespread, journalists and activists were limited in their ability to criticize the government on topics crossing unwritten “red lines.” Authorities arrested and detained citizens for expressing views deemed damaging to state officials and institutions, including the use of the Berber flag during protests, and citizens practiced self-restraint in expressing public criticism. The law criminalizing speech about security force conduct during the internal conflict of the 1990s remained in place, although the government said there had never been an arrest or prosecution under the law. A separate law provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for publications that “may harm the national interest” or up to one year for defaming or insulting the president, parliament, army, or state institutions. Government officials monitored political meetings.
On March 27, authorities arrested Khaled Drareni, correspondent for the international press freedom group Reporters without Borders and cofounder of the independent news website Casbah Tribune. Police held him in a police station for two nights. On March 29, the Sidi M’Hamed criminal court of Algiers ordered Drareni’s detention in El-Harrach Prison. On March 30, authorities moved him to Kolea Prison. Police had first arrested Drareni on March 7 for assembling without a permit and held him for four days. After his release, Drareni continued covering the antigovernment protests, despite authorities forcing him to sign a letter vowing not to do so. On August 10, the Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers sentenced Drareni to a three-year prison sentence and a fine. On September 8, an appellate court held a hearing and on September 15 upheld the conviction and sentenced him to two years in prison, where he remained at year’s end.
On May 30, police rearrested Issam Sayeh, an engineer and social media activist. On July 20, the court convicted Sayeh for “insulting the president and the army” and sentenced him to 18 months imprisonment. Authorities first arrested Sayeh in July 2019 and released him in September 2019.
On August 27, authorities arrested Mohamed Tadjadit (known as “the poet of the Hirak”) and placed him in pretrial detention. According to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), Tadjadit is under investigation for publications that may undermine national unity, insult the president, and expose lives to danger by inciting a gathering during the lockdown period.
NGOs reported during the year that following suppression of public activities in years past, they no longer hold events outside of private locations. They also report that owners of public gathering spaces have been told not to rent their locations to certain NGOs.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The National Agency for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP) controls public advertising for print media. According to the NGO Reporters without Borders, private advertising existed but frequently came from businesses with close links to the ruling political party. ANEP CEO Larbi Ounoughi stated in August that the agency represented 60 percent of the total advertising market. Nongovernmental sources assessed most daily newspapers depended on ANEP-authorized advertising to finance their operations. ANEP added it wished to preserve a pluralistic press and freedom of information and noted that it funded opposition newspapers.
In August, Ammar Belhimer, Minister of Communication and government spokesperson, stated ANEP’s public advertising constituted a form of indirect aid to the press that if liberalized, could lead to the collapse of media outlets who would lose their funding. The government’s lack of transparency over its use of state-funded advertising, however, permitted it to exert undue influence over print media.
On April 2, parliament adopted amendments to the penal code that criminalized breaking the government-imposed COVID-19 lockdown rules and spreading “false news” that harms national unity. Penalties for convictions under the bill, which does not distinguish between news reports, social media, or other media, entail prison terms of two to five years and fines.
On April 27, police arrested activist Walid Kechida in Setif for posting memes on Facebook. Authorities accused him of “insulting the president,” “insulting police officers during the performance of their duties,” and carrying out an “attack on religion.” His case is pending trial and he is in pretrial detention.
Many civil society organizations, government opponents, and political parties had access to independent print and broadcast media and used them to express their views. Opposition parties also disseminated information via the internet and published communiques but stated they did not have access to the national television and radio. Journalists from independent print and broadcast media expressed frustration over the difficulty of receiving information from public officials. Except for several daily newspapers, the majority of print media outlets relied on the government for physical printing materials and operations.
Organizations wishing to initiate regular publications must obtain authorization from the government. The law requires the director of the publication to hold Algerian citizenship. The law additionally prohibits local periodicals from receiving direct or indirect material support from foreign sources.
The ministry’s Media Directorate is responsible for issuing and renewing accreditations to foreign media outlets operating in the country. Although this accreditation is required to operate legally, most foreign media were not accredited. Regulations require the shareholders and managers of any radio or television channel to be citizens and prohibit them from broadcasting content that offends “values anchored in Algerian society.”
The law mandates that online news outlets must inform the government of their activities but does not require them to request authorization to operate.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists.
On August 19, authorities arrested France 24 correspondent Moncef Ait Kaci and cameraman Ramdane Rahmouni. The gendarmerie had summoned Ait Kaci in November 2019 and in February. Ait Kaci did not provide reasons for the arrests or the summons, but denied they were related to his articles.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some major news outlets faced direct and indirect retaliation for criticism of the government. Press outlets report taking extra caution before publishing articles critical of the government or government officials due to fear of losing revenue from ANEP.
On May 12, authorities blocked the news website Le Matin d’Algerie. On May 12, authorities blocked the news website l’Avant-Garde Algerie. No reason was cited to explain the blocks.
On April 9, authorities blocked internet access to Maghreb Emergent and Radio M, news sites belonging to the Interface Media Group. Kadi Ihsan, Maghreb Emergent editor-in-chief, reported the government denied authorization for his journalists to move in Algiers after curfew unlike some other journalists. Minister of Communication and government spokesperson Ammar Belhimer stated the sites received foreign financing through crowdsourcing, and concluded the sites were funded through “foreign soft power.”
In September an El Watan article detailing large-scale alleged corruption by the sons of the late army chief of staff, Ahmed Gaid Salah, prompted the government to suspend El Watan’s advertising revenue. The newspaper responded by emphasizing its support for the army.
Libel/Slander Laws: NGOs and observers criticized the law on defamation as vaguely drafted and stated the definitions in the law failed to comport with internationally recognized norms. The law defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation of a fact offending the honor or consideration of a person, or of the body to which the fact is imputed.” The law does not require that the fact alleged or imputed be false or that the statement be made with malicious intent to damage another individual’s reputation. Defamation is not a crime but carries a fine. The Ministry of Justice did not provide information on the percentage of defamation claims that originated from private citizens, as opposed to government officials. Defamation laws specify that former members of the military who make statements deemed to have damaged the image of the military or to have “harmed the honor and respect due to state institutions” may face prosecution.
The law criminalizes statements denigrating Islam or insulting the Prophet Muhammed or “messengers of God.”
The government monitored certain email and social media sites.
Internet users regularly exercised their right to free expression and association online, including through online forums, social media, and email. Activists reported that some postings on social media could result in arrest and questioning; observers widely understood that the intelligence services closely monitored the activities of political and human rights activists on social media sites, including Facebook.
Police arrested Abdelkarim Zeghileche, director of the independent radio station Radio Sarbacane, on June 23 and placed him in pretrial detention. On August 24, the Constantine court convicted and sentenced Zeghileche to two years in prison for “offense to the president of the Republic” and sharing social media posts “undermining national unity.”
There was some disruption of communication prior to planned antigovernment demonstrations during the year, namely internet shutdowns, the blocking of access to certain online news sites and social media platforms, and the restricting or censorship of content. In March parts of the country continued to experience internet outages during hirak protests.
The law on cybercrime establishes procedures for using electronic data in prosecutions and outlines the responsibilities of internet service providers (ISPs) to cooperate with authorities. Under the law the government may conduct electronic surveillance to prevent terrorist or subversive acts and infractions against state security, pursuant to written authorization from a competent judicial authority.
By law ISPs face criminal penalties for the material and websites they host, especially if subject matters are “incompatible with morality or public opinion.” The Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Post, Information Technology, and Communication have oversight responsibilities. The law provides sentences of six months to five years in prison and fines for users who do not comply with the law, including the obligation to cooperate with law enforcement authorities against cybercrime.
For a fourth year, the government blocked access to social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, for several days during nationwide high school examinations. The decision was in response to previous leaks of examination materials, which were posted on social media.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Academic seminars generally occurred with limited governmental interference. The Ministry of Culture reviewed the content of films before they could be shown, as well as books before importation. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did the same for all religious publications. The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” It further prohibits books that “make apology for colonialism, terrorism, crime, and racism.”
Importers must submit to the ministry the title, author’s name, editor’s name, edition, year, International Standard Book Number, and number of copies to be imported. Importers of books covering the “national movement and the Algerian Revolution” must submit the entire text of the books for review, including a secondary review by the Ministry of the Moudjahidine (veterans of the revolution). The Ministry of Culture can also require a full content review of books on other topics if it chooses. The ministry has 30 days to review the importation application; in the absence of a response after 30 days, the importer may proceed with distribution of the publication. After deciding, the ministry notifies the customs service of the decision to allow or ban the importation of the publication. Appeals may be made to the ministry, with no independent or judicial review provided for in the decree.
A 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran stated, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the government severely restricted the exercise of these rights.
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the government curtailed this right. A ban on demonstrations in Algiers remained in effect. Authorities utilized the ban to prohibit assembly within the city limits. Nationwide, the government required citizens and organizations to obtain permits from the national government-appointed local governor before holding public meetings or demonstrations. The government restricted licenses to political parties, NGOs, and other groups to hold indoor rallies or delayed permission until the eve of the event, thereby impeding organizers’ publicity and outreach efforts. The DGSN reported it arrested 3,017 protesters this year.
The Hirak protest movement, which began in February 2019, consisted of mass, peaceful protest marches taking place every Tuesday and Friday in many locations throughout the country. The protests stopped with the onset of COVID-19 but slowly resumed later in the year. Prior to COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of individuals marched peacefully demanding political reforms. The marches occurred mostly without incident, although police at times used tear gas and water cannons as methods of crowd control.
Hotels in Algiers and other major cities continued their practice of refusing to sign rental contracts for meeting spaces with political parties, NGOs, and civil associations without a copy of written authorization from the Ministry of Interior for the proposed gathering. NGOs reported instances of not receiving the written authorization in time to hold planned meetings. NGOs reported that the government threatened hotel and restaurant owners with penalties if they rented rooms to NGOs without official authorization. In most cases the NGOs continued to hold their meetings and police came to the hotels to end the gatherings.
Throughout the year police dispersed unauthorized gatherings or prevented marching groups of protesters from demonstrating. Police typically dispersed protesters shortly after a protest began and arrested and detained organizers for a few hours. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other NGOs criticized the government’s use of the law to restrict peaceful assembly.
On the day of the presidential election in December 2019, protests occurred at numerous polling stations throughout the country. Security forces fired rubber bullets at antielection demonstrators in Algiers, Bejaia, Tizi-Ouzou, and Bouira. In Bouira protesters started a fire at the ANIE office. Authorities arrested protesters in those cities, as well as in Mostaganem and Setif. Thousands protested in central Algiers, prompting police forces to deploy water cannons and helicopters.
On March 17, President Tebboune banned gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June, Hirak protests resumed in the Kabylie cities of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia, and Bouira. Protesters and police reportedly clashed during the Bejaia protests.
On June 15, protesters in Tin Zaoutine protested a security barrier preventing access to the town’s water supply. One person was killed and four injured during the protest. Prompted by this event, protesters in Tamanrasset and Bordj Badji Mokhtar gathered to denounce the south’s marginalization in general, and the incident in Tin Zaoutine specifically.
On August 30, police arrested 40 demonstrators who attempted to resume Hirak demonstrations across nearly 30 wilayas (provinces), according to the CNLD. While authorities released most of the protesters late in the night, approximately 40 others remained in custody in jurisdictions across the country. In total, the arrests occurred in 28 wilayas.
According to the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, authorities arrested about 200 persons linked to the protests since the coronavirus restrictions came into effect. On June 19, the league reported 500 persons connected to the Hirak movement were arrested in 23 different wilayas. Authorities later released some of the protesters.
The constitution provides for the right of association, but the government restricted this right.
The law’s extensive requirements and uneven enforcement served as major impediments to the development of civil society. The law grants the government wide-ranging oversight of and influence in the day-to-day activities of civil society organizations. It requires national-level civil organizations to apply to the Ministry of Interior for permission to operate. Once registered organizations must inform the government of their activities, funding sources, and personnel, including notification of personnel changes. The law imposes an additional requirement that associations obtain government preapproval before accepting foreign funds. If organizations fail to provide required information to the government or attempt to operate with or accept foreign funds without authorization, they are subject to fines and up to six months’ imprisonment.
According to the law, associations that apply for accreditation are entitled to receive a response within two months for national organizations, 45 days for interregional-level associations, 40 days for province-level associations, and 30 days for communal organizations. While the Ministry of Interior oversees the accreditation process for most associations, the president of a local assembly approves applications for communal associations. Although the Ministry of Interior is responsible for authorizing associations, the government stated COVID-19 spurred the ministry to relax registration rules, specifically for health-care charities operating on the local level, as these organizations were better positioned to assist during the pandemic.
The Ministry of Interior may deny a license to or dissolve any group regarded as a threat to the government’s authority or to public order, and on several occasions failed to grant, in an expeditious fashion, official recognition to NGOs, associations, religious groups, and political parties. According to the ministry, organizations receive a receipt after submitting their application for accreditation, and after the time periods listed above, this slip is legally sufficient for them to begin operating, to open a bank account, and to rent office or event space. The law does not explicitly include this provision. If the application is approved, the ministry issues a final accreditation document.
Many organizations reported that they never received a deposit slip and that even with the receipt, it was difficult to conduct necessary administrative tasks without formal accreditation. Other organizations reported they never received any written response to their application request even after calling the ministry and trying to register at local police stations. The ministry maintained that organizations that were refused accreditation or that did not receive a response within the specified time period could appeal to the State Council, the administrative court responsible for cases involving the government.
The ministry did not renew the accreditations of the NGOs SOS Disparus (SOS Disappeared), Djazairouna, the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), the National Association for the Fight against Corruption, and the Youth Action Movement, all of which submitted their renewal applications in prior years.
The government issued licenses and subsidies to domestic associations, especially youth, medical, and neighborhood associations. According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 132,426 local and 1,734 national associations registered as of September, including 39,437 new local associations and 80 new national associations registered since January. Unlicensed NGOs remained active, but rarely received government assistance, and citizens at times hesitated to associate with these organizations.
According to the Ministry of Interior, during the COVID-19 pandemic the government significantly eased local association requirements, giving local organizations the space to operate. The government determined local civil society organizations, specifically health-care-related charities, were better positioned to assist locally than the federal government. The Ministry of Interior relaxed its registration rules, allowing local governments to authorize local associations, resulting in more than 1,000 new local charity associations. National associations must still submit their applications to the Ministry of Interior for authorization.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government restricted the exercise of these rights.
The government generally cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides citizens “the right to freely choose their place of residence and to move throughout the national territory.” The government requires that foreign diplomats and private sector personnel have armed security escorts from the government if they travel outside of Algiers wilaya, El-Oued, and Illizi, near hydrocarbon industry installations, and the Libyan border. Citing the threat of terrorism, the government also prevented overland tourist travel between the southern cities of Tamanrasset, Djanet, and Illizi. Newspapers reported that the government restricted foreign tourists from traveling through trails in Tassili and Hoggar, as well as certain areas in and around Tamanrasset, due to security concerns.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states that citizens have the right to enter and exit the country. The law does not permit those younger than 18 to travel abroad without a guardian’s permission. Married women younger than 18 may not travel abroad without permission from their husbands, but married women older than 18 may do so. The government did not permit young men eligible for the draft who had not completed their military service to leave the country without special authorization. The government granted such authorization to students and persons with special family circumstances.
From October 2019 to January, the NGO Alarme Phone Sahara (APS) reported the government deported 4,722 individuals, including 2,582 Nigeriens, from Algeria to Niger. APS reported two types of deportation convoys from Algeria to Niger. Authorities, in coordination with the Nigerian government and pursuant to a bilateral agreement, transfer Nigeriens directly to Nigerien security forces at the Assamaka, Niger, border post. Convoys also leave citizens of various nationalities near Assamaka where they must walk the last 10 to 15 miles into Nigerien territory. APS reported the International Organization on Migration (IOM), Doctors without Borders (MSF), and Nigerien security forces look for deportees lost in the desert. According to APS, deportees include nationals from Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon, Sudan, Somalia, Bangladesh, and Syria.
On October 9, Human Rights Watch reported that the country expelled more than 3,400 migrants of at least 20 nationalities to Niger, including 430 children and 240 women. Security personnel separated children from their families during the arrests, stripped migrants and asylum seekers of their belongings, and failed to allow them to challenge their removal or screen them for refugee status. Numerous asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR were among those arrested and expelled.
According to UNHCR’s March 2019 report on Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, the government protected a significant number of refugees in five large refugee camps in Tindouf and ran two other smaller camps near Tindouf, one surrounding a women’s boarding school, and another used for administrative purposes. UNHCR reported many Sahrawi refugees lost their jobs and other sources of income due to COVID-19. Simultaneously, a pulmonary livestock epidemic killed over 1,700 sheep and goats in the camps this year. Sahrawi refugees rely on these animals to supplement their diets and incomes.
In 2019 the government protected a smaller urban refugee population, primarily in Algiers. The report noted the refugee population included predominantly Syrians (an estimated 85 percent), as well as Yemenis, Congolese, Ivoirians, Palestinians, Malians, Central Africans, and other nationalities. UNHCR, the World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, the Algerian Red Crescent, the Sahrawi Red Crescent, and other organizations assisted Sahrawi refugees.
IOM estimates 90,000 migrants enter the country every year. Authorities typically expel irregular migrants through the border with Niger. Nigerien nationals are brought to Assamaka via official convoys, based on an agreement between Algeria and Niger. They are then transported to Agadez, where IOM Niger provides humanitarian assistance. Authorities accompany third-country nationals (TCNs) of mixed nationalities (mainly from West Africa) to the border at Point Zero, a nine-mile desert location between Ain-Guezzam, Algeria, and Assamaka, Niger. IOM Niger provides assistance through humanitarian rescue operations. No publicly are available data on the number of migrants the government expelled from Algeria through these operations. The government suspended expulsions when COVID-19 necessitated border closures. As of July, IOM Niger assisted 6,546 migrants in Assamaka (19 percent Nigeriens, 81 percent TCNs).
In September, IOM organized a voluntary return flight for 114 migrants from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Liberia who were stranded in the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. IOM reported Algerian authorities facilitated their efforts.
In July, IOM organized a voluntary return for 84 Malian migrants from Algiers to Bamako, Mali. IOM reported this operation was possible thanks to an agreement between Algerian and Malian authorities to temporarily lift travel restrictions and enable IOM to facilitate the safe return of stranded migrants. Migrants residing outside of Algiers received inland transportation assistance; the inland movement was closely coordinated with and supported by relevant Algerian authorities.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports that during government roundup operations of suspected migrants, some of those detained were raped, suffered sexual harassment, or both and that unaccompanied minors were sometimes rounded up and taken to the border for expulsion.
UNHCR reported refugees and migrants traversing land routes to and through the country continue to risk death, kidnapping, sexual- and gender-based violence physical abuse, and other violence.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Since the outbreak of violence in northern Mali in 2012, international observers reported an influx of individuals into the country across the Malian border inconsistent with traditional migratory movements.
In 2019 the CNDH stated the government had dedicated $12 million to ensure the human rights of migrants during repatriation operations (to include accommodation, food, clothing, health care, medicines, and transportation). Authorities conducted repatriations in coordination with consular officials from the migrants’ countries of origin, but the migrants were not permitted to challenge their removal. The government stated that it maintained a policy of not removing migrants registered with UNHCR, and that in a few cases it worked with UNHCR to return registered refugees who were mistakenly removed. Air Algerie signed an agreement with the IOM agreeing to provide charter flights for humanitarian supplies and migrants returning voluntarily.
Access to Asylum: While the law generally provides for asylum or refugee status, the government has not established a formal system through which refugees can request asylum. There were no reports that the government granted refugee status and asylum to new refugee applicants during the year. According to UNHCR, the government did not accept UNHCR-determined refugee status for individuals. In 2019, UNHCR offices in Algiers reported an estimated 200 to 300 asylum requests per month, mostly from Syrian, Palestinian, and sub-Saharan African individuals coming from Mali, Guinea, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Those determined by UNHCR to have valid refugee claims were primarily from the DRC, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. There was no evidence of any pattern of discrimination toward asylum applicants, but the lack of a formal asylum system made this difficult to assess.
In 2019 UNHCR registered more than 10,000 Syrians, but fewer than 7,000 remained registered with UNHCR as of September 2019. The Algerian Red Crescent, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Solidarity, maintained “welcome facilities” that provided food and shelter for those Syrians without means to support themselves. The facilities were in Sidi Fredj. The government did not grant UNHCR access to these reception centers but reported that by 2016 most Syrians no longer used the centers.
Employment: The government does not formally allow refugee employment; however, many worked in the informal market and were at risk of labor exploitation due to their lack of legal status in the country. Other migrants, asylum seekers, and Malians and Syrians who had a “special status” with the government, relied largely on remittances from family, the support of local family and acquaintances, and assistance from the Algerian Red Crescent and international aid organizations.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR provided registered refugees with modest food assistance and lodging support. Sahrawi refugees lived predominantly in five Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario)-administered camps near the city of Tindouf. The Polisario (through the Sahrawi Red Crescent Society), UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, and partner NGOs provided basic services including food aid, primary health care, and primary and secondary education. The government invested heavily in developing the camps’ infrastructure and also provided free secondary and university educations, as well as advanced hospital care, to Sahrawi refugees. The remote location of the camps and lack of government presence resulted in a lack of access by police and courts. Other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants had access to free public hospitals, but independent NGOs reported instances of migrants being turned away.
School administrators must allow migrant and refugee children to enroll in primary school through high school and require only that they present their passport and documentation showing their level of schooling from their home country. International organizations reported some children had trouble integrating into the educational system but that migrants’ access to education was improving, particularly in the north of the country. These organizations reported that migrant parents were often reluctant to enroll their children in Algerian schools due to language barriers or cultural differences. NGOs also indicated that some migrants were denied treatment at health-care facilities.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees from foreign countries for resettlement. The Sahrawi refugees have not sought local integration or naturalization during their 40-year stay in the refugee camps near Tindouf, and the Polisario Front continued to call for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara. The IOM leads an “Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration” program to help migrants return to their homes willingly with economic and social support, including personalized professional training and other socioeconomic assistance. Although the government is not a financial donor to the initiative, they do cooperate.
Temporary Protection: The law does not address formal temporary protection, but authorities provided informal, temporary protection to groups such as Syrians, 7,000 of whom were registered as of September 2019, and Malians.
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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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/.
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 law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Violence and harassment, as well as the criminalization of libel, inhibited freedom of the press, and the government frequently influenced the press, in part through its large advertising budgets. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
Violence and Harassment: According to the domestic NGO Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), through August 14, there were 98 threats against journalists, some involving more than one target, for a total of 126 journalists affected by threats. FLIP reported 304 incidents of violence or harassment, including 80 journalists who were physically assaulted. According to FLIP, one journalist, Jose Abelardo Liz, was killed in connection with his work. Liz, an indigenous radio journalist, worked for a radio station in Corinto, Cauca. FLIP also reported that between January and August, no journalists were illegally detained. The Attorney General’s Office reported that from January through August, they obtained seven convictions in cases of homicides of journalists.
As of July 31, the NPU provided protection services to 182 journalists. Some NGOs raised concerns about perceived shortcomings in the NPU, such as delays in granting protection and the appropriateness of measures for addressing specific threats.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: FLIP alleged some journalists practiced self-censorship due to fear of being sued under libel laws or of being physically attacked, mostly by nongovernment actors. FLIP asserted that the high degree of impunity for those who committed aggressions against journalists was also a factor. In May media reported that members of the intelligence community inappropriately followed, monitored, and profiled 52 journalists.
Libel/Slander Laws: By law slander and libel are crimes. The government did not use prosecution to prevent media outlets from criticizing government policies or public officials. Political candidates, businesspersons, and others, however, publicly threatened to sue journalists for expressing their opinions, alleging defamation or libel. FLIP reported that through August 22, there were 88 cases alleging libel or slander affecting 98 journalists.
Nongovernmental Impact: Members of illegal armed groups inhibited freedom of expression by intimidating, threatening, kidnapping, and killing journalists. National and international NGOs reported local media representatives regularly practiced self-censorship because of threats of violence from these groups. For example, media reported that eight journalists in the department of Magdalena received death threats from the ELN in August.
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. Due to the general climate of impunity and violence in some areas, self-censorship occurred both online and offline, particularly within rural communities.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Some NGOs alleged that riot police (Esmad) used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The CNP reported that from January through August 5, a total of 28 Esmad members were under investigation in connection with 13 cases of excess use of force. The Inspector General’s Office separately reported 94 active disciplinary actions against Esmad during the year. In June a coalition of social organizations began a 16-day march from Popayan to Bogota to draw attention to the violence in rural territories. Participating organizations alleged harassment by police along the way.
On September 9-10, following the killing of Javier Humberto Ordonez Bermudez, there were violent protests in Bogota in response to the alleged excessive use of force by the police. According to media reports, protesters destroyed 50 neighborhood police outposts and at least 10 persons died during two nights of demonstrations. The Ministry of Defense reported that ELN and FARC dissidents infiltrated the protests and provoked violence.
In September, October, and November, labor federations, student groups, and human rights organizations staged a separate set of largely peaceful demonstrations throughout the country to protest a range of social and economic conditions and policies. According to police estimates, there were 142 centers of protest activity countrywide during the September protests, including caravans, marches, and rallies.
The law provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. Freedom of association was limited, however, by threats and acts of violence committed by illegal armed groups against NGOs, indigenous groups, and labor unions.
Although the government does not prohibit membership in most political organizations, membership in organizations that engaged in rebellion against the government, espoused violence, or carried out acts of violence, such as FARC dissidents, the ELN, and other illegal armed groups, was against the law.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although there were exceptions. Military operations and insecurity in certain rural areas restricted freedom of movement.
In-country Movement: The government required asylum seekers and individuals without regularized migration status to have a salvoconducto (safe passage document) to travel throughout the country. Illegal armed groups continued to establish checkpoints on rural roads and took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to establish their own curfews and movement restrictions in an effort to expand their territorial control.
International and civil society organizations also reported that illegal armed groups confined rural communities through roadblocks, curfews, car bombs at egress routes, and improvised explosive devices in areas where illicit crop cultivation and narcotics trafficking persisted. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by the end of September, 61,000 persons lived in communities that suffered from confinement, limiting their access to essential goods and services due to armed incidents and geographical factors.
There were approximately eight million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, largely a result of the armed conflict and continuing violence in rural areas. Threats posed by illegal armed groups drove internal displacement in remote areas as well as urban settings. After the 2016 peace accord, FARC withdrawal resulted in a struggle for control by other illegal armed groups, causing violence and internal displacement. The government, international organizations, and civil society groups identified various factors causing displacement, including threats, extortion, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence by illegal armed groups against civilian populations, particularly women and girls. Other causes of displacement included competition and armed confrontation among and within illegal armed groups for resources and territorial control; confrontations between security forces, guerrillas, and organized-crime gangs; and forced recruitment of children or threats of forced recruitment. Drug trafficking, illegal mining, and large-scale commercial ventures in rural areas also contributed to displacement. Local institutions that lacked the capacity in many areas to protect the rights of, and provide public services to, IDPs and communities at risk of displacement were impacted by the COVID-19 national quarantine. Consequently, the government continued to struggle to provide adequate protection or humanitarian assistance to newly displaced populations.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that approximately 37,760 persons were affected in 84 displacement events in 2019 and that 15,400 persons were affected in 52 displacement events between January and August 21. Departments with the highest rate of mass displacements included Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander.
The Victims’ Unit maintained the Single Victims Registry as mandated by law. Despite improvements in the government registration system, IDPs experienced delays in receiving responses to their displacement claims due to a large backlog of claims built up during several months, lack of the unit’s presence in rural areas, and other constraints. The closure of many government offices during the months-long national quarantine due to COVID-19 resulted in many IDPs being unable to file their displacement claims. Government policy provides for an appeals process in the case of refusals.
The ELN and other armed groups continued to use force, intimidation, and disinformation to discourage IDPs from registering with the government. International organizations and civil society expressed concern over urban displacement caused by violence stemming from territorial disputes between criminal gangs, some of which had links to larger criminal and narcotics trafficking groups.
The Victims’ Unit cited extortion, forced recruitment by illegal armed groups, killings, and physical and sexual violence as the primary causes of intraurban displacement. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that in some departments displacement disproportionately affected indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.
As of June the government registered approximately 361,150 IDPs who identified as indigenous, and 1,114,350 who identified as Afro-Colombian. Indigenous persons constituted approximately 4.5 percent and Afro-Colombians approximately 14 percent of new IDPs registered by the government.
The NGO National Association of Displaced Afrodescendants (AFRODES) stated that threats and violence against Afro-Colombian leaders and communities continued to cause high levels of forced displacement, especially in the Pacific Coast region. AFRODES and other local NGOs expressed concern that large-scale economic projects, such as agriculture and mining, contributed to displacement in their communities.
By law 52 government agencies are responsible for assisting registered IDPs. In addition dozens of international organizations; international NGOs; domestic nonprofit groups; and multilateral organizations, including the International Organization for Migration, World Food Program, ICRC, UNHCR, and Colombian Red Cross, coordinated with the government to provide emergency relief and long-term assistance to displaced populations.
International organizations and NGOs remained concerned about the slow and insufficient institutional response to displacement. As a result, NGOs took responsibility for providing humanitarian assistance to recently displaced individuals. International organizations and civil society reported that a lack of local capacity to accept registrations in high-displacement areas often delayed assistance to persons displaced individually or in smaller groups. Humanitarian organizations attributed the delays to a variety of factors, including the lack of personnel, funding, declaration forms, and training. Insecurity in communities affected by the conflict and reduced mobility during the COVID-19 national quarantine, including areas in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Choco, Narino, and Norte de Santander, often delayed national and international aid organizations from reaching newly displaced populations.
Despite several government initiatives to enhance IDP access to services and awareness of their rights, municipalities in many parts of the country did not have the resources or capacity to respond to new displacements and provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Many IDPs continued to live in poverty in unhygienic conditions and with limited access to health care, education, shelter, and employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some humanitarian organizations increased health promotion education and the distribution of hygiene supplies.
The government estimated that 400,000 to 500,000 Colombians, many of whom had been displaced by the conflict in Colombia and registered as refugees in Venezuela, prior to the signing of the 2016 peace accord, had returned from Venezuela as of August.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
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 government reported it had approved 339 requests for recognition of refugee status in 2019 and was processing a caseload of 17,000 requests it received in 2019 and 2020. Venezuelans represented approximately 95 percent of applications during the year. The government increased the validity period of a salvoconducto from three months to six months and removed the previous bar on employment for permit holders. The newly opened asylum office in Bogota cleared its case backlog dating back to 2017.
There was a steady migration flow from Venezuela until the closure of international borders in March, due to the COVID-19 national quarantine. Despite the closure of international borders, some humanitarian travel continued to be allowed. Since March an estimated 110,000 Venezuelans returned to their country. According to migration officials, as of August the country hosted more than 1.7 million Venezuelans, a net decrease from the beginning of the year. As Colombia’s economy began reopening after September 1, Venezuelans began entering Colombia again even though the official land border remained closed. While the government generally provided access to the asylum process for persons who requested international protection, many opted for alternative migration status. The government continued to grant Colombian citizenship to Venezuelan children born in Colombia on or after August 19, 2015, and by August approximately 46,000 children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia had received citizenship.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary residence permits (PEPs) to Venezuelans who met certain eligibility requirements. Approximately 690,000 Venezuelans who entered with passports legally were granted PEPs in the 2017-2019 period, according to migration officials. PEPs provide access to work, primary and secondary education, and the social insurance system, as well as the ability to open bank accounts. Migration officials announced an open renewal period for PEPs beginning in June; by August 18, nearly 200,000 Venezuelans had renewed their PEPs.
According to UNHCR, there were more than nine million persons of concern (including refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, returned IDPs, returned refugees, stateless persons, and others of concern) residing in the country in 2018, compared with 7.7 million in 2017.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. On June 10, a local human rights organization said authorities did not investigate police reports it filed after several attacks against its director between October and December 2019 that resulted in bodily injury to the director and theft of his car. On June 27, eight human rights organizations condemned a media attack against the director after he published a report on conditions in Gamassa Prison.
On February 16, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued executive regulations for the media law ratified in 2018. Among the regulations, newspapers are required to print their issues in Egypt at licensed printing houses registered with the council; news websites must host their servers in Egypt; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies all of published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The regulations also prohibit any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals.
Between March and July, authorities arrested at least seven doctors and charged them with membership in a banned group, spreading false news, and misuse of social media after they criticized the government’s response to COVID-19. Between October and December, three doctors were released pending investigation. The Doctors’ Syndicate protested the arrests and called for release of all the doctors. On October 1, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of prominent lawyer Tarek Jamil Saeed pending investigations of disturbing the peace, spreading rumors, and misusing social media after he criticized candidates for parliament. Saeed was released on bail on October 11.
On December 27, a criminal court ordered the release of housing-rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine with probationary measures. Ezzedine remained in detention until the end of the year. According to a local human rights organization, he was held without notice beginning in June 2019 after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in November 2019 before the State Security Prosecution accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
A criminal court on September 13 renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of Mohamed Ramadan, who was arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. After a court ordered Ramadan’s release on bail on December 2, the State Security Prosecution ordered him remanded into custody on December 8 on additional charges of joining a banned group based upon letters he sent while in detention.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and September, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 96 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. In June 2019 several political figures were arrested, including El-Aleimy and journalist Hossam Moanes, after they met to form the political Alliance of Hope to run in parliamentary elections. They remained in pretrial detention. On March 11, a misdemeanor court sentenced El-Aleimy to one year in prison for spreading false news and disturbing public peace as a result of a BBC interview in 2017. On April 18, a terrorism court added 13 defendants from the “Hope” case to the terrorism list, including former member of parliament and Social Democratic Party leader Ziyad El-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On June 16, the Cairo Criminal Court turned down a challenge filed by Moanes against an August 2019 ruling to seize his money. On August 4, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (No. 930/2019). On October 10, a criminal court ordered the release of four Alliance of Hope defendants, including activist Ahmed Tammam. On November 14, an administrative court heard the lawsuit filed by El-Aleimy to allow him to receive telephone calls and correspondence. Amnesty International reported he was being denied adequate health care by Tora Prison authorities even though his underlying medical conditions put him at particular risk if exposed to COVID-19.
On March 19, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 political figures in pretrial detention, including political science professor Hassan Nafaa and former president Sisi campaigner Hazem Abdel Azim. Nafaa was arrested in September 2019 with Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign, and journalist Khaled Dawoud. On December 27, a criminal court renewed Hosni’s and Dawoud’s pretrial detention for 45 days pending investigations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and ordered Hosni’s release. The State Security Prosecution ordered Hosni’s continued detention in a new case on November 4. On July 5, a criminal court overturned the public prosecutor’s 2019 decision to freeze Nafaa’s fixed assets and stayed the public prosecutor’s decision to seize his assets until the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Antiterrorism Law.
On August 5, the writer and prominent leftist Sinai activist, Ashraf Ayoub, and his son Sherif, were detained in Arish city, North Sinai, and taken to an unknown location. According to a labor leader, Ayoub advocated for detainees. After 20 days, Ayoub appeared before the State Security Prosecution, which ordered his pretrial detention on charges of joining a terrorism group and spreading false news. According to local media, Ayoub’s son was released without charges in mid-August.
In May security forces arrested sports critic Awny Nafae while he was under government-imposed COVID-19 quarantine after returning from Saudi Arabia, according to local media. The arrest came after Nafae criticized the Ministry of Emigration for its handling of thousands of Egyptian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was held in pretrial detention on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and participating in a terrorist group, but he was released in October.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
More than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of EGP 50,000 ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (Supreme Council) broad discretion to block their content.
According to media reports, on April 21, the Supreme Council fined the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm for an op-ed written by its founder Salah Diab under a pseudonym. The article suggested that Sinai should have one governor with expanded powers to better govern the entire peninsula. The Supreme Council ordered the newspaper to remove the op-ed, issue an apology, and suspend Diab’s opinion pieces for one month. On May 12, the Supreme Council ordered media not to publish or broadcast any material under pseudonyms without the approval of the Supreme Council.
On April 12, authorities arrested Mustafa Saqr, owner of the Business News company, and the State Security Prosecution detained him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist, spreading false news, and misusing social media. His arrest came after he published an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 27 journalists were imprisoned in the country.
During the year the government raided several newspapers, arrested employees, and released them shortly thereafter. On June 24, the security services arrested Noura Younis, editor in chief of the independent news website Al-Manassa and a former Washington Post correspondent. On June 26, authorities released Younis on bail pending trial on charges of creating a network account with the intent to commit a crime, possessing software without a license from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority, copyright infringement, and wrongfully profiting through the internet or telecommunication services.
On May 11, authorities arrested Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Haitham Mahgoub, days after he published an article relating to the country’s response to COVID-19, according to media. Media reported that Mahgoub and his attorneys were not allowed to attend the June 7 hearing where the State Security Prosecution ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigations of joining a banned group, financing a banned group, and spreading false news. Mahgoub was released on November 19 pending further investigation. On May 22, television stations broadcast confessions of four of 11 journalists and media workers whom the Interior Ministry claimed were part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to produce false reports for al-Jazeera. Human rights lawyers challenged the confessions and their pretrial publication as illegal.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
On March 17, the State Information Service revoked the accreditation of a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, after it published a report addressing the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. On March 26, the Guardian reported that authorities forced the correspondent to leave the country.
On March 30, authorities ordered the detention of Mohamad Al-Eter, the Ultra Sawt website correspondent, for 15 days pending investigations. He was accused of joining a terrorist group, publishing false news, and misusing the online social networks. A court granted Al-Eter bail in May, and he was released on June 1 pending investigation.
According to Freedom House, multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remained in prison. In many cases the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argued they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist or banned group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations were the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The state of emergency empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.
In June the Supreme Council for Media Regulation stated that all media in any form had to use official sources to publish or broadcast any information about Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the war against terrorism in Sinai, or COVID-19.
In June a media rights organization said that the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 media websites.
The rising number of arrests for social media posts had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. On August 15, the National Translation Center published its translation guidelines, including conditions that books it translates do not “oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.” According to media, professional writers and translators denounced the rules as a form of censorship. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as sectarian tensions, sexuality, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims. On June 21, the Alexandria Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court upheld the February 27 three-year sentence against activist and blogger Anas Hassan for “insulting religion and misusing social media.” According to a local human rights organization, security forces arrested Hassan in August 2019 for his Facebook page “The Egyptian Atheists” that a police report stated contained atheistic ideas and criticism of the “divinely revealed religions.”
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
On March 10, the prime minister instructed relevant authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors regarding COVID-19. On March 28, the Public Prosecution affirmed in a statement that it would address such “fake news” stories according to the law.
On March 18, security forces arrested Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, at his home in Aswan following a critical post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 14, which ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigation.
A local independent human rights organization reported that journalist Basma Mostafa was detained for nine hours while covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories in downtown Cairo. Media reported Mostafa was arrested on October 3 while covering the death of Luxor Governorate citizen Ewais al-Rawy (see section 1.a.) and ensuing protests; Mostafa was released on October 6.
On February 12, local media reported that the Supreme Council for Media Regulations sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posting “false news” regarding a reported COVID-19 infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban publishing any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.
Judges may issue restraining orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
On March 11, authorities released, with probationary measures, blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers. He had been held in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cybercrime law states, “The relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.
On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education and Technical Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, like that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. University faculty members and Ministry of Education employees (including teachers) needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic or professional purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason. Some public universities restricted campus visits of foreign speakers or delegations or required a faculty chaperone for delegations of university students traveling to the United States.
On May 8, authorities at the Cairo International Airport confiscated the passport of Walid Salem, a University of Washington doctoral student, preventing him from traveling. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probationary measures pending trial. On February 22, the State Security Prosecution canceled the probationary measures and released him under guarantee of his place of residence.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Interior Ministry and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On February 16, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mahraganat music, a popular street-music genre, in public and prohibited any dealings with Mahraganat singers without the syndicate’s permission. This decision came two days after a Cairo concert where Mahraganat singers used what the syndicate considered inappropriate words. A few hours after the decision, the Tourism Police prevented Omar Kamal from holding a concert in a Cairo hotel. The syndicate and the Department of Censorship of Artistic Works filed police reports against a number of Mahraganat singers.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly “according to notification regulated by law.” The demonstrations law includes an expansive list of prohibited activities, giving a judge the authority to prohibit or curtail planned demonstrations after submitting an official memorandum. Domestic and international human rights organizations asserted the law did not meet international standards regarding freedom of assembly. On January 18, an administrative court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a local human rights organization in 2017 challenging the law. A government-imposed exclusion zone prohibits protests within 2,600 feet (790 meters) of vital governmental institutions.
On March 22, President Sisi ratified amendments to the Prison Regulation Law, preventing the conditional release of those convicted of assembly crimes, among other crimes.
There were protests throughout the year, mostly small, and some occurred without government interference. In most cases the government rigorously enforced the law restricting demonstrations, in some instances using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.
On February 7, authorities detained Patrick George Zaki, a student at the University of Bologna, at the Cairo International Airport. Media reported he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. On February 8, Zaki appeared before the prosecutor, who ordered his pretrial detention on charges of inciting individuals to protest in September 2019, spreading false news, promoting terrorism, and harming national security. A criminal court renewed his pretrial detention for 45 days on December 6.
On April 22, a local NGO reported that authorities released 3,633 of the 3,717 protesters detained after street demonstrations in September 2019. According to the report, approximately 1,680 defendants were released in 2019, approximately 1,983 were released in the first quarter of 2020, and an estimated 54 remained in detention. On February 5, the Al-Mokattam Emergency Misdemeanor Court ordered the acquittal of 102 individuals of charges of attacking the Mokattam police station in protest against the death in custody of Mohamed Abdel Hakim. Government investigators reported that Hakim had died from beatings by two police employees following his arrest in 2018.
On July 1, the Cassation Court reduced the prison sentence of a Central Security Forces officer, Yaseen Hatem, from 10 years to seven years for the death of activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Hatem was convicted of wounding that led to the death and deliberately wounding other protesters during a 2015 protest marking the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
According to a local human rights organization, thousands of persons whom authorities arrested during 2013 and 2014 due to their participation in demonstrations (some of which were peaceful) remained imprisoned; however, authorities released others who had completed their sentences. Authorities reportedly held such individuals under charges of attending an unauthorized protest, incitement to violence, or “blocking roads.” Human rights groups claimed authorities inflated or used these charges solely to target individuals suspected of being members of groups in opposition to the government or those who sought to exercise the rights to free assembly or association.
On April 12, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 35 detainees on bail whom authorities had accused of spreading false news about COVID-19, some of whom had participated in a street march in Alexandria on March 23 after curfew, despite government restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic. On April 25, authorities released 20 detainees on bail who had participated in an April 23 street march after curfew in Alexandria to celebrate Ramadan and protest COVID-19.
On June 17, a local human rights organization filed an official complaint with the prosecutor general to release activist Mohamed Adel as he reached the two-year legal limit for pretrial detention since his June 2018 arrest on charges of violating the protest law. On December 21, State Security Prosecution ordered Adel’s detention for 15 days pending investigation in a new case on charges of joining and funding a terrorist group, meeting terrorist leaders in prison, and spreading false news. Reports indicated that in September more than 2,000 persons, including at least 70 younger than 18, were arrested in response to small demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the anticorruption protests of September 2019. On September 27, the Public Prosecution ordered the release of 68 of the 70 minors who had been arrested. In early November more than 400 persons arrested during the demonstrations were released from prison, and in early December approximately 67 additional individuals were also released.
The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.
A 2019 law governing NGOs eliminated prison sentences as penalties and removed formal oversight roles for security and intelligence authorities. It also required the government to issue executive regulations to clarify that NGOs will have exclusive access to and control of NGO funds as well as procedural protections, such as impartial administrative and judicial appeal mechanisms. On November 25, the cabinet approved the executive regulations. As of December 31, however, they had not been published in the official gazette.
The penal code criminalizes the request for or acceptance of foreign funds, materiel, weapons, ammunition, or “other things” from states or NGOs “with the intent to harm the national interest.” Those convicted may be sentenced to life in prison (or the death penalty in the case of public officials) for crimes committed during times of war or with “terrorist purpose.”
As of year’s end, lawyer Amr Emam remained in detention pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist organization, publishing false news, and misusing social media to spread false information. Emam was arrested in October 2019 after he began a hunger strike and sit-in to protest the arrests, alleged abuse, and continued detention of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and lawyer Mohamed Elbakr. In late August Emam, along with Esraa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Elbakr, was added to a new case on similar charges.
On September 6, after a criminal court ordered his release on August 26, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy on new charges. This was the third case against Hegazy, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, since his 2017 arrest at the Cairo International Airport while traveling to Geneva to participate in the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the Muslim Brotherhood was listed as a designated terrorist organization.
Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. On July 18, the Cairo Criminal Court denied a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on 14 defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan and others, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO. On December 5, an investigative judge dismissed criminal charges, including receiving foreign funding to harm the national interests, and lifted the travel bans and asset freezes against 20 domestic NGOs involved in the 2011 case.
A court case brought by el-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (also registered under the name el-Nadeem for Psychological Rehabilitation) challenging a 2016 closure order remained pending an expert report ordered by the court. The organization asserted the closure was politically motivated, targeting el-Nadeem because of its work investigating torture, deaths in detention, and impunity for these crimes. The organization continued to operate in a limited capacity.
In November Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and executive director Gasser Abdel Razek of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were arrested on charges of “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news.” On December 3, authorities released the three pending investigation. On December 6, the Third Terrorism Circuit Court ordered a temporary freeze on the personal assets of the three employees.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers.
In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai on safety grounds.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.” Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.
Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.
The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. A 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”
Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country because of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).
Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.
On June 6, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have to renew the passport of Ayman Nour, the president of the opposition New Ghad Party who was living abroad. Nour filed the lawsuit when the ministry refused to renew his passport at the Egyptian consulates in Turkey and Lebanon.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.
According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.
Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.
On January 8, the Supreme Administrative Court made a final ruling that the government could not extradite to Libya six former Libyan officials who were part of the government of former president Muammar Gaddafi. The court stated that according to domestic and international law, they were entitled to protection in Egypt.
UNHCR protested the government’s November 2019 deportation of a Yemeni asylee to Yemen. According to UNHCR, the asylee was arrested in August 2019 in Egypt for his alleged conversion from Islam to Christianity and subsequent proselytizing activities.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR as of March, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.
In 2013 the government began applying a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria, since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.
Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean, remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following enactment and enforcement of a law dramatically increasing patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.
UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed most detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently not detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Authorities often held detained migrants as unregistered asylum seekers in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent some to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.
The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases that were either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools or private schools, or they were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care.
Of the eight stateless persons known to UNHCR, most were Armenians displaced for more than 50 years. According to a local civil society organization, the number of stateless persons in the country was likely higher than the number recorded by UNHCR. The government and UNHCR lacked a mechanism for identifying stateless persons, including those of disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese nationality and those of disputed Ethiopian/Eritrean nationality. A majority of the approximately 70,000 Palestinian refugees were stateless.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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/.
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 provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to the HRW World Report 2020, sedition and criminal defamation laws were sometimes used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or state policies. In certain cases local authorities arrested or filed cases against individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. The harassment and detainment of journalists critical of the government in their reporting or social media messaging continued.
On August 14, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court convicted prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan for criminal contempt of court for two tweets that criticized the chief justice and the role played by the Supreme Court in the past six years. Bhushan was also facing contempt charges on another case relating to his comments in 2009 alleging judicial corruption. He was required to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee and express contrition before the court. According to media, more than 3,000 retired judges, lawyers, and eminent persons supported Bhushan and sent a petition to the Supreme Court stating that Bhushan’s tweets did not amount to contempt.
AII’s report Jammu and Kashmir After One year of Abrogation of Article 370 documented 14 instances of detention, police interrogations, and assaults on journalists. The government also introduced a new media regulation policy in Jammu and Kashmir empowering local administration to determine “fake and antinational news” and to initiate related action against journalists.
On February 15, Karnataka police arrested three engineering students of Kashmiri origin on sedition charges. According to police records, Basit Ashiq Ali, Talib Majeed, and Ameer Mohiuddin Wani recorded a video of themselves chanting slogans supporting Pakistan and posted the video on social media. They were arrested after college officials reported them to police. On June 10, the students were released on bail.
On February 20, Karnataka police booked student activist Amulya Leona on sedition charges for shouting pro-Pakistan slogans in her speech at a rally in Bengaluru protesting the CAA. A local court granted her bail on June 11.
On April 1, a complaint was filed against the founding editor of the news website The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, for his tweet referencing a report that the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had insisted a religious gathering be held during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although a correction was issued, the complaint was filed under Sections 66D and 67 of Information Technology Act 2000, Sections 188 and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, Section 54 of Disaster Management Act 2005 and Section 3 of Epidemic Diseases Act 1897. Varadarajan was granted bail on May 15. On May 11, Gujarat state police detained the editor and owner of Gujarati news website Face the Nation, Dhaval Patel, for publishing a report suggesting Gujarat’s chief minister might be replaced due to criticism over rising COVID-19 cases. Patel was charged with sedition and with spreading false panic. Patel was granted bail on May 27.
On May 19, the West Bengal government temporarily stopped the broadcast of Bengali news channel Calcutta News, which questioned the state government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including allegations of underreporting coronavirus infection rates and death numbers and severe mismanagement of hospitals.
On May 20, Srinagar Police summoned The Kashmir Walla editor Fahad Shah for covering an encounter between militants and security forces. Shah alleged police claimed his stories “maligned” police and subjected him to five hours of questioning. The Srinagar police summoned Shah again on July 9 and October 4 on the same matter.
NGOs reported the arrest and detention of political and human rights activists who criticized the policies of Manipur’s state government. While some faced charges of sedition, promoting communal disharmony, public mischief, and criminal conspiracy, others were booked under the National Disaster Management Act. United NGOs Mission Manipur reported that on April 12, the Manipur state government arrested Robin Rongmei, a social activist, under the act for posting a video on Facebook that showed shortages of essential items for children in a shelter home during the lockdown.
On May 25, Kolkata police summoned Anirban Chattopadhyay, editor of the leading Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, for interrogation. Police summoned him because his newspaper reported on the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for the staff of a hospital handling COVID-19 cases. On May 31, Chattopadhyay resigned his post as editor under pressure and to ease tensions with the government.
On June 5, Bengaluru police registered a case against former AII executive director Aakar Patel for a message he posted on Twitter that encouraged minority communities to emulate the racial justice protests abroad. Police booked Patel with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, and abetting commission of an offense by the public. Patel’s Twitter account was temporarily removed but remained visible outside the country following registration of the charge.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, digital media platforms, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, at both the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement.
The Reporters without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index identified press freedom violations by police, political activists, criminal groups, and corrupt local officials. Physical attacks and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” against journalists were cited as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for female journalists. Journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions. According to the report, pressure on media to amplify government perspectives increased following the May 2019 national elections. Criminal prosecutions were often used to gag journalists critical of the authorities, including the use of a section of the penal code that includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
In February the Kashmir Press Club stated security agencies had routinely deployed intimidation tactics such as threats, summonses, and physical attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 8, journalists Naseer Ganai and Haroon Nabi were summoned to the police facility, where they were questioned for reporting on a statement by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
In June the Jammu and Kashmir government released the Media Policy-–2020, which authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations to “examine” the content of print, electronic, and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or antinational activities” in the name of law and order. Under the new media policy, government action could range from legal proceedings against journalists for “indulging in fake news, unethical or antinational activities, or plagiarism” to withholding advertisements to any media that “incite or tends to incite violence, question sovereignty and the integrity of India, or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior.”
On June 13, Uttar Pradesh authorities charged Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a news report critical of the COVID-19 lockdown under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as well as under sections of the penal code regarding printing defamatory matter and negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Police also named the Mumbai-based editor in chief of Scroll.in in the first information report (FIR). On August 26, the Allahabad High Court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest in the case but allowed the investigation to continue.
On July 1, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay called for authorities to end “gunpoint censorship” and prosecute those responsible for the killing of Shubham Mani Tripathi, a journalist for the newspaper Kampu Mail. Tripathi died on June 19 when he was shot six times by two gunmen while on his way home in Uttar Pradesh. His killing was allegedly in retaliation for his investigative reports into connections between illegal sand mining and corruption allegations. The two assailants, along with a third individual, were arrested.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books that contained material government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
On March 6, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting placed a 48-hour ban on two Malayalam news channels for broadcasting footage of the February riots in New Delhi, allegedly in violation of the Cable Network Television Network Act. Hours after the ban was imposed, the ministry revoked its order and restored the transmission of both channels.
On April 24, Tamil Nadu police arrested Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the owner of a news platform, for reporting on alleged government corruption. A complaint was filed by a local government official who claimed the website was spreading false reports against the state government. A local court granted the media owner bail on April 28.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations reportedly being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported at least 79 journalists had been killed between 1992 and 2020. According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, at least four journalists were killed in connection with their work as of December.
On March 3, unidentified assailants attacked Tamil Nadu-based journalist M. Karthi with an iron rod. In his police complaint, Karthi claimed the attack was related to his reporting on a dispute between two ruling party politicians in the region. On March 4, police detained two suspects for questioning in relation to the attack, including an official in Tamil Nadu’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party.
On August 11, Shahid Tantray, Prabhjit Singh, and a third unidentified female–all journalists for The Caravan magazine–were attacked by a mob while reporting in New Delhi. Tantray reported that after identifying him as a Muslim, “the mob beat [him], punched on [his] neck and back, and tried to strangle [him] with the camera strap.” The Caravan stated the female journalist was sexually harassed. Police did not file a FIR or make arrests.
In September, Parashar Biswas, a journalist from the daily newspaper Syandan Patrika in Tripura, was beaten by unidentified individuals after he criticized Chief Minister Biplab Deb’s comments made against media outlets for publishing stories of alleged state mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. The Tripura Assembly of Journalists condemned the attack and demanded the chief minister not further threaten reporters or media houses.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
On July 3, journalist Rana Ayyub shared screenshots of several death and rape threats received on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram after she spoke out against the killing of a 65-year-old Srinagar resident. In one screenshot the social media user asked Ayyub to recall Gauri Lankesh, a journalist shot and killed in 2017.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
In February 2019 the minister of state in the Ministry of Communications told members of parliament the government had ordered the Department of Telecommunications to block 17,444 sites during the previous three years on the basis of recommendations of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, courts of law, and several other organizations.
On June 18, Uttar Pradesh filed a FIR against Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a report on the adverse effects of the COVID-19 lockdown in Varanasi. Police acted on a complaint filed by an individual Sharma interviewed about the lockdown, who alleged that Sharma misrepresented her comments and identity. Scroll.in denied the charges against Sharma and stood by her reporting. The media outlet alleged the FIR was an “attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism.” Local human rights activist Harsh Mander noted the FIR was part of a recent trend targeting journalists with legal actions. On June 18, Reporters without Borders said the charges were a “blatant attempt to intimidate one of India’s most resilient reporters.” According to reports, at least 55 journalists and editors were arrested or booked for reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown.
In 2018 the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology revealed that 14,221 websites had been blocked since 2010. Between January and October 2019, the ministry issued blocking orders for an additional 20 websites.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
On January 31, Karnataka police arrested the director of the Shaheen Primary and High School and a student’s mother for sedition after a school play was alleged to be critical of the CAA and “disrespectful” of Prime Minister Modi. On February 15, a district court released the two women on bail.
On April 18, police in Kashmir booked photojournalist Masrat Zahra under the UAPA for indulging in “antinational activities” on social media. In a statement police accused Zahra of “uploading antinational posts with criminal intention, uploading posts that glorify antinational activities and dent the image of law enforcing agencies besides causing disaffection against the country.” Zahra maintained she was sharing archival images that had already been published in different local and international social media platforms. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On April 23, the Jammu and Kashmir cyber police filed a FIR against Kashmiri author and journalist Gowhar Geelani for “glorifying terrorism in Kashmir” through social media posts. The police statement said Geelani was “indulging in unlawful activities through his posts and writings on social media platforms which [were] prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India.”
On May 18, Andhra Pradesh police arrested 66-year-old Ranganayaki Poonthota, following her Facebook post in which she questioned the government’s handling and police investigation of a styrene gas leak that killed at least 11 persons. She was arrested for making statements that create or promote enmity, indulging in wanton vilification, disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant, and criminal conspiracy. The NGO Human Rights Forum described the case as a “brazen attack on free speech” and demanded withdrawal of the case.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. The government banned more than 200 Chinese mobile apps because they were “prejudicial” to the sovereignty and security of the country.
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, censorship of online content, and reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.
In January the Supreme Court declared access to the internet a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media but upheld the government’s authority to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced measures allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to the measures, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or the state level.
According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 106 times in 2019 and 76 times as of December 21. The center reported the longest shutdown occurred between August 4, 2019, and March 4 in Jammu and Kashmir. Authorities restored mobile 2G services in April and landline internet in August. Mobile 3G and 4G connections remained blocked as of December, although intermittent access was restored in certain districts.
AII documented 67 instances of government-enforced internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir between January 14 and August 4. NGOs and professionals from the education and medical fields reported that frequent internet shutdown and denial of access to 4G internet presented problems to online education and COVID-19 mitigation measures.
In January the Supreme Court ruled that the indefinite shutdown of the internet in Jammu and Kashmir was illegal.
In December 2019, in response to protests concerning the passage of the CAA, internet shutdowns were implemented throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used a section of the code of criminal procedure relating to riots and civil disturbances as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.
Government requests for user data from internet companies increased dramatically. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 49,382 data requests in 2019, a 32 percent increase from 2018. Google reported a 69 percent increase in government requests for user data in its 2019 Transparency Report, receiving 19,438 disclosure requests. Twitter’s Transparency Report indicated 1,263 account information requests from the government in 2019, a 63 percent increase from 2018.
In its Freedom in the World 2020 report, Freedom House noted the central government and state governments repeatedly suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted the legal threshold for internet shutdowns was low and shutdown regulations were applied unevenly by executive branch officials with little or no legislative or judicial oversight.
Press outlets frequently reported instances in which individuals and journalists were arrested or detained for online activity, although NGOs noted there was little information about the nature of the activity or if it involved criminal or legitimate speech. Police continued to arrest individuals under the Information Technology Act for legitimate online activity, despite a 2015 Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute as unconstitutional, and which experts claimed was an abuse of legal processes.
The National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), expected to begin functioning at year’s end, was proposed after the 11/26 terror attacks in Mumbai as a unified intelligence database to collect data and patterns of suspects from 21 organizations. NATGRID’s database was designed to link 11 national agencies with approximately 14,000 police stations throughout the country.
In July the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology banned 59 mobile applications owned by China-based companies or otherwise linked to China, including the social media and communications platforms TikTok, WeChat, and Helo, citing national security reasons. As of year’s end, the ministry had banned more than 200 Chinese applications.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government occasionally applied restrictions on the travel and activities of visiting foreign experts and scholars. Academics continued to face threats and pressure for expressing controversial views. In August, Delhi police interrogated Delhi University academic and social activist Apoorvanand was interrogated by the Delhi police regarding his alleged association with the anti-CAA protests. Apoorvanand said in a public statement that, while an investigating agency was within its right to summon anyone for investigation, it should not lead to further harassment and victimization of protesters who asserted their democratic right to protest through constitutional means.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.
Security forces, including local police, often disrupted demonstrations and reportedly used excessive force when attempting to disperse protesters. On August 28, AII stated that Delhi police committed serious human rights violations during the February communal riots in Delhi. AII claimed police personnel were “complicit and actively participating” in the violence that killed more than 50 persons, the majority of whom were Muslims.
There were some restrictions on the organization of international conferences. Authorities required NGOs to secure approval from the central government before organizing international conferences. Authorities routinely granted permission, although in some cases the approval process was lengthy. Some human rights groups claimed this practice provided the government tacit control over the work of NGOs and constituted a restriction on freedoms of assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government required “prior approval” for some NGOs to receive foreign funds, suspended foreign banking licenses, or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without the proper clearances or that mixed foreign and domestic funding. In other instances, the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations.
In September parliament passed amendments to the FCRA that placed additional limitations on the international funding of nongovernment organizations and would create significant operational barriers for the NGO community. Experts believed the new legislation would severely restrict the ability of smaller, regional organizations to raise funds and diminish collaboration between the government and civil society.
Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by Ministry of Home Affairs officials who they said were purportedly under pressure to demonstrate strict enforcement of the law. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on nonpublic investigations by the Intelligence Bureau.
Some NGOs stated they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues, such as human rights or environmental activism. In September, AII closed its offices after a two-year FCRA investigation resulted in the government freezing the NGO’s local bank accounts. AII asserted the Ministry of Finance’s Enforcement Directorate targeted their organization in retaliation for recent human rights reporting on the Delhi riots and Jammu and Kashmir. The Ministry of Home Affairs defended the actions noting “a significant amount of foreign money was also remitted to Amnesty (India) without the ministry’s approval under the FCRA. This mala fide rerouting of money was in contravention of extant legal provisions.” AII challenged the Enforcement’s Directorate’s actions in court. On December 16, the Karnataka High Court granted AII access to some of its funding from the frozen accounts and ordered the Enforcement Directorate to complete its investigation within 45 days.
In June 2019, acting on a Ministry of Home Affairs complaint, the CBI filed a FIR against Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and the NGO Lawyers Collective, an organization run by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, alleging discrepancies in the utilization of foreign funds. On July 11, the CBI accused Grover and Jaising of violating FCRA provisions and raided their home and offices. On July 25, the Bombay High Court stated the CBI allegation against Lawyers Collective–mixing FCRA funds with domestic funding–was “vague and arbitrary,” and it directed the CBI not to take any coercive steps in relation to the FIR until August 19. Civil society groups, including HRW and the International Commission of Jurists, criticized the CBI action as “dubious” and politically motivated.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.
The country hosted a large refugee population, including more than 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed UNHCR to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased obstacles regularizing their status through long-term visas (LTVs) and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, 40,068 persons of concern were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.
In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas. In December 2019 the government extended the Inner Line Permit regime to Manipur, requiring all non-Manipuris to have the permit before they enter the state.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: In December 2019 parliament passed the CAA, which provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims and does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few instances.
Approximately 1.9 million residents of the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, were left off the register of 32.9 million who applied for the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam, leaving the nationality status of those excluded unclear pending the adjudication of these claims and objections. The government established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions. The official notification required to initiate the procedures in Assam remained pending. On January 6, the government informed the Supreme Court that children would not be separated from their parents or sent to detention centers because of the NRC in Assam. On February 4, the government informed parliament that it had not taken any decision to prepare the NRC at the national level. On March 18, the Ministry of Home Affairs filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that preparation of the NRC was a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from noncitizens.” On December 23, 2019, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation regarding the government’s intention to do so.
Authorities located settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. In 2019 approximately 19,000 persons were displaced because of conflicts and violence, while natural disasters displaced more than five million persons.
Precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence was difficult because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).
National policy or legislation did not address the issue of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs, but it had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
In January the central government, along with the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram, signed an agreement with the leaders of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum that allowed Brus to settle permanently in Tripura. The Brus are a scheduled tribe living in relief camps in Tripura as IDPs since 1997, when they fled Mizoram in the wake of ethnic clashes with the Mizo community. The agreement was intended to allot land and cash assistance to more than 30,000 persons from the Bru tribes in Tripura.
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but supported it in refugee protection and response.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees as any other foreigner. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to detention, forced returns, and abuse. The country historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least four Rohingya, who were in detention, were returned to Burma in January. According to UNHCR, at least 26 non-Rohingya refugees had been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.
The identity card issued by UNHCR was the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.
In 2018 the Ministry of Home Affairs instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The ministry directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR continued to follow up on matters related to statelessness. UNHCR maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited. Nonetheless, the government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but they permitted asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingya detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.
The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state.
Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers. According to UNHCR, obtaining formal employment was difficult for refugees because they did not possess the necessary documents such as Aadhar (national identity) cards and long-term visas.
Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized national identity card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. After issuing more than 7,000 long-term visas, which were renewable on a yearly basis for up to five years and provided access to formal employment, health care, and higher education, the government halted the practice in 2017. As of the end of 2019, only 35 UNHCR-registered refugees held unexpired long-term visas. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
According to the UNHCR India Factsheet from December 2019, the government directly provided assistance and protection to 203,235 refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet and 39,960 asylum seekers of other nationalities registered under UNHCR mandate. There were 341 Rohingya refugees living in the south: 254 in Karnataka, seven in Kerala, and 80 in Tamil Nadu. The Rohingya were employed in the informal economy, since they did not have legal work authorization from the government. Minor children had access to health services and education under the government’s “education for all” program. UNHCR was not aware of mistreatment or discrimination against Rohingya refugees; however, the agency said the state governments of Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu were not providing adequate support.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times, such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
Durable Solutions: UNHCR reported 196 individuals returned to Sri Lanka in March. At year’s end voluntary repatriations were suspended because there were no commercial flights available for the return of Sri Lankan refugees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained Indian citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at an Indian consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities may also confer citizenship through registration under specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years. Tibetans reportedly sometimes faced difficulty acquiring citizenship despite meeting the legal requirements.
According to UNHCR and NGOs, the country had a large population of stateless persons, but there were no reliable estimates. Stateless populations included Chakmas and Hajongs, who entered the country in the early 1960s from present-day Bangladesh, and groups affected by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While these certificates alone do not entitle refugees to Indian citizenship, refugees may present Indian birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship.
UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 95,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu were “hill country” Tamils. While Sri Lankan law allows “hill country” refugees to present affidavits to secure Sri Lankan citizenship, UNHCR believed that until the Sri Lankan government processes the paperwork, such refugees were at risk of becoming stateless.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to compel ordinary citizens to comply with the government’s moral code. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted continued government efforts to “suppress” freedom of expression in the country.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In March, Mehdi Hajati, a former member of the Shiraz City Council, was arrested for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 on Twitter.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in July authorities arrested Farangis Mazloom, the mother of imprisoned photojournalist Soheil Arabi, and in October sentenced her to 18 months in prison on charges of “meeting and plotting against the national security” and antigovernment propaganda, presumably as a result of activism on behalf of her son. Arabi has been imprisoned since 2013 on blasphemy and other expression-related charges. According to Mazloom, in October Evin Prison authorities moved her son to solitary confinement.
Several activists, including Zahra Jamali and Mohammad Nourizad, who signed letters calling on the supreme leader to step down in June and August 2019 remained in prison during the year on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limited their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.”
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines. Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
RSF reported citizen journalist and writer Payman Farhangian was sentenced to 38 years in prison on charges of antigovernment publicity and “creating a group of more than two persons on ([the messaging service) Signal in order to endanger national security,” related to posts supportive of the labor movement. His lawyer said he appealed the sentence.
In April, Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), were arrested following the alleged posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Heydari was released on bail while Haghjoo was detained pending investigation into the case; there were no updates as of year’s end.
In August, Mostafa Moheb Kia, a journalist with the monthly political magazine Iran Farda, was sentenced to six months in prison for “antigovernment propaganda” and “meeting and plotting against national security.” His sentence came three weeks after a revolutionary court in Tehran confirmed the three-year jail sentence of Iran Farda’s 72-year-old editor Kayvan Samimi Behbahani. On December 15, Samimi was reportedly jailed.
On August 18, Nader Fatourehchi, a freelance journalist who reported on high-level corruption in the government, self-reported on Twitter that he was sentenced to one year in prison and a suspended sentence for three years, on a charge of “stirring up public opinion against government institutions, officials and organizations.”
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 78 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of November, a significant increase from 2019.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations in an attempt to censor coverage of protests and intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. As of November 13, Shargh journalist Marzieh Amiri was reportedly released from detention after being sentenced in December 2019 on national security charges to five years in prison (reduced from an original sentence of 10 years and 148 lashes) for covering labor protests.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship through arrests and imprisonments. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
According to Freedom House, during the November 2019 protests and subsequent internet shutdown, journalists and media were issued official guidelines from the Ministry of Intelligence and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance on how to cover the protests. The ministries threatened journalists with criminal prosecution if they strayed from official guidance, which instructed that the protests not be made into “headline news” and should be portrayed as civil protests while minimizing the extent of violence.
As the outbreak of COVID-19 escalated, the head of the Cyber Police (known as FATA), Commander Vahid Majid, announced the establishment of a working group for “combatting online rumors” relating to the spread of the virus. In April a military spokesman said authorities had arrested 3,600 individuals for spreading COVID-19 “rumors” online, with no clear guidance on what authorities considered a “rumor.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel and slander laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter but not overthrow the government, are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in February a Tehran court found guilty editors-in-chief of three news sites on “defamation” charges filed by a state-owned gas company.
National Security: As noted above, authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials.
On September 2, a revolutionary court in Tehran reportedly sentenced journalist Mohammad Mosaed to more than four years in prison, a two-year ban on journalistic activities, and a two-year ban on using any communications devices, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prosecutors charged Mosaed with “colluding against national security” for activities in 2019 including posting on the internet during a government-implemented internet shutdown.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems and maintain monopoly control over internet traffic flowing in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the global internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November 2019. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, approximately 40 days after the protests began, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to memorial ceremonies for the victims. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology denied reports of an internet shutdown in December.
Authorities blocked access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms deemed critical of the state, and continued to monitor private online communications and censor online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that can effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private internet service providers (ISPs) were forced to either use the bandwidth provided by the government or route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to Freedom House, a number of domestically hosted websites such as national online banking services, domestic messaging apps, and hospital networks were able to remain online using the NIN infrastructure while global traffic was disconnected during the November 2019 protests.
Authorities restricted access to tens of thousands of websites, particularly those of international news and information services, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations. They continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations. According to Freedom House, websites are blocked if they contradict state doctrine regarding Islam, as well as government narratives on domestic or international politics. News stories that cover friction among political institutions are also frequently censored.
In October 2019 a letter signed by Javad Javidnia, the former deputy prosecutor general responsible for cyberspace, and secretary to the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), was sent to ISPs asking them to block the official Android app store and the Google Play store “as soon as possible.” The letter stated that the CDICC made the decision “in accordance with Article 749 of the Islamic Penal Code relating to computer crimes.” Article 749 requires all ISPs to filter any content determined by the CDICC as criminal content. Resistance in complying with this article results in the termination of the ISP or in some cases a financial penalty.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
According to Freedom House, significant internet disruptions were observed as protests broke out in the aftermath of the military’s January 8 accidental shooting down of airliner Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. Access to the messaging app WhatsApp was also disrupted during this time.
In February extensive network disruptions impacted the country, which the Ministry of Information claimed to be due to a DDoS attack originating from outside the country, although they did not provide information to verify this claim.
In early March as the country was battling outbreaks of COVID-19, reports confirmed that access to Persian Wikipedia had been blocked using the same method used for blocking Telegram and Facebook, although officials did not comment on the incident.
In July further network disruptions were reported following protests against the government’s foreign policy and the continuing economic crisis in Khuzestan Province. The same month, network disruptions were reported for three hours as online users used hashtags on social media to speak out against death sentences handed down to three men who participated in the 2019 protests.
In September the Tehran Province chief justice issued a directive establishing specialized court branches to handle cases against cyberspace businesses, according to a November report by Iran-based technology news website Peyvast. The directive instructed courts to prosecute the users of “user-centric software” for illegal content, rather than the owners of the technology platforms on which the content was published.
Contrary to the directive, in late October, Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Tehran Revolutionary Court Branch 28 sentenced Aparat CEO Mohammad Javad Shakouri-Moghadam to a total of 12 years in prison for “encouraging corruption,” “publishing vulgar content,” and “propaganda against the regime,” for a 2019 video posted on the platform in which a reporter asked children in Tehran if they knew how they were born. Shakouri-Moghadam appealed the ruling and was freed on bail.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April popular Instagram couple Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, a former world kickboxing champion, and his wife Shabnam Shahrokhi reported they were sentenced in absentia for charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “spreading obscene and vulgar content” related to posts on social media.
In May police confirmed the arrest of parkour athlete Alireza Japalaghy and an unnamed woman for “advocating vice,” after Japalaghy posted photos of them embracing that went viral on social media. Japalaghy was later released and reportedly fled the country. The woman’s whereabouts were unknown.
The government uses an extensive digital propaganda apparatus, backing numerous initiatives to promote blogging among its supporters. Following the January death of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, a number of Twitter accounts claiming to be located in Iran began tweeting using hashtags such as #hardrevenge and images of Soleimani.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education.
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas concerning women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In March media and NGOs reported authorities summoned filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to prison to serve a one-year sentence, although his lawyer advised him not to turn himself in due to the coronavirus outbreak. In July 2019 CHRI reported that a court sentenced Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s repression of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In August authorities reportedly arrested musician Mehdi Rajabian on “immorality” charges related to the release of an album and publication of a video on which he worked with female musicians and dancers. Rajabian was arrested on at least two previous occasions for his work.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.
According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests and protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws. In a July report, UNSR Rehman stated he was “gravely concerned at the unprecedented use of excessive force” against peaceful protesters in the country and noted a “trend…of suppressing the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and assembly.”
The United Nations expressed particular concern regarding the government’s excessive use of force in January against protesters in several cities who had gathered to express discontent with how the government handled an investigation into the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by military forces. According to the UN’s investigation, “eyewitness testimonies and footage indicated that, on January 11 and 12, security forces had again used excessive force against protesters by firing pointed pellets, rubber bullets and teargas, causing injuries. Security forces also used pepper spray and batons and fired tear gas into an enclosed Tehran metro station. Injured protesters either chose not to go to hospitals or were turned away due to fear of their arrest. Security forces reportedly maintained a strong presence in hospitals and tried to transfer some protesters to military hospitals. Student protesters at several universities were also reportedly arrested and assaulted.” The government undertook no credible investigations of these allegations.
In July local security forces used tear gas to disperse economic protests in the southwestern cities of Behbahan and Shiraz, which also were related to news that a court upheld death sentences against three men who participated in separate protests earlier in the year. Police warned they would deal “decisively” with further demonstrations.
The government did not investigate the killing of at least 304 protesters by security forces in November 2019 (see section 1.a.).
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (see section 1.d.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government recognized 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services, facilitate the issuance of work permits, and serve as a safeguard against arrest and deportation. Amayesh cardholders must obtain permission for any travel outside their province of registration. In late July the Amayesh re-registration exercise started and expanded the eligibility criteria for Amayesh card renewal to include those who missed the four previous rounds. Undocumented spouses and family members of Amayesh cardholders are reportedly also able to enroll. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards, which are valid only for one year, were increasingly difficult to renew and prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to increased annual renewal fees. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to two million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
On May 1, Iranian border guards reportedly forced a group of 57 Afghan migrant workers they had detained entering the country into a fast-flowing river near Zulfiqar at gunpoint. According to a Reuters report sourced to Afghan lawmakers investigating the incident, at least 45 of the men drowned. There was no information regarding the status of a joint investigation into the incident by the Iranian and Afghan governments.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to October 24, Iran deported 249,807 Afghans to Afghanistan and an additional 416,450 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with some claiming they were pressured to leave or left due to abuse by police or state authorities.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government blocked many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with UNHCR as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They could apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move among those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees may enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population may enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, including 130,000 undocumented children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Persons without birth registration, identity documents, or refugee identification were at a heightened risk of statelessness. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities did not issue formal government support or travel documents to stateless persons.
In June a law passed in October 2019 entered into force granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men (see section 6, Children). Previously, female citizens married to foreign men were not able to transmit citizenship to their children, unlike male citizens, whose children and spouses receive citizenship automatically. As a result of this disparity, between 400,000 and one million children of the more than 150,000 Iranian women married to foreign men lacked Iranian nationality, according to media reporting. These dependents could only apply for citizenship after they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. Under the law, the children of Iranian women and foreign men qualify for citizenship, although it is not automatic; the mother must submit an application for them. Children who turn 18 may apply for nationality themselves, even if their mother is deceased. Foreign men married to Iranian women may receive legal residency.
Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law generally provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
The law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in Israel or areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the law. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits.
The law bars entry to the country of visitors who called for boycotts, and in 2018 the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry. According to September 30 media reports, the Ministry of Interior permitted former Israeli citizen Dror Feiler, who participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and was banned from the country since 2010, entry to the country only upon deposit of a 100,000 shekel ($30,600) bond.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender. In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.
Conviction of desecrating the Israeli flag carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a monetary fine.
The law prohibits individuals or organizations that initiate political or legal action abroad against IDF soldiers or the state of Israel from holding activities in schools, but the Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law as of year’s end. Both supporters and opponents of the law stated it was intended to target the NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS), a group of military veterans whose goal is to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. BTS criticized the law as a violation of freedom of political expression.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.
Police regulations grant broad authorities to prevent journalists’ access to violent incidents (i.e., riots, demonstrations, protests) if there exists a concern that the entry of journalists would lead to “special circumstances,” such as risking the journalist’s life, furthering violence, disrupting investigative procedures, violating privacy, or violating a closure order. Police must also consider alternatives to minimize the violation of press freedom, for instance by escorting journalists in and out of dangerous situations.
In April the Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas due to the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. In June the Journalists’ Support Committee, a nonprofit journalist advocacy organization, stated security forces committed more than 50 human rights violations against Palestinian journalists working in Jerusalem in the first half of the year, including arrests and expulsions from the city. In May the then public security minister Gilad Erdan extended for six months the closure order against Palestine TV’s East Jerusalem office, according to media reports. In November 2019, Erdan first ordered the closure when police raided the office.
On June 10, Likud officials published a video using the party’s official Twitter account calling for the imprisonment of Channel 13 News journalist Raviv Drucker for his coverage of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial. Likud officials accused Drucker of extorting witnesses, broadcasting criminal leaks, and obstructing justice. On July 25, the prime minister took to Facebook to characterize Channel 12 as a propaganda tool against him and his government.
Following a March 15 COVID-19 emergency regulation allowing the Shin Bet to track civilian cell phones for contact tracing purposes, the Union of Journalists in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court to have its members excluded in order to preserve press freedom and protect journalist sources. On April 26, the Supreme Court ruled that a journalist identified as a COVID-19 patient could refuse being tracked by the Shin Bet and instead undergo a manual epidemiological investigation, whereby the journalist would not reveal their sources but commit to notifying health officials regarding their infection.
Police detained, used violence against, and confiscated equipment of journalists during demonstrations throughout the country. On June 8, police officers hit, shoved to the floor, and then detained Haaretz photojournalist Tomer Appelbaum at the end of a demonstration against the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Witnesses indicated that Appelbaum was clearly identified as a journalist; however, police stated they did not notice his press credentials until after the incident. On September 5, police detained two photojournalists, according to the Israeli NGO Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), after the journalists recorded protesters moving police barriers during a demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence. Police stated they confiscated the equipment because the cameras contained evidence of an alleged crime committed by the protesters. The photographers and the association of journalists argued the material was privileged. On November 11, a magistrate court rejected the police request to use the footage as evidence, stating that in this case, the public interest of a free, effective, and objective press surpasses the public interest in the criminal investigation.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment.
News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations, and required foreign correspondents and local media to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces through a Freedom of Information Act request by +972 Magazine, in 2019 the censor acted on 1,973 articles out of 8,127 articles submitted to it, and banned 202 articles.
According to the Seventh Eye media watchdog group, police automatically requested gag orders during investigations of certain crimes and complex cases, and only on rare occasions did police request rescinding of such orders before the completion of its work in a case. This policy, according to the Seventh Eye, began in 2015, when a former deputy head of Shin Bet began serving as police commissioner. The policy was continued by his successors.
While the government retained the authority to censor publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Editors and journalists from those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: According to HRDF, individuals and right-wing NGOs used defamation lawsuits to discourage public criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For example, on July 13, the Samaria Regional Council sued head of the Zulat Institute Zehava Galon and former member of the Knesset for libel after she criticized on Twitter its granting of a certificate of honor to two settlers who in 2019 allegedly shot and killed a Palestinian attacker. According to B’Tselem, the settlers continued to shoot the Palestinian after he no longer posed a threat. In June an additional libel lawsuit against the Galon and B’Tselem NGOs and three individuals who tweeted on the incident was filed by Yehusha Sherman, who shot the attacker. The lawsuits continued at year’s end.
National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” The law authorizes restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.”
In 2017 the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on an ISA practice of summoning Israeli political activists suspected of “subversive” activity unrelated to terror or espionage for questioning under caution, indicating they might be charged with a crime. Such summoning may be carried out only after consultation with the legal advisor of the ISA. Police and the ISA must clarify that questioning is voluntary and the person summoned is not required to appear; and the ISA must clarify during questioning that the suspect’s statements may not be used in court for other proceedings.
The government monitored electronic communications for security purposes, and censored online content suspected as illegal according to domestic law. The law authorizes district court judges to restrict access to internet sites to prevent the commission of crimes. The Cyber Unit of the State Attorney’s Office further requested that content intermediary companies remove or restrict access to, on a voluntary basis, content and accounts suspected of violating domestic law. The Cyber Unit’s data showed the number of requests for content removal in 2019 increased by 37 percent from 2018. In approximately 90 percent of the 19,606 requests submitted, content intermediaries voluntarily removed content from their platforms. According to the Cyber Unit’s data, 76 percent of the requests were due to offenses related to a terror organization, and 22 percent were due to incitement offenses. A petition by ACRI and Adalah to the Supreme Court against the voluntary track program, arguing that the program violates freedom of expression and the right to due process, was pending as of the year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were few government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
In January the Rishon LeTzion municipality removed a civics teacher from his position, following complaints he had expressed “radical left-wing positions” in the classroom and on social media, although the latter was not addressed in his termination hearing. ACRI stated that such incidents could lead to self-censorship by teachers, which stands in contradiction to the mission of educators.
On August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in the bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), following a protest from nationalist Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, ACRI demanded that the attorney general instruct the minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.
Authorities continued to provide an edited version of the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum that deleted certain information on Palestinian history and culture for schools in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Authorities sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of the Israeli curriculum (see the West Bank and Gaza report for concerns regarding incitement and anti-Semitism in PA textbooks). Some Palestinians expressed concern at what they perceived as Israeli efforts to impose Israeli views on these students. Others welcomed the Israeli curriculum, and the additional resources associated with it, as better preparing students in Jerusalem to work in the Israeli workforce, compared to lower-paying employment in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank or in manual labor and low-wage sectors in Israel.
The government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office. The government renewed a closure order for these and other institutions under a 1994 law which requires the PA to obtain Israeli permission to open a representative office or hold a meeting in areas Israel recognizes as under its sovereignty. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem that the government stated had PA participation or support, incited violence against Israel, or had anti-Israel or other objectionable content. Israeli authorities stated they would also detain and ban PA-affiliated officials in Jerusalem from conducting PA-related activities. According to Haaretz, the Ministry of Public Security approved dozens of such orders during the year. PA officials publicly point to the 1993 letter sent by then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart Johan Holst as proof of an agreement to allow Palestinian institutions and activities in East Jerusalem.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
A law passed in April and the subsequent COVID-19 emergency regulations permitted the continuation of demonstrations during the COVID-19 crisis with the stipulation that participants maintain social distancing, but in several instances police placed additional limitations on the ability of individuals to assemble for peaceful protest. On September 29, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law, which led to the limiting of the right to demonstrate to within one-half mile of one’s home, in groups of 20 persons or fewer, for a period of 14 days. On October 12, following a petition against the law filed on September 30 at the Supreme Court, the government announced it would not extend the regulation limiting the ability to protest further than one-half mile from one’s home beyond October 13. The government did not cancel the amendment, allowing it to reinstate the measure. The petition was pending at year’s end.
Police issued fines for alleged violations of COVID-19 regulations during demonstrations against the prime minister. On April 14, police fined two demonstrators in Kfar Saba for illegally gathering. Protesters argued they remained seven feet apart during the protest and viewed the fines as police efforts to deter protected political activity. On July 26, media published a recording in which Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Yadid told Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana, in response to Ohana’s request for police intervention to quell political protests, that police fined 160 individuals for not wearing a mask during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence.
On November 24, the prosecution filed two indictments against antigovernment protesters. Authorities filed an indictment against Gonen Ben Yitzhak, one of the leaders of the Crime Minister protest group, on charges of illegal assembly and disrupting the activities of a police officer by lying under a water cannon to prevent it from being used against protesters during a July demonstration.
There were reports that police used excessive force in response to protests. For example, on August 22, during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence, Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta physically attacked protesters, including hitting a protester and dragging him on the ground, and hitting a photographer. Police arrested two protesters for allegedly attacking Guetta, but video footage showed Guetta’s attack was unprovoked; the detained protesters were subsequently released. On November 29, the prosecution indicted Guetta for assault. Prosecutors dismissed additional complaints against Guetta due to lack of evidence.
Police used water cannons and “skunk water” to disperse demonstrations. Video footage from a July 24 demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence showed a water cannon spraying a protester in the face, despite police regulations that forbid this action. The Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee subsequently held hearings on police tactics during demonstrations and demanded the publication of a reformed police procedure regarding the use of water cannons. A protest group petition against the use of water cannons at demonstrations was deleted on September 9, given the Knesset committee’s discussions. The police procedure published in September relaxed previous restrictions on the use of water cannons, according to Haaretz. Authorities used skunk water to disperse groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrating against military draft requirements. A 2018 petition against the use of skunk water in dense urban areas was deleted by the Supreme Court on August 19, following a change in police procedures limiting the use of the method. On December 23, an ultra-Orthodox activist petitioned for selective police use of skunk water.
In October, ACRI sent letters to the attorney general demanding the government halt police practices during demonstrations which limit the freedom of peaceful assembly, including crowd control during protest marches by restricting demonstrators to small areas, requesting protesters to show their identification cards and registering them, using private cell phones to video record demonstrations, and using undercover police officers to arrest demonstrators.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
The law prohibits registration of an association or a party if its goals include denial of the existence of the State of Israel or of the democratic character of the state.
The law requires NGOs receiving more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments to state this fact in their official publications, applications to attend Knesset meetings, websites, public campaigns, and any communication with the public. The law allows a monetary fine for NGOs that violate these rules. The government had not taken legal action against any NGO for failing to comply with the law by the year’s end.
Local NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights problems and critical of the government, asserted the government sought to intimidate them and prevent them from receiving foreign government funding (see section 5).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights for citizens.
The government imposed restrictions on freedom of movement in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 through emergency regulations.
In-country Movement: The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted internal movement in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons and that restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, or public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
According to the NGO Kav LaOved, Ministry of Health COVID-19 guidelines prohibited migrant caregivers from leaving their place of work, which resulted in some caregivers working without any breaks. Following a request by the NGO, since May 8, a government regulation has permitted migrant caregivers to have their weekly day of rest outside of their employers’ residence if they lived in an apartment without roommates, a requirement that these workers could not meet.
Foreign Travel: Citizens generally were free to travel abroad, provided they had no outstanding military obligations and no administrative restrictions. The government may bar citizens from leaving the country based on security considerations, unpaid debts, or unresolved divorce proceedings. Authorities do not permit any citizen to travel to any state officially at war with Israel without government permission. This restriction includes travel to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. The government limited foreign travel due to COVID-19, but it continued to allow the entry of citizens and Jewish visitors intending to study in religious schools known as yeshivas. The government kept the border with Egypt closed despite Egypt opening its crossings to foreign citizens on July 1. On September 23, a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the opening of this border was rejected.
The government requires all citizens to have a special permit to enter “Area A” in the West Bank (the area, according to the Interim Agreement, in which the PA exercises civil and security responsibility), but the government allowed Arab citizens of Israel access to Area A without permits. The government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report that as of October 28 the Israeli government had revoked 17 residency permits in Jerusalem on the grounds of regulation 11A of Israel’s Entry Regulations, regarding individuals who stayed outside of Israel for more than 7 years or have acquired Citizenship/ Permanent Residence Status outside of Israel. Some Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status; however, the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintained an “affinity to Israel” would not be revoked and that former residents who wished to return to Israel could receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Palestinians possessing residency permits issued by the Israeli government, but no PA or Jordanian identity documents, needed special documents to travel abroad.
Citizenship: The law allows administrative courts to approve the minister of interior’s request for revocation of citizenship of a person on grounds of “breach of trust to the State of Israel” or following a conviction for an act of terror. The law grants the minister the authority to revoke permanent residency based on similar grounds. Legal appeals by Adalah and ACRI against the revocation of citizenships of two individuals convicted for an act of terror, which also questioned the constitutionality of the law itself, were pending as of the year’s end.
The government cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, except as noted below. The government did not allow UNHCR access to monitor regularly the detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Communities with large concentrations of African migrants were occasionally targets of violence. Additionally, government policies on the legality of work forced many refugees to work in “unofficial” positions, making them more susceptible to poor treatment and questionable work practices by their employers. The Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA), unlike police or the IPS, did not have an external body to which migrants could file complaints if subjected to violence, according to HRM.
On July 20, a district court acquitted IPS officer Ronen Cohen and IDF soldier Yaakov Shamba of charges of aggravated battery against Eritrean asylum seeker Haptom Zerhom in 2015. A security guard at the Beer Sheva central bus station shot Zerhom, mistaking him for a terrorist attacker following a terrorist attack moments earlier. Following the shooting, a group of onlookers beat Zerhom, who later died at the hospital. The security guard was not charged, and two additional individuals received reduced sentences following plea deals in 2018.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement.
As of September 30, there were 31,012 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom 28,175 were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to PIBA.
The government offered incentives to irregular migrants to leave the country and go to Uganda, including a paid ticket and a stipend. The government claimed the third-country government provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived at the destination did not receive residency or employment rights. From January 1 to September 30, a total of 663 irregular migrants departed the country under pressure, compared with 2,024 in 2019. NGOs claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it has rarely granted a refugee status. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), out of 64,542 asylum requests submitted to PIBA in 2011-19, 39 requests (0.06 percent) were approved, and 121 (0.2 percent) were rejected following a full examination. Another 16,777 (26 percent) were rejected either outright or were in various expedited processes. A total of 34,624 requests (54 percent) are still pending. There were 12,941 requests (20 percent) closed due to departure or lack of cooperation.
The majority of asylum seekers received a “conditional release visa” that requires frequent renewal in only two locations throughout the country. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and some access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that most government policies were geared toward deterring the arrival of future asylum seekers by pressuring those already in the country to depart, either by leaving them with limited or no access to social and medical services or by not examining their asylum requests.
Irregular migrants subject to deportation, including those claiming but unable to prove citizenship of countries included in Israel’s nonrefoulement policy, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. At the end of 2018, there were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention.
According to HIAS, as of June 6, PIBA examined only 21 asylum requests of Eritrean citizens despite a 2019 government announcement that it would reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down. PIBA recognized seven Eritreans as refugees in the first half of the year, according to UNHCR. The government continued not to examine asylum claims of Sudanese citizens from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, despite a 2018 PIBA response to the Supreme Court regarding the need to reexamine and request additional information for 1,500 such claims. On August 31, the government informed the Supreme Court that the lack of political clarity regarding Sudan did not allow for the formation of criteria to examine requests and did not allow for a ruling on individual requests of Darfuris.
On October 13, the Supreme Court ruled that 600 Sudanese who were granted special protection status in 2007 would be considered refugees.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human trafficking, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) Palestinians were able to obtain from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel without authorization to work or to access social services. A Supreme Court petition by NGOs demanding these rights was pending as of the year’s end. According to UNHCR, prior to the issuance of permits, COGAT requested proof of efforts to resettle in a third country. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis. Following a HIAS administrative petition, on March 1, PIBA launched a program that allowed Palestinians recognized as trafficking victims to work in Israel.
On February 9, the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognize an Ivoirian family as refugees due to its minor daughters’ fear of being subjected to female genital mutilation in Cote d’Ivoire, and placing the burden of proof regarding a residential alternative on the government.
The government did not accept initial asylum claims at airports.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: PIBA applied a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants from Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, which the Ministry of the Interior determined were “safe” countries.
Freedom of Movement: The law allows the government to detain asylum seekers from countries to which government policy prohibits deportation for a period of three months. The government may detain, without trial and for an indefinite period, irregular migrants who were “implicated in criminal proceedings” (See section 1.d.).
Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from detention after arrival in the country from residing in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak–cities that already had a high concentration of asylum seekers.
Employment: Following a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, the government removed text stipulating “this is not a work visa” from the visas of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. According to HRM, employing asylum seekers remained a felony that is not enforced due to a government commitment to the Supreme Court. According to UNHCR, asylum seekers from countries not listed under Israel’s nonrefoulement policy were restricted from working for three to six months after submitting their requests if they did not have a visa before applying. Asylum seekers are prohibited from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.
On April 23, the Supreme Court struck down a law that required employers to deduct 20 percent of an asylum seeker’s salary as an incentive to encourage their departure from the country. The court deemed the 20 percent deduction as unconstitutional, referring to it as a violation of the right to individual property of a population with little means and low salaries. The court kept in place an additional 16 percent deposit (equal to social benefits) paid solely by employers as an incentive for departure. In addition to halting the practice of salary deductions, the court ordered PIBA to return to asylum seekers the full amount deducted from their salaries within 30 days. The Supreme Court verdict came in response to a 2017 petition by NGOs. As of December, 14,473 asylum seekers received refunds totaling 210.5 million NIS ($63.1 million). 3,445 asylum seekers had not yet applied for their refund by year’s end.
As of February, according to PIBA, a gap of 710 million shekels ($217.6 million) existed between the funds deducted from asylum seekers’ salaries and the funds deposited for them by employers. According to Ministry of Labor information published by Haaretz on August 9, the ministry opened 60 investigation files against employers who deducted but did not deposit funds. Thirty employers received fines, and five criminal proceedings were launched, leading to one indictment.
According to advocacy groups, at least 70 percent of asylum seekers in Israel were left without a job due to COVID-19 and were ineligible for unemployment insurance or other social services.
The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits the amount they may take with them when they leave to minimum-wage earnings for the number of months they resided in the country, and defines taking additional money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.
Access to Basic Services: Legally recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government for the most part did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits. Asylum seekers were able to enroll in a health-insurance program only through their employers. Without insurance through employers, or when employers did not arrange a private insurance policy for them as required by law, asylum seekers had access only to emergency care. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($37) per month, but children of undocumented migrants were excluded from this program. On November 30, the Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Health to allow children of undocumented migrants to be covered by a national health-insurance policy, requested in a petition by the PHRI; however, according to the PHRI, the Ministry of Health continued to exclude these children. The government sponsored a mobile clinic and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants and treated them for COVID-19 but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay, according to the PHRI. Due to COVID-19, the sole government-funded provider of mental health services had to limit its services, which resulted in only 250 patients being served. Asylum seekers who were recognized as victims of trafficking were eligible for rehabilitation and care. The same eligibilities did not apply for victims of torture.
According to A.S.S.A.F, several municipalities illegally segregated children of asylum seekers and other children in schools and kindergartens. For example, the Petah Tikva municipality delayed registration of Eritrean children for specific kindergartens in order for its schools to fill up with other students, and thus for the municipality to place all Eritrean children together, separate from Israeli children. A July 7 administrative petition against the municipality by the organization, Haifa University, and ACRI resulted in placing 140 Eritrean children in integrated kindergartens. On November 19, the petitioners reached an agreement with the municipality and the Education Ministry according to which future registration of children would be done in an integrated manner, and registration conditions would be equal for all children.
Durable Solutions: There is no procedure for recognized refugees to naturalize. According to the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic, only under exceptional humanitarian circumstances may a recognized refugee receive permanent residency.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees, or who may not qualify as refugees, primarily Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants as described above.
Despite being eligible for Israeli citizenship since 1981, an estimated 23,000 Druze living in territory captured from Syria in 1967 largely refused to accept it, and their status as Syrian citizens was unclear. They held Israeli identification cards, which listed their nationality as “undefined.”
Following cases of Bedouins having their citizenship revoked when arriving to receive services at the Ministry of Interior, on August 11, a PIBA official stated in a Knesset Internal Affairs Committee meeting that many of the 2,624 Bedouins whose citizenship had been erroneously revoked by the Ministry of Interior were unable to participate in national elections. According to the PIBA official, out of 500 Bedouins erroneously registered as Israelis since they were children of permanent residents, 362 were naturalized, 134 did not complete the process, and six were not naturalized for other reasons, including security.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government partially respected this right. Independent media organizations noted excessive politicization of media, corrupt financing mechanisms, as well as editorial policies subordinated to the former elected ruling party and owners’ interests. Reporters said their freedom of expression was also limited by restricted access to information of public interest issued by the previous government and public institutions, including expenses, contracts, or bids involving public funds, and officials’ academic records, and pandemic records. Reporters and NGOs often had to sue state-controlled ministries, agencies, or local entities to access public information.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits Holocaust denial and promoting or using symbols representing fascist, racist, xenophobic ideologies, or symbols associated with the interwar nationalist, extremist, fascist and anti-Semitic Legionnaire movement. Various government bodies, mainly the gendarmerie, continued to fine, place under temporary arrest, or block individuals who protested in the streets for differing causes.
The Gendarmerie fined several individuals who attended an August 10 protest in Victoria Square to commemorate the victims of the Gendarmerie’s violent intervention against pro-rule-of-law protesters on August 10, 2018. Those fined included reporter Mircea Savin of Podul.ro.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without overt restriction, politicians or persons with close ties to politicians and political groups either owned or indirectly controlled numerous media outlets at the national and local levels. The news and editorial stance of these outlets frequently reflected their owners’ views and targeted criticism at political opponents and other media organizations.
On March 4, the High Court of Justice ruled against an appeal by Vrancea County Council President Marian Oprisan (PSD) against reporter Sebastian Oancea of Vrancea24 who wrote about public contracts granted by Oprisan to his business associates and individuals with criminal records. It was the fourth case lost by Oprisan against Oancea in recent years.
In March the government ordered prefects and public health authorities to ban the publication of county-level information on the number of COVID-19 tests performed and number of infections. On March 20, 14 civic associations issued a joint statement protesting the move, and on April 6, almost 100 news outlets and 165 journalists from national and local organizations signed a freedom of information request initiated by the Center for Independent Journalism asking for fair and timely access to COVID-19 information. Due to media and NGO protests, in April the government created a Strategic Communications Task Force to manage messaging during the pandemic. It also expanded its daily reports to include county-level breakdowns.
Violence and Harassment: Some reporters throughout the country continued to be harassed, sued, or threatened by authorities they investigated or by their proxies.
In February reporters Alex Costache of TVR and Cosmin Savu of ProTV were followed, filmed, and intimidated by six individuals before, during, and after the two met with a military prosecutor and a judge at a private event in a restaurant. Footage of the four was disseminated on February 21 by outlets controlled by oligarchs and media owners facing criminal chargers, under investigation, or previously arrested for fraud. Military prosecutors opened an investigation into the illegal surveillance and filming. In April, Prosecutor General Gabriela Scutea dismissed the evidence gathered by military prosecutors, claiming the prosecutors lacked jurisdiction.
The government did not systematically 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.
On March 16, President Klaus Iohannis signed an emergency decree that included provisions to counter the spread of disinformation related to COVID-19 online and allowed for the removal of reports and entire websites deemed to be spreading false information; the decree provided no appeal or redress mechanisms. The National Authority for Management and Regulation in Communications, an institution for communication infrastructure with no expertise in media content, was given responsibility for implementing the decree. In response, on March 30 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Representative on Freedom of the Media issued a press release urging authorities to restore the capacity of journalists to act in the public interest, without undue restriction and to respect the principles of necessity and proportionality in any decision related to the emergency situation. The European Federation of Journalists also urged President Iohannis and the Government of Romania to revise emergency policies restricting reporters’ access to information regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the regulations giving authorities the power to shut down websites. The government suspended 15 websites.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
On June 16, the Senate adopted an Education Law amendment banning schools and universities from discussing gender identity. The vote generated numerous protests from associations of university rectors, professors, doctors, psychologists, and cultural figures, who the amendment violated academic and cultural freedoms as well as the right to a science-based education. President Iohannis challenged the amendment at the Constitutional Court, arguing the amendment violated the constitution. On December 16, the Constitutional Court declared the amendment unconstitutional.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the government occasionally restricted freedom of peaceful assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, which the government has generally respected. The law provides that unarmed citizens may assemble peacefully but also stipulates that meetings must not interfere with other economic or social activities and may not take place near such locations as hospitals, airports, or military installations. In most cases organizers of public assemblies must request permits in writing three days in advance from the mayor’s office of the locality where the gathering is to occur.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that public gatherings, including protests, must be declared in advance when they are to be held in markets, public spaces, or in the vicinity of institutions “of public or private interest.” The decision was mandatory. Activists opposed these restrictions, stating that by announcing the protests, those who take to the streets would be forced to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for larger groups or for instigators to violence who may be brought there to compromise peaceful anticorruption protests.
In 2018 a protest at Victoria Square in Bucharest attracted approximately 100,000 protesters. Gendarmes used tear gas and water cannon indiscriminately, harming peaceful protesters, some of whom were children or elderly. More than 770 criminal complaints concerning violent incidents that allegedly constituted excessive force against peaceful protesters were submitted to authorities. During the year, the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) announced it was suspending investigations of four senior officials in relation to the protest and that investigations of rank-and-file gendarmes accused of excessive violence would continue under the coordination of military prosecutors. Following public outcry, DIICOT reinstated charges of abuse of office and abusive conduct against the senior officials and submitted its decision to the preliminary chamber of the Bucharest Court of Appeal for confirmation. The Bucharest Court of Appeal declined its jurisdiction and sent the case to the Bucharest Tribunal which, as of November, had not made a decision.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, between March and September the government maintained a ban on public gatherings. On September 15, the government introduced regulations that allowed public gatherings of a maximum of 100 persons. Observers and several NGOs including the Civil Liberties Union for Europe and the Greenpeace European Unit noted that the government maintained the ban on public gatherings while allowing other types of events, such as concerts, to have up to 500 participants.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits fascist, racist, or xenophobic ideologies, organizations, and symbols.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The internal movement of beneficiaries of international protection and stateless persons was generally not restricted. Asylum seekers may be subject to measures limiting their freedom of movement and to detention in specific circumstances. The law and implementing regulations provide that the General Inspectorate for Immigration may designate a specific place of residence for an applicant for asylum while authorities determine his or her eligibility, or may take restrictive measures, subject to approval by the prosecutor’s office, that amount to administrative detention in “specially arranged closed areas.” According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October no such cases of asylum detention were recorded during the year. Applicants who do not qualify for asylum are treated as aliens without a right to stay in the country and may be taken into custody pending deportation. According to the law, those applying for asylum while in public custody were released from detention if granted access to the ordinary procedure. Detention in public custody centers is subject to regular review and should not exceed six months unless there are specific circumstances, in which case detention may be extended for up to 18 months. Applicants for or beneficiaries of international protection in certain circumstances, particularly those declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, may be subject to administrative detention in public custody centers.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, which could include irregular migrants potentially in need of international protection.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to UNHCR, several incidents of harassment, discrimination, and crimes against refugees and migrants were reported throughout the year throughout the country, although most incidents were not reported because of fear, lack of information, inadequate support services, and inefficient redress mechanisms.
Refoulement: The law establishes exceptions to the principle of nonrefoulement and the withdrawal of the right to stay following a declaration of a person as “undesirable.” This may occur, for example, when classified information or “well founded indications” suggest that aliens (including applicants for asylum, or persons granted asylum) intend to commit terrorist acts or favor terrorism. Applicants for protection declared “undesirable” on national security grounds were taken into custody pending the finalization of their asylum procedure and then deported.
Access to Asylum: The law provides access to asylum procedures to foreign nationals and stateless persons who express their desire for protection, which may be in the form of refugee status or temporary “subsidiary protection” status. The law prohibits the expulsion, extradition, or forced return of any asylum seeker at the country’s border or from within the country’s territory, but this was not without exceptions, particularly in cases that fell under the country’s national security and terrorism laws.
The law also refers to the concept of a safe third country. The law extends to irregular migrants who transited and were offered protection in a third country considered safe or who had the opportunity at the border or on the soil of a safe third country to contact authorities for the purpose of obtaining protection. In such cases authorities could deny access to asylum procedures if the designated safe third country agreed to readmit the applicant to its territory and grant access to asylum procedures. According to the MFA, the government has not rejected any application for protection on a safe third country basis.
Freedom of Movement: The law incorporates four “restrictive” measures under which the internal movement of applicants for asylum may be limited. The first two establish an obligation to report regularly to the General Inspectorate for Immigration or to reside at a regional reception center. A third restrictive measure allows authorities to place applicants in “specially arranged closed areas” for a maximum of 60 days, either to access the asylum procedure or if the asylum seeker is deemed to pose a danger to national security. There was no case of an asylum applicant being placed in a specially arranged closed area through August. Authorities may also place asylum applicants in administrative detention in a public custody center if they are subject to a transfer to another EU member state under the Dublin Regulations or if they have been declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, pending their removal from the country.
According to UNHCR, irregular migrants, persons declared as “undesirable,” asylum seekers deemed to pose a “risk of absconding,” as well as other categories of foreigners may face detention in public custody centers or in closed areas inside reception centers. Under provisions of the law to limit “abuse to the asylum procedure,” irregular migrants who submitted their first application for international protection while in custody were released from detention only if granted access to the ordinary asylum application procedure. The provisions raised concerns among UN agencies and civil society due to the ambiguity in the phrases “abuse of the asylum procedure” and “risk of absconding.”
The period of detention in a public custody center could be prolonged up to a maximum of 18 months.
Employment: While persons granted international protection have the legal right to work, job scarcity, low wages, lack of language proficiency, and lack of recognized academic degrees and other certifications often resulted in unemployment or employment without a legal contract and its related benefits and protections. Obtaining a legal work contract remained difficult for various reasons, including tax concerns and the reluctance of employers to hire refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Effective access by persons with refugee status or subsidiary protection to education, housing, lifelong learning and employment, public health care, and social security varied across the country, depending on the level of awareness of various public and private actors responsible for ensuring access to these services.
Beneficiaries of international protection continued to face problems with local integration, including access to vocational training adapted to their specific needs, counseling programs, and naturalization. According to UNHCR, refugee integration programs relied almost exclusively on NGOs, with coordination from the General Inspectorate for Immigration. The support services or targeted integration and inclusion programs provided by local governments to refugees were limited. Access to education was problematic, and several school inspectorates refused to organize Romanian language classes. According to several reports, schools across the country, including in large cities such as Bucharest, delayed enrollment of refugee children in school for several months.
Temporary Protection: The government may grant “tolerated status” to persons who do not meet the requirements for refugee status or subsidiary protection, but who cannot be returned for various reasons. These reasons include cases where stateless persons are not accepted by their former country of habitual residence or where the lives or well-being of returnees could be at risk. Persons with “tolerated status” have the right to work but not to benefit from any other social protection or inclusion provisions, and the government restricted their freedom of movement to a specific region of the country.
Recipients of subsidiary protection complained of problems regarding their freedom of movement to other countries due to the additional visa requirements. UNHCR reported that refugees saw citizenship acquisition as a cumbersome, costly, and difficult process, with some requirements, particularly related to the applicant’s financial situation, that were difficult to meet.
According to the MFA, as of July there were 275 stateless persons with valid residence documents in the country. These included legal residents under the aliens’ regime, stateless persons of Romanian origin, as well as persons granted some form of international protection. Data on stateless persons, including on persons at risk of statelessness and persons of undetermined nationality, were not reliable due to the absence of a procedure to determine statelessness, the absence of a single designated authority responsible for this purpose, and the lack of adequate identification and registration of persons with unknown or undetermined nationality.
The law includes favorable provisions for stateless persons of Romanian origin to reacquire citizenship. Nevertheless, a significant gap persisted due to the lack of safeguards against statelessness for children born in the country, who would be stateless because their parents either were themselves stateless or were foreigners unable to transmit their nationality.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Nonetheless, the government’s interpretation and implementation of the NSL and other laws and provisions of the constitution limited freedom of speech and expression, and restricted access to the internet.
On December 14, the National Assembly passed an amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act criminalizing the act of disseminating or moving leaflets and other materials across the inter-Korean border to North Korea, including items such as cash and digital storage drives with South Korean news, documentaries, and television dramas, without obtaining prior approval. Under the revised law, which was promulgated on December 29 and takes effect on March 30, 2021, violators will face up to three years in prison or a substantial fine. The Ministry of Unification stated the purpose of the amendment was to protect the lives and ensure the safety of residents near the inter-Korean border. Human rights advocates and opposition political leaders criticized the amendment as an infringement of the freedom of expression. Former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon also called on the government to “rectify” human rights concerns raised by the amendment. Senior government officials and ruling-party lawmakers defended the amendment, arguing that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and must be balanced against national security concerns, pointing to a 2016 Supreme Court decision that permits the restriction of leaflet activities when they present an “imminent and serious threat” to the lives and physical security of residents in the border areas, and to a 2014 incident in which North Korea fired into the country following cross-border leafletting activity. On December 22, the ministry announced it would develop implementation guidelines that would clarify the scope of the law, with a 20-day period for public comment. The ministry stated it would review the comments and if needed, adjust the guidelines before the law goes into effect. (See section 5 on the revocation of operating permits of two leafletting NGOs.).
Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, although under defamation law and the NSL, the government may limit the expression of ideas. In its World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch contended the government maintained “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of expression,” citing the use of defamation laws, the NSL, and other laws.
In June the Daejeon district court in Gyeonggi Province fined a man 500,000 won ($423) for trespassing after he placed posters critical of President Moon in a building at Dankuk University. A university official called to testify against the man stated the poster had caused no physical damage and that he did not want him to be punished, noting that the law guarantees the freedom of expression.
Under the election law, the government may limit the expression of ideas that the National Election Commission deems to be false.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, within the constraints cited above.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government and public figures used libel and slander laws, which broadly define and criminalize defamation, to restrict public discussion and harass, intimidate, or censor private and media expression. The law allows punishment of up to three years in prison for statements found to be “slander” or “libel,” even if factual, and up to seven years for statements found to be false. The law punishes defamation of deceased persons as well; the maximum punishment if convicted is two years’ imprisonment. NGOs and human rights attorneys continued to note cases of politicians, government officials, and celebrities using the libel laws to deter victims of workplace sexual harassment from coming forward or to retaliate against such victims.
In August a Seoul appeals court convicted Ko Young-ju, a critic of President Moon, of defamation and sentenced him to a 10-month suspended sentence and two years’ probation. In 2013 Ko asserted that Moon was a “communist” and that, should he become president, “it’s a matter of time before our country becomes a communist country.” Prosecutors first indicted Ko in 2017 after Moon became president, but the Seoul Central District Court acquitted him in 2018. A conservative NGO criticized the decision reversing Ko’s acquittal as politicized and condemned the outcome as contrary to the law, which recognizes that the freedom to criticize top public figures is the foundation of a strong democracy.
National Security: The NSL criminalizes actions interpreted to be in support of North Korea or otherwise against the state. The government used this law to arrest and imprison civilians and to deport foreigners. The Supreme Court has ruled the NSL constitutional seven times since 1992, most recently in 2015. As of September the Supreme Court was considering a new challenge to the constitutionality of the NSL. Critics decried the law’s limitations on free expression and continued to call for repeal of the law.
According to the Ministry of Justice, prosecutions under the NSL have decreased significantly since 2015, with 40 cases in 2015, 17 in 2016, 14 in 2017, three each in 2018 and 2019, and three cases from January to June during the year. NGOs reported that prosecutions in recent years have not resulted in imprisonment.
There were some government restrictions on internet access, and the government monitored email and internet chat rooms with wide legal authority.
The Korea Communications Standards Commission, a government body, blocked 101,139 websites it deemed harmful from January to June, consistent with its total of 206,759 sites blocked in 2019. The majority of blocked sites involved gambling, illegal food or drugs, or pornography. The commission also blocked North Korean propaganda on YouTube and Twitter. Although viewing websites praising the DPRK regime is lawful, disseminating information about those websites, including posting links to those sites, is illegal under the NSL. Other blocked sites included those promoting illegal trade of internal organs, forgery of documents, violating intellectual property rights, or encouraging suicide.
The communications standards commission determines whether posts made on social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, or in chat rooms, contain unlawful content, defined as harmful or illegal speech. If the government finds prohibited materials, it has the authority to warn the user. If the prohibited content is not removed, the user’s account may be blocked.
Although persons may use a false name when making online postings to large websites, the election campaign law requires real names for internet postings about upcoming elections.
Freedom House assessed the country’s media as generally free and competitive.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Teachers are subject to the same law on political activities that applies to civil servants. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family monitors song lyrics and may ban content it considers obscene. The Communication Standards Commission governs and maintains ethical standards in broadcasting and internet communications.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The law may be used to prohibit or limit assemblies considered likely to undermine public order and requires advance notification for demonstrations of all types, including political rallies. Police must notify organizers if they consider an event impermissible under the law. Police banned some protests by groups that had not properly registered or that were responsible for violent protests in the past. Police decisions to ban protests were subject to both administrative and judicial appeal. As of August the police received 82,433 assembly requests, of which it refused 1,562. All but one of the refusals were because of restrictions on public gatherings instituted as part of the government’s COVID-19 response.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel (except to North Korea), emigration, and repatriation; the government generally respected these rights.
Foreign Travel: Citizens traveling to North Korea must obtain prior authorization from the Ministry of Unification. The travelers must demonstrate their trip has no political purpose. Visiting North Korea without prior government authorization is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment under the NSL.
The government cooperated to a limited extent with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Local NGOs reported cases of abuse against migrant workers, including physical abuse, confiscation of passports, inadequate housing, and sexual harassment.
NGOs and advocates continued to criticize conditions in the “departure waiting area” at Incheon Airport. This area, funded and staffed by airlines, was for travelers (including migrants and asylum seekers) denied entry into the country. They described the living conditions in the waiting area as substandard, lacking privacy, bedding, and medical care, especially for those confined to the area for several months.
Occupants of the waiting area depended on their respective airlines for food. Some received fast-food meals three times a day, while others received nothing and relied on other travelers or their lawyers for sustenance. According to the Ministry of Justice, on average 106 persons used the area at Incheon Airport daily in 2018, the last year for which statistics were available, with 98 percent departing within four days.
In October 2019 authorities allowed an Angolan couple and their four children to enter the country after more than eight months in the departure waiting area of Incheon Airport. They had arrived in December 2018 and requested asylum, alleging torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Angolan police. In January 2019 the Incheon Airport Office of Immigration denied the family’s preliminary petition, stating it believed the family’s motivation for immigration was economic. The family filed a lawsuit to appeal the denial. In June 2019 the National Human Rights Commission of Korea and rights activists cited the Angolan family when calling for better treatment of asylum seekers at the airport. In April media reported that the family lived in an apartment, the children attended school and received psychological and medical treatment, and as of September their asylum applications were pending.
NGOs and advocates for asylum seekers decried the lack of public data on the numbers of refugee applicants turned away after preliminary screening at airports.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The government considers refugees from North Korea under a separate legal framework and does not include them in refugee or asylum statistics. The government continued its longstanding policy of accepting refugees or defectors from North Korea, who by law are entitled to citizenship.
In recent years the Ministry of Justice increased the number of refugee officers at its 10 immigration offices from 39 in 2018 to 93 as of September. NGOs had previously pointed to understaffing as a major obstacle to accommodating the rising number of refugee and asylum applications, but they said restrictions on international travel resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic had greatly reduced both the number of asylum seekers and also the government’s case-processing time. The government operated asylum application counters at airports and harbors to allow asylum seekers to file applications upon entering the country. These immigration offices screen applications and determine if a case is eligible to proceed for refugee status review. The Justice Ministry operated an immigration reception center in Incheon to receive refugees, asylum seekers awaiting adjudication, and temporary humanitarian stay permit holders. The center had a maximum capacity of 82 persons.
The law protects asylum seekers’ right to an attorney. Asylum seekers may ask for interpretation and legal aid services from the government and for services to adjust to living in the country while their application is pending. Some NGOs and asylum seekers, however, stated applicants faced difficulty finding qualified interpreters. Applicants may receive a work permit six months after submitting an application. The permit is valid for the duration of their lawful stay in the country.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides grounds on which an asylum seeker at a port of entry may be denied referral for full asylum procedures. These include arrival “from a safe country of origin or a safe third country, in which little possibility of persecution exists.”
Access to Basic Services: Cultural, linguistic, and social differences made adjustment difficult for refugees and asylum seekers. Many migrants from North Korea and other countries alleged societal discrimination and were not always provided access to basic services. These cases were often underreported.
Temporary Protection: The law offers renewable one-year short-term humanitarian status to those who do not qualify as “refugees” (who have well founded fears of persecution on protected grounds) but nonetheless have reasonable grounds to believe their life or personal freedom may be violated by torture or otherwise egregiously endangered. Temporary humanitarian stay permit holders do not have the same access to basic services as refugees and therefore rely heavily on NGOs for housing and support. Due to the government’s restrictions on the type of jobs humanitarian stay permit holders may hold, many of them faced difficulty in securing jobs. Those who did find jobs were largely limited to poorly paid “3-D” (dirty, difficult, and dangerous) jobs.
As of June there were 675 Yemenis in Korea with humanitarian stay status. In September the Ministry of Justice stated it had renewed the temporary humanitarian stay status of all Yemenis who applied for extensions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. This right, however, was restricted by laws and government actions. For example the government imposed legal restrictions on criticism of the government and monarchy, favored progovernment media organizations in regulatory actions, harassed antigovernment critics, monitored media and the internet, and blocked websites.
Freedom of Speech: The lese majeste prohibition makes it a crime, punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense, to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against one other.
In November, Royal Thai Police issued summons warrants to 12 protest leaders to face charges of lese majeste, the first such charges since 2018. Prior to that, human rights activists reported that although lese majeste prosecutions declined, the government increasingly turned to computer-crime and “sedition” legislation to restrict free speech, including speech critical of the monarchy.
As of September, according to the local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), 15 persons remained imprisoned for lese majeste charges, while as of August, the court of justice reported that there were 23 pending lese majeste cases in criminal courts nationwide.
The government continued to conduct some lese majeste trials from previous years in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the alleged offenses’ contents. International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste prohibition’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
The Constitutional Court may take legal action against individuals deemed to have distorted facts, laws, or verdicts related to the court’s adjudication of cases, or to have mocked the court.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but faced significant impediments to operating freely.
Although the constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media organizations to be citizens, government officials publicly welcomed content-sharing agreements between Chinese state-run news agencies and domestic state-run outlets, contending that Chinese media offers an alternative perspective to that offered by Western media. The Royal Thai Government owns all spectrum used in media broadcast and leases it to private media operators, allowing the government to exert indirect influence on the media landscape. Media firms are known to practice self-censorship regularly.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Laws remain in effect empowering the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the government. As of October there were no known cases of authorities revoking licenses. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press. Local practice leaned toward self-censorship, particularly regarding anything that might be critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family.
The emergency decree in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news it considers a threat to national security.
In October media organizations and academics criticized a leaked order from the Royal Thai Police to investigate four online news outlets and the Facebook page of a prominent antigovernment protest group for possible violations under the October “severe emergency decree,” which prohibits dissemination or publication of information that affects state security or the public order. A court ultimately overturned petitions to shut down these four outlets and the Facebook page, and they remained operational. Separately, in September the minister of digital economy and society issued an order to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to notify internet providers and cellular operators to suspend the accounts of users associated with the protest movement. The minister also announced that 300,000 Uniform Resource Locators could be in violation of the decree.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a fine and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians.
In June, 10 months after poultry firm Thammakaset dropped its civil defamation case against human rights activist Sutharee “Kratik” Wannasiri, the company lost its criminal defamation suit against her. Thammakaset argued that her social media posts in 2017 had damaged its reputation.
In October the Lopburi court of appeals overturned the conviction of Suchanee Cloitre, a television reporter, for criminal defamation and libel in a case initiated by Thammakaset. In December 2019 the Lopburi provincial court had sentenced Suchanee to two years in prison for her 2017 post on Twitter about the company’s labor rights violations.
On October 26, 12 international human rights organizations called on the government to decriminalize defamation and “take immediate steps to end frivolous criminal proceedings against journalists, human rights defenders, and whistleblowers including those accused by Thammakaset.” In recent years Thammakaset has filed at least 39 cases against human rights activists and journalists for criticizing their labor practices, alleging civil and criminal defamation.
National Security: Various NCPO orders continue to provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security.
The government continued to restrict internet access and penalize those who criticized the monarchy or shared unverified information about the spread of COVID-19. The government also monitored social media and private communications for what it considered false content and “fake news.” There were reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
By law the government may impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a substantial fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and that some penalties were too harsh.
Although individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, there were numerous restrictions on content. Civil society reported the government used prosecution or the threat of prosecution as a tool to suppress speech online. Authorities targeted for prosecution individuals posting a range of social-media commentary, from discussion of COVID-19 dispersion to lese majeste, criticism of the government’s operations, reporting on government scandals, and warning of government surveillance.
In January police arrested Thitima Kongthon and Ritthisak Wongthonglueang for spreading misinformation related to COVID-19 infected individuals; they could face five years in prison. In February officials from the digital economy ministry and provincial authorities raided houses in four provinces and arrested four suspects for posting on social media that COVID-19 had spread to Chiang Mai.
In February a university student from Chonburi Province known as Niranam (anonymous in Thai) was arrested by police and charged for “introducing information of national security concern into a computer system” after posting content deemed insulting towards King Rama X. Seven more counts of cybercrime violations were added to his list of charges after trial was postponed in June. He faced a maximum of 40 years in prison.
In April the Technology Crime Suppression Division announced plans to charge the administrator of a Facebook page, Mam Pho Dum, following her report on a mask-hoarding scandal involving an aide of Thammanat Prompow, deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives. Mam Pho Dum claimed that the information she published was taken from the aide’s own Facebook page before it was deleted.
In August courts fined and sentenced 10 persons to one year in prison for sharing what the government stated was fake news about Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. The offending post accused Prawit of procuring more than 90 billion baht (THB) (three billion dollars) worth of satellite technology to monitor citizens. The punishment was later reduced to two years’ probation.
Also in August the Digital Economy Ministry filed a complaint with police against exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun for creating and serving as administrator of the antimonarchy Facebook page, Royalist Marketplace. The ministry also asked Facebook to take down the website, which Facebook did on August 24. In September, Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta stated his ministry had lodged complaints with police against Facebook and Twitter because those companies had not yet blocked access to some websites as previously requested by the ministry through the courts. The ministry also filed complaints with police against social media users who disseminated messages critical of the monarchy during the antigovernment protest on September 19 and 20, alleging these social media users committed sedition and put false information into a computer system.
The government closely monitored and blocked websites and social media posts and accounts critical of the monarchy. Prosecutions of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public-comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission also lobbied foreign internet content creators and service providers to remove or censor locally lese majeste content. The government asked foreign governments to take legal action against Thai dissidents in their countries. Human rights observers reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
University authorities reported the regular presence of security personnel on campus, monitoring lectures and attending student events. There were numerous accounts of authorities arresting students for exercising freedom of speech and expression. Universities reported self-censorship continued.
In June the Thai Enquirer news outlet reported several cases of harassment and intimidation of university students and faculty, including a student who claimed that police contacted the deputy dean at his university, who then took him to the police station where he was interrogated, had his electronic devices seized, and was forced to reveal his passwords to social media accounts. They also reported that faculty at an unnamed university in Bangkok were approached by government authorities and asked to identify protest leaders and monitor their activities.
In September, Thammasat University officials denied permission for student demonstrators to use university grounds for their protests. Thammasat had allowed a rally in August and declared it was appropriate for students to state their political demands, but Thammasat later apologized for allowing the university to be used as a venue for students to call for reform of the monarchy.
The country experienced large-scale peaceful protests from July through November. That said, the government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and arrested and brought charges against dozens of protest leaders under the COVID-19 emergency decree, sedition legislation, and other laws.
The constitution grants the freedom to assemble peacefully, subject to restrictions enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals, or to protect the rights and liberties of others.” The government continued to prosecute prodemocracy and other human rights activists for leading peaceful protests.
In February student protesters and democracy activists began staging antigovernment rallies to protest the Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party. In March, Prime Minister Prayut declared a state of emergency in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 and renewed the COVID-19 emergency decree every succeeding month of the year. In June police arrested Tattep “Ford” Ruangprapaikitseri, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul for violating the COVID-19 emergency decree by holding two rallies to protest the disappearance of activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit and to commemorate the 1932 revolution that ended the country’s absolute monarchy. A July demonstration at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok led to sedition and other charges against more than 30 protest leaders.
Although the government eased restrictions related to public assembly under the COVID-19 emergency decree effective August 1, police continued to arrest protest leaders on charges of sedition and violations of other legislation. An August protest that called for reform of the monarchy led to computer-crime and sedition charges against protest leaders.
In September protest leaders Arnon Nampa and Panupong “Mike” Jadnok were detained for five days after a ruling that they had violated the terms of bail conditions from a prior arrest by continuing to participate in antigovernment protests.
On October 15, after a brief confrontation between a group of protesters and the queen’s motorcade, the government issued a “severe emergency decree” that limited gatherings to no more than five persons. On October 16, police deployed water cannons laced with skin irritants to disperse protesters who had gathered in violation of the decree. On October 22, Prime Minister Prayut cancelled the decree as protests continued unabated. Dozens of protesters were charged for participating in demonstrations during that period, and protest leaders Penguin, Rung, and Mike were arrested and detained for three weeks before their release on bail.
According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, authorities filed charges against approximately 175 protesters in October and November for their participation in antigovernment demonstrations. Three activists faced the possibility of life imprisonment for the incident related to the queen’s motorcade. More than 30 protesters, including a high school student, age 16, were issued summons warrants to face lese majeste charges, which carry a three- to 15-year prison sentence, and more than 10 protest leaders have two or more lese majeste charges against them. At least 45 individuals, including a high school student, age 17, faced sedition charges which carry a maximum of seven years in prison. Many protest leaders faced multiple charges connected to various protest events.
The constitution grants individuals the right to free association subject to restrictions by law enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals.”
The law prohibits the registration of a political party with the same name or logo as a legally dissolved party.
On February 21, the Constitutional Court dissolved the opposition Future Forward Party, ruling that the party took an illegal loan from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, and banned the party’s executives, including Thanathorn, from participating in politics until 2030 (see section 3).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https:/www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government enforced some exceptions, which it claimed were for “maintaining the security of the state, public order, public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
In-country Movement: The government restricted the internal movement of members of hill tribes and members of other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards, including those registered as stateless persons. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home provinces without permission from the district chief. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported that police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one province to another. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that COVID-19 restrictions in place during part of the year played a significant role in restricting in-country movement. For example, provincial governments instituted COVID-19-related movement restrictions that affected all individuals and not just stateless persons.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minority group members, to seek permission from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior for foreign travel.
The government usually cooperated with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with many restrictions.
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or forced return, and generally allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees and asylum seekers recognized by UNHCR and registered Burmese refugees in the nine camps on the border with Burma to resettle to third countries.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of August, 231 Rohingya and self-declared “Myanmar Muslim” individuals remained in detention, 143 in the IDCs and 88 in shelters.
The government continued to permit registered Burmese refugees in nine camps along the border with Burma to remain in the country temporarily and continued to refer to these refugee camps as “temporary shelters” even though they have been operated for decades. Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers outside of these camps who do not have valid visas or other immigration permits as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants were legally subject to arrest, detention, and deportation. Authorities permitted bail only for certain categories of detained refugees and asylum seekers, such as mothers, children, and persons with medical conditions. Immigration authorities applied the criteria for allowing bail inconsistently, and NGOs, refugees, and asylum seekers reported numerous instances of immigration authorities demanding bribes in connection with requests for bail.
Humanitarian organizations reported concerns that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers faced overcrowded conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, limited freedom of movement, and abusive treatment by authorities in the IDCs.
As part of an overall policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. As of August there were approximately 320 refugees and asylum seekers residing in the IDCs. In addition, 50 Uyghurs have been detained in the country since 2015.
Refoulement: Persons from Burma, if arrested without refugee status or legal permission to be in the country, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities sometimes provided preferential treatment to members of certain Burmese ethnic minority groups such as ethnic Shan individuals, allowing them greater leeway to remain in Thailand without formal authorization. Outside the nine camps along the border, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. If caught outside of camps without permission, authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camps.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. In one notable case, however, authorities forcibly returned Radio Free Asia blogger and Vietnamese national Truong Duy Nhat from Thailand to Vietnam in January 2019 after he applied for refugee status with UNHCR. In December 2020 he was tried and sentenced by a Vietnamese court to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of “abusing his position and power while on duty.”
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government did not establish a system for providing protection to refugees. The government began to implement a regulation (referred to as the “National Screening Mechanism” by UNHCR and NGOs) that provides individuals whom the government determines to be protected persons with temporary protection from deportation.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the IDCs to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year, in part due to COVID-19-related restrictions on visiting the IDCs. Authorities generally allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance. Access to specific asylum-seeker populations varied, reportedly depending on the preferences of each IDC chief, as well as central government policies restricting UNHCR and NGO access to certain politically sensitive groups.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of, and pursue solutions for, approximately 92,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country refugee resettlement or private sponsorship to five countries for nearly 600 Burmese refugees from the camps as of September. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border with Burma who were not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement unless they had serious medical or protection concerns and received special approval from a government committee. Separately the government coordinated with Burmese authorities to document and return to Burma registered camp residents who elected to participate in a voluntary repatriation program. During the 2016 to 2019 period, 1,039 registered refugees voluntarily returned to Burma in four tranches under the program. There were no voluntary repatriations under this program during the year in part due to border closures related to COVID-19.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement outside their camps. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation. Authorities sometimes allowed camp residents limited travel outside of the camps for purposes such as medical care or travel to other camps for educational training.
For certain foreign victims of trafficking, including Rohingya refugees, the law permits the issuance of temporary stay permits while trafficking investigations are underway. The majority of such victims, however, were restricted to remaining in closed, government-run shelters with little freedom of movement.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during their trial and up to two years (with possible extensions) after the end of their trial involvement. Work permits must be linked to a specific employer. For certain foreign victims of trafficking, including Rohingya, the government did not identify suitable employment opportunities for the issuance of work permits, citing a lack of local opportunities and immigration policy considerations. Registration, medical check-up, and health-insurance fees remained a deterrent for prospective employers of victims of trafficking.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban refugee and asylum-seeker population living in and around Bangkok, access to government-funded basic health services was minimal. Three NGOs funded in part by the international community provided or facilitated primary and mental health-care services and legal assistance. A UNHCR-led health panel coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals. The government announced during the year that it would provide free COVID-19 testing and treatment to all individuals, including migrants and refugees, who met specific case criteria. Implementation at the provincial and district levels remained uneven, however, according to NGOs. For example, the governor of Mae Hong Son Province decided that provincial hospitals would not provide COVID-19 testing or treatment to refugees living in the four camps in the province.
By law government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency, including refugee children. NGOs reported access to education for refugee children varied from school to school and often depended on the preferences of individual school administrators. Some refugee communities formed their own unofficial schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR and other NGOs to prepare for admission to government schools. Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to support camp-based community organizations in providing educational opportunities, and some were able to coordinate partially their curriculum with the Ministry of Education.
Temporary Protection: Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government continued to protect from deportation the majority of Rohingya refugees detained by authorities, including those who arrived in the country irregularly during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015. The government continued to implement a policy of screening all Rohingya migrants apprehended transiting Thailand for victim-of-trafficking status. As of September authorities had not granted such status to any Rohingya. Authorities determined 74 individuals were illegal migrants but placed 30 mothers and children into shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security as an alternative to detention in the IDCs. Other Rohingya determined to be illegal migrants were placed in the IDCs. UNHCR had access to the provincial shelters while authorities conducted formal screenings of the migrants’ eligibility for benefits as victims of trafficking. These Rohingya migrants, however, were in some cases confined to shelters without freedom of movement or access to work permits.
The government continued to identify stateless persons, provide documentation to preclude statelessness, and open paths to citizenship for longtime residents and students. As of June an estimated 480,000 persons, mainly residing in the northern region, were registered as stateless persons by the government, including ethnic minorities registered with civil authorities and previously undocumented minorities. From January to June, the government granted citizenship to 3,594 stateless persons and permanent residency to 87 others. In September the cabinet approved access to government health insurance for 3,042 registered stateless students. Authorities excluded Rohingya and Muslims from Burma, including individuals whose families had lived in Mae Sot near the Burmese border for multiple generations, from the statelessness recognition process. Without legal status, unregistered and undocumented stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse including threat of deportation (see section 6, Children and Indigenous People).
A 2016 government resolution to end statelessness and provide a pathway to Thai nationality for approximately 80,000 stateless children and young adults covers persons born in the country whose parents are ethnic minorities, who are registered with the government, and who have resided in the country for a minimum of 15 years. It also applies to stateless youths certified by a state agency to have lived in the country for 10 years whose parentage is unknown. In 2019 the government enacted an amendment to the Civil Registration Act providing a pathway for foundlings to apply for a birth certificate and obtain a Thai national identification card. If the person proves continuous residence in the country for 10 or more years and meets other qualifications, the person is eligible to apply for Thai nationality.
Birth within the country does not automatically confer citizenship. The law grants citizenship at birth to children with at least one citizen parent. Individuals may also acquire citizenship by means of special government-designated criteria implemented by the Ministry of Interior with approval from the cabinet or in accordance with nationality law (see section 6, Children). Ethnic Thai stateless persons and their children who meet the added definition of “displaced Thai” may apply for the status of “Thai nationality by birth.”
By law stateless members of hill tribes may not vote, and their travel is restricted to their home province. As noncitizens, they are unable to own land. Stateless persons are legally permitted to work in any occupation, but licenses for certain professions (including doctors, engineers, and lawyers) are provided only to Thai citizens. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing credit and government services, such as health care. The law permits undocumented migrant and stateless children to enroll in schools alongside Thai national children, although access to education was uneven. There were reports that school administrators placed the term “non-Thai citizen” on these students’ high school certificates, severely limiting their economic opportunities. Stateless persons were permitted to enroll in tertiary education but did not have access to government educational loans.
Humanitarian organizations reported that village heads and district officials routinely demanded bribes from stateless persons to process their applications for official registration as stateless persons or to obtain permanent residency or citizenship. Police also demanded bribes from stateless persons at inland checkpoints in exchange for allowing them to move from one province to another.
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.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
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/.
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 within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a July MetroPOLL company survey, 62 percent of respondents believed media in the country was not free, and 50 percent believed they were not free on social media.
The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 36,066 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2019; 12,298 stood trial and 3,831 were penalized. In contrast from 2014 to 2019, the number of individuals that received prison sentences under insult laws dropped to 2,663. In July police detained 11 persons and arrested one for comments made on social media posts about the president’s daughter and son-in-law, former treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, following the birth of their son on charges of “insulting a public official.”
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons whom it has issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” claiming ties to or support for the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On June 23, an Istanbul court upheld the conviction and sentencing of the main opposition CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu on multiple charges related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court had sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018 for “insulting the republic,” “insulting the president,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” in tweets. At year’s end she remained free pending her final legal appeal. Kaftancioglu also faced separate charges under a December indictment by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for ordering photographs of alleged illegal construction on land owned by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The indictment sought up to 10 years’ imprisonment for Kaftancioglu. Authorities scheduled the first hearing of the case for May 2021.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by MPs on the floor of parliament and provides for the possibility of fining violators; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law. Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from a statement the Bar Association released in 2017, stating, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
In late April the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint for hate speech against Ali Erbas, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), following a sermon in which he stated that homosexuality causes illness, including HIV. In response President Erdogan announced that an attack against Erbas was an attack against the state. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office promptly opened a criminal investigation against the bar association, and President Erdogan commented, “All will know their place.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In 2018 authorities convicted 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet on charges of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. After a lengthy appeal process, the Constitutional Court found no rights violations in cases for 11 of the journalists but ruled in favor of three. On November 10, the ECHR found that Turkey violated the freedom of expression rights of eight of the journalists and ordered them to be compensated 16,000 euro ($19,200) each. On November 24, the ECHR separately found that the country had violated the rights of another defendant, journalist Ahmet Sik.
In July an Istanbul court convicted Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” for articles he wrote on Turkey as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. The Constitutional Court had previously reviewed the press articles in the indictment and determined they were protected by freedom of the press. Yucel indicated he would appeal the ruling.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including through the use of electronic monitoring. For example, in October an Istanbul court sentenced five of eight Yeni Yasam, Yeni Cag, and OdaTV journalists on trial for allegedly revealing the identity of intelligence officers to more than four years in prison. The court released three of the defendants, Baris Pehlivan, Hulya Kilinc, and Murat Agirel, based on time served but imposed an international travel ban. The court acquitted the two OdaTV journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2019 at least nine journalists were physically attacked, often outside of their place of work. Although in some cases suspects were identified quickly, by year’s end authorities had made no arrests or publicly noted progress in investigations against the perpetrators. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. On August 19, Saban Onen, a journalist of a Bursa-based local newspaper was attacked in a parking garage in Karacabey. Onen claimed that the attackers were relatives of the ruling AKP mayor of Karacabey and specifically referenced his writing about the mayor during the attack. On August 26, a vehicle belonging to the Nevsehir Journalists Association was set on fire. The chair of the association, Bayram Ekici, stated he believed the attack was a premediated attempt to intimidate journalists.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state. In September authorities arrested on slander charges the publisher and editor in chief of a daily newspaper in Kocaeli Province after the newspaper ran a story accusing local AKP officials of sexually abusing a minor.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Human rights organizations voiced strong concern that a law governing social media that went into effect October 1 would result in increasing social media censorship and indiscriminate enforcement of content removal requests imposed by courts or made through individuals’ requests by social media companies (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom for details). Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, authorities required publishing houses to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The Turkish Publisher’s Association reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities banned books because of objectionable content.
In August an Istanbul court banned access to reporting by major newspapers and broadcast networks that a large tender was awarded to a friend of the president’s son. In September an Istanbul court ordered an additional access ban to news articles regarding the initial access ban.
In October police raided the Van bureau of Mezopotamya Ajansi and the homes of many journalists of the news agency. Police detained four journalists during the raid and confiscated their cameras and technical equipment. One of the journalists, Cemil Ugur, first reported the story of two villagers in Van who were allegedly detained, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter by soldiers in September. The courts granted a confidentiality order requested by the Van Chief Prosecutor’s Office on news reports concerning the incident. On October 1, an Ankara penal judge also ruled to permit the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to block access to Mezopotamya Ajansi’s online content.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. For instance, the government continued to pursue a case against Cumhuriyet journalists Alican Uludag and Duygu Guvenc for “publicly degrading the judiciary” and “insulting the Turkish nation” for their coverage of the country’s arrest of Andrew Brunson in 2018. On October 22, the court ruled that Uludag and Guvenc be acquitted as “the act in question is not defined as a crime in the law.”
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. In December the owner of private media outlet Olay TV announced that he would close the channel after only a month of operation because its editorial line prioritized pro-HDP content. The editor in chief of Olay TV announced during its last broadcast that the government pressured channel executives to close the channel. Other outlet employees told reporters the channel faced government scrutiny because it was too critical of the government and included reports of alleged corruption and human rights violations by government officials.
Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of December, RTUK had fined or suspended independent broadcasters in 54 instances. During that time government-affiliated broadcasters received two warnings and one fine. Independent broadcasters paid 25 times more in fines than government-affiliated ones.
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. In July, RTUK announced it would suspend pro-opposition television stations Halk TV and TELE1 for five days and that the two outlets could lose their broadcast licenses entirely if they received another penalty. RTUK ruled that TELE1 “incited hatred” during two news programs that criticized the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and President Erdogan. RTUK imposed the suspension on Halk TV for criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists warned, “the two channels were two remaining pro-opposition broadcast outlets in a media landscape that has become predominantly progovernment” and that “their presence is vital for media plurality” in the country. After the broadcasters lost court appeals, RTUK suspended TELE1 and Halk TV broadcasts for five days in September.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of 2019. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted. In March, Engin Ozkoc of the opposition CHP insulted the president using the same phrasing that the president used in reference to Ozkoc. Ozkoc’s comments set off a brawl on the floor of the parliament. Erdogan sued Ozkoc for libel and the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Ozkoc’s comments.
In September a court sentenced the former cochair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party Sebahat Tuncel to 11 months in prison for insulting the president. Tuncel had called Erdogan a misogynist and “an enemy of women and Kurds.”
In May police arrested former CHP Izmir province vice chair Banu Ozdemir for her social media posts sharing videos of Izmir mosques playing the song “Bella Ciao” from their speakers after a hacking incident. Ozdemir was arrested on charges of “denigrating religious values” and spent one week in pretrial detention. On December 10, an Izmir court acquitted Ozdemir.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In March an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of seven journalists and editors for their news organizations’ reports on the funeral of an alleged MIT official who died in Libya in February. Authorities charged the journalists with exposing the identities of MIT agents and their families. In September an Istanbul court found five of the journalists guilty and issued sentences from three to more than four years imprisonment. The court acquitted two of the journalists.
The trial of prominent columnist Ahmet Altan continued, and he remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” relating to allegations he had a role in the 2016 attempted coup; Altan received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. In December the Constitutional Court rejected Altan’s application for review of his re-arrest. Rights groups claimed that Altan faced charges in reprisal for his work as a journalists and author.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in March authorities detained a group of journalists, including five foreign journalists along the Turkey-Greece border, for allegedly violating the border zone. All were later released.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.
In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education.
In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the “Academics for Peace,” was a violation of freedom of expression. The academics had signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast and been prosecuted on terrorist propaganda charges. As of September, 622 of the 822 Academics for Peace cases ended in acquittal. Most of the academics acquitted in 2019 had been fired from their positions and had not been reinstated at year’s end.
In April the parliament amended the Higher Education Law. The amendment included specification of grounds for censure and dismissal of academics, including engaging in and supporting “activities that qualify as terror” and insulting a superior. The University Faculty Members Association released a statement that expressed concern the amendment threatens academic freedom.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies. In December 2019 the Council of Higher Education temporarily suspended the operating license of Istanbul Sehir University, established by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January the council seized the assets of the Science and Art Foundation that managed the university and appointed trustees to its management, citing financial mismanagement and inadequate funds as the reason for the intervention. Academic freedom activists claimed that the actions were in retaliation for Davutoglu’s establishment of a new opposition party.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The government banned more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” Police arrested members of Grup Yorum, a popular folk band collective, in 2016 on terror charges alleging the group’s links to terrorist group Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front and banned them from performing. In April and May, two members of the group, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokcek died as a result of hunger strikes in protest of the group’s treatment. Two additional members remained in prison. In August police detained at least 10 persons for attending an unauthorized concert in Istanbul by the group. Authorities arrested at least two persons for attending the unauthorized concert.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, police intervened in at least 637 demonstrations. As many as 1,364 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither the government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
In July dozens of leaders and members of 29 bar associations participated in a march to Ankara to protest anticipated legal changes to regulations governing bar associations. Police forcibly disrupted the march as they entered the city of Ankara and prevented bar association chairs from participating in a sit-in in front of the parliament. Video footage showed police pushing and jostling the bar association heads.
On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators intending to mark International Women’s Day by marching through Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. Prior to the scheduled march, the governor of Istanbul announced the areas would be closed for demonstrations and assembly and deployed an extensive police presence to prevent access to the main thoroughfares. Despite the announcement, groups proceeded with the planned march and attempted to enter the area. Police blocked the entrances and dispersed the group using tear gas and riot shields. According to media reports, police detained 32 women during the confrontations. Police did not disperse commemorations and marches hosted by women’s groups in the city’s Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Authorities generally prohibited domestic and international observers from observing the hearings.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. For instance, the Tekirdag Governor’s Office closed entrance to the province citing COVID-19 precautions ahead of the HDP March for Democracy from Edirne to Ankara, scheduled in June to take place during three days. Sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK continued for the second year. Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, in July detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability.
In January police prevented Melek Cetinkaya, the mother of one of 259 military cadets jailed and sentenced to aggravated life in prison in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup, from launching a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul. Police detained Cetinkaya and 66 family members of other imprisoned cadets who were to join the march. The group planned to walk from Ankara to Silivri Prison in Istanbul, where the cadets are jailed. Police teams took heightened security measures in the city center of Ankara before the group gathered and began detaining marchers as they entered the area. Authorities later released all of the detained protesters. Cetinkaya accused police of excessive force.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. The longstanding bans in the southeast of the country have remained in place during the year.
In contrast with previous years, labor unions, labor organizations, and opposition political parties called on citizens to honor Labor Day on May 1 while respecting social distance measures. In particular these groups encouraged supporters to sing songs from balconies, share messages via social media, and explore other activities that respect social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis. Social media showed that many celebrations occurred in isolation across the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, police detained and later released at least 45 persons for attempting to march despite a mandatory three-day COVID-related lockdown. Among others, police detained the chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), Arzu Cerkezoglu, as well as 25 other DISK members as they attempted to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prior to the event, DISK claimed to have contacted and informed the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding its plans to organize a march. The office stated that DISK received Istanbul approval to travel by vehicles, not by foot, and blamed DISK for violating social distancing measures and initiating brawls with law enforcement officials.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2019 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. For instance, the HRA reported that continued investigations and audits during the last four years have created immense pressure on the organization. In February the government launched a three-week audit of the HRA.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. On July 3, an Istanbul court convicted four of the human rights activists on terrorism-related charges. Nearly three years after his arrest, Kilic received a prison sentence of six years and three months for membership in a terrorist organization. The court sentenced former Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, and fellow human rights defenders Gunal Kursun and Ozlem Dalkiran to two years and one month for assisting a terrorist organization. The court acquitted seven other human rights activists including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi. The four convicted human rights activists remained free pending appeal; the ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, imposed in 2018, remained in place.
On December 27, the parliament adopted new counterterrorist financing legislation entitled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” granting the Ministry of Interior powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs. The legislation prompted strong concern among civil society groups. Nearly 700 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing the new law, noting it would expand Ministry of Interior “political tutelage,” severely restrict fundraising, and allow for rapid closure of civil society groups without judicial review.
On July 11, parliament approved a law changing the regulations governing bar associations. The law allows lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 bar association members to establish new associations after collecting a minimum of 2,000 member signatures. Whereas previous regulations only permitted one bar association per province, the new regulations allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces, paving the way for provincial associations to splinter into many groups, which could dilute the voices of existing organizations. The law also changed delegate representation within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA), a governing body of bar associations, reducing the influence of large bar associations from major metropolitan areas. All 80 Turkish bar associations, as well as human rights groups, publicly criticized the law, predicting it would undermine judicial independence, divide bar associations along political lines, and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. To date, bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In September a group of Istanbul Bar Association lawyers gathered enough signatures to establish a new association in the city and filed a registration petition with UTBA.
On October 2, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular postponing bar association elections scheduled by law from October to December. The circular cited anti-COVID-19 precautions banning all in-person events held by professional organizations and NGOs. Major bar associations protested the move, alleging the postponement decision was political since a later election timeline would allow newly established bar associations to participate. On October 5, a total of 76 of 80 bar associations issued a statement alleging that the circular violates Turkish law and filed civil suits. Courts dismissed Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir associations’ suits. In December the minister of interior postponed the elections further to March 2021.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In March the country enacted amendments to the Law on Associations introducing requirements that associations notify local administrative authorities of any changes in membership within 30 days or face penalties. The Council of Europe issued a statement calling the amendments “problematic on both procedural and substantive accounts” and noted they failed to meet requirements under the ECHR.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In June authorities lifted passport restrictions for 28,075 individuals, in addition to the 57,000 lifted in 2019, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement, as did restrictions on interprovincial travel due to COVID-19 precautions.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
The minister of interior and governorates also restricted interprovincial travel between March and May followed by limited restrictions on movement to and from metropolitan municipalities as measures to contain COVID-19. Some governorates, particularly in the northwest and southeast, instituted subsequent bans on movement as anti-COVID-19 measures throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
In October 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in areas of Syria affected by the operation. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria as a result of the operation have returned. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants” in 2019. The DGMM reported 201,437 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. Due to border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government paused deportations until June 1, and deportations continued at a much lower rate throughout the year. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 34 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. In February, however, the government announced that the borders the country shares with the EU were “open,” prompting more than 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups. Because the borders remained closed on the Greek side, many individuals were stuck in difficult conditions, particularly on the land border with Greece near Pazarkule. Press reports asserted some Turkish border guards aided refugees in charging and dismantling border fences. Unable to cross into Greece and unable to return to their homes in Turkey, hundreds of refugees remained at the border for weeks in an unofficial encampment. On March 1, Istanbul Bar Association representatives visited Pazarkule and reported that a group of approximately 1,000 individuals, including women, children, and elderly, were in the region and experienced poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical services, and basic goods, including, food, clothes, and blankets. The bar association delegation reported that many individuals were injured by tear gas capsules.
After weeks of living in open-air temporary shelters, on March 26, Turkish authorities disbanded the encampment due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The government reported it transported migrants to dormitories in nearby cities to safely quarantine. On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border. Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. At least five migrants also drowned in the river near this border area.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans during much of the year due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country was significantly lower than in prior years; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel. For example, an estimated 50-60 migrants died after their boat sank on Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Police arrested the captain of the boat and detained eight others in relation to investigation into the deaths.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings. Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they are able to register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. Following the deaths of several Turkish soldiers in Syria in February, in early March increased societal violence against refugee communities was reported throughout the country, including some beatings and attacks on businesses. In July, in the western province of Bursa, four Turkish men beat to death a 17-year-old Syrian refugee in a market. Police arrested the four, who awaited trial at year’s end. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement, and tens of thousands of deportations took place during the year. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities, particularly non-Syrians. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children, some specialized medical cases, and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. In May, Amnesty International reported the apparent forcible deportation of six Syrian men to northern Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at serious risk.
As of November 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,395 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (831 persons), Afghans (228 persons) and Iranians (173 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, three persons reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin.
In the incidents of administrative detention, of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not completing the registration procedure, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, and rejection of request for temporary protection) or criminal acts. Authorities continued to apply the legal framework and the procedural safeguards in place for persons seeking or in need of international protection.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. For incidents in which UNHCR intervened where the persons were no longer in the country, it was difficult for UNHCR to reach the individual to confirm or deny claims.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to nearly four million Syrians while maintaining conditional or subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional or subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some observers expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the DGMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Most refugees, however, did not have access to regular or skilled work, partly as a result of high unemployment rates for both refugees and Turkish nationals, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of late 2019, only an estimated 132,000 Syrians in the country had formal work permits.
Access to Basic Services: During the year, due to changes to the Law on Foreigners under International Protection, refugees registered under international protection status (approximately 330,000 individuals) for more than one year no longer had access to subsidized medical care (other than emergency care). Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Previously, the government provided free access to the public medical system to non-Syrian refugees registered until they began receiving international protection. Syrians registered for temporary protection (3.6 million) continued to receive free access to the public health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,919 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF, since 2017 more than 628,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely. NGO staff members reported seeing refugees asked for bribes to receive government services, and individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 110,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
As of September 30, UNHCR in cooperation with the DGMM, observed spontaneous voluntary returns in 14 provinces of 10,917 Syrians who chose to return to Syria. In April and May, the DGMM suspended voluntary repatriation as a result of COVID-19 measures. As of the end of November, authorities referred 6,022 refugees to 14 countries for resettlement, and 3,864 refugees departed the country for resettlement. The main reasons for the decrease in resettlement are due to reduced refugee quotas and the suspension of resettlement departures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September, however, resettlement departures resumed.
Temporary Protection: The country adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government continued to offer temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In September 2019 the governate of Bursa announced that the provinces of Antalya, Aydin, Bursa, Canakkale, Duzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kirklareli, Kocaeli, Mugla, Sakarya, Tekirdag, and Yalova would limit registration processing to exceptional cases and newborns. The DGMM has not made any official announcement regarding provinces stopping processing of registrations. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care.
By the end of 2019, the DGMM had closed all but seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of the end of November, there were 59,077 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2019 a total of 117,579 Syrians held valid residence permits; official figures for the calendar year were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December 2019, at least 516,000 babies had been born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel, slander, and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned illegitimate Maduro regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The law makes conviction of insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate Constituent National Assembly (ANC) gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Conviction of exposing another person to public contempt or hatred is punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. Espacio Publico reported 795 violations of freedom of expression, including 135 arrests, between January and August.
The illegitimate Maduro regime threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out regarding COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic. Espacio Publico documented at least 59 arrests by September for COVID-19 coverage.
On March 17, the DGCIM detained medical doctor Ruben Duarte for publishing a video deploring the lack of supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) at the San Cristobal Central Hospital. In August the NGO United Doctors for Venezuela reported at least 12 health-care workers were arrested for demanding PPE. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals, who feared for their own and others’ safety by working without PPE, reported they also faced regime repression for failing to appear for work.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that conviction of inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) used the nearly 600 regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; CONATEL oversees the law’s application.
The illegitimate Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. Following the shuttering of DirecTV’s operations on May 19, the TSJ ordered the seizure of all property and equipment of DirecTV and banned DirecTV’s executives from leaving the country. On August 14, DirecTV resumed operations, although multiple regime-independent outlets reported challenges–including veiled threats, outright blocks, and fines–preventing them from broadcasting freely over DirecTV when service was re-established.
The illegitimate Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from covering AN debates and activities. The country’s online independent newspapers were frequently blocked by CANTV. NGOs noted that regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during interim president Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions. On January 5, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the AN, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises.
The illegitimate regime arbitrarily detained 28 journalists from January to July, according to the national journalists’ union.
Media and NGOs reported increased repression and intimidation of journalists following the emergence of COVID-19. Despite a specific exception permitting travel for members of the press during quarantine, the illegitimate Maduro regime limited the freedom of movement of journalists.
On March 21, FAES officers arrested freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas and his family for inciting hatred. Rojas’ reporting questioned figures published by the illegitimate Maduro regime regarding COVID-19 cases. On August 2, the illegitimate regime granted Rojas a conditional release. DGCIM officers arrested Nicmer Evans on July 13, also for inciting hatred. NGOs and journalists called the arrest a retaliation against Evans due to his role as the founder and director of news site Punto de Corte, which frequently published articles critical of the regime. On August 31, Evans was released.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 260 attacks on journalists from January to August. On February 11, regime supporters and colectivos attacked at least 12 journalists covering the return of interim president Guaido from an international tour. Maduro and illegitimate regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the illegitimate Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union, print news outlets closed due to the illegitimate Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. In January, 16 print outlets suspended circulation, generally for lack of supplies, and at least 200 media outlets had been blocked, censored, or closed by May.
The illegitimate Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
A study by the NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) found that more than five million citizens lived in “media deserts,” areas that had no access to print, television, radio, or digital media due to censorship, forced closures of television and radio stations, and reprisals against journalists. Access to information was most heavily restricted in border territories and indigenous communities.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use libel and slander laws to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths. In October investigative journalist Clavel Rangel was forced to leave the country promptly after publishing an expose on corruption in Bolivar State. The subject of the report, a businessman with links to the regime, filed a defamation suit against Rangel, which would have prohibited her from discussing the case in media or leaving the country.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The illegitimate Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year Maduro renewed three times the “state of alarm” issued on March 13, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The regime also threatened, harassed, and arrested journalists, opposition politicians, and health-care workers for speaking out on COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country, often encouraged or left undeterred by the Maduro regime, made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The illegitimate regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company provided the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall” to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted illegitimate Maduro regime authorities in locating users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. As of September the illegitimate Maduro regime blocked 40 websites and online platforms that contained information regarding COVID-19.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the illegitimate regime’s official rate, as well as cryptocurrency exchanges. The regime-controlled internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS and the VE Sin Filtro (VE without Filter) internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. Social media and video streaming sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope were blocked during the AN’s January 5 session and also during live speeches made by interim president Guaido throughout the year. In a September 15 televised address, Maduro denounced the news site Monitoreamos.com as an “enemy” and its journalists as “manipulators and bandits.” On September 16, internet service providers blocked access to the site.
Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the illegitimate Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused of actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.
On August 28, internet providers blocked access to anticensorship tools to prevent health-care workers from accessing the Health Heroes financial assistance program announced by interim president Guaido, according to VE Sin Filtro. The group also found the financial platform used to distribute payments to health workers had been blocked and the illegitimate Maduro regime launched a phishing campaign that redirected users to a malicious site in order to capture their data.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no substantiated reports of illegitimate Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy. According to Aula Abierta, there were 151 security incidents, including fires, thefts, threats, and violence directed towards university students, professors, and school property.
The illegitimate Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.
In August 2019 the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulated the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and stated it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers heading universities. On February 27, the TSJ announced a suspension of the ruling. University professors clarified that the suspension only removed the deadline imposed by the TSJ but left in place the changes to electoral process and granted the Ministry of University Education the power to oversee the elections.
On May 8, the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a report that accused the illegitimate Maduro regime of underreporting COVID-19 infections. On May 13, PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello announced an investigation into the academy and invited regime-aligned security forces to summon the report’s authors. Domestic research institutions and international organizations condemned Cabello’s actions as unacceptable intimidation, and interim president Guaido denounced the attack on the independence and academic freedom of researchers.
The illegitimate regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria, a regime-issued identity and social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation). NGOs and university students denounced the use of the card as a discriminatory policy that politicized the issuance of scholarships and restricted academic freedom.
The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the illegitimate Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allows the illegitimate regime to criminalize organizations critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support interim president Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) documented 4,414 protests in the first six months of the year, 221 of which were repressed by regime-aligned security forces and armed groups. The OVCS documented 129 detentions, 62 injured, and two deaths during protests. An OHCHR investigation found three cases of torture and a sexual assault of protesters committed on May 20 by regime security forces in Lara State. Media reported a group of armed colectivos attacked protesters and journalists gathered at a protest convened on February 29 by interim president Guaido in Lara State.
NGOs and opposition deputies expressed concern that the illegitimate Maduro regime used quarantine restrictions as a form of social control to criminalize protests and silence critics. On May 23, FAES officers arrested Giovanny Meza and four others during a protest in Sucre State to demand water and electricity. Meza, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had a seizure during his hearing. When the judge ordered a medical examination, doctors found that Meza showed signs of torture, including five broken ribs. Meza was charged with instigation to commit a crime, obstruction of public roads, possession of incendiary objects, and criminal association.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the illegitimate Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
A 2016 presidential decree directed the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” the funding was used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the illegitimate Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
In-country Movement: The illegitimate regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
The “state of alarm” declared by Maduro in March to limit the spread of COVID-19 restricted freedom of movement and suspended social and business activities. The decree authorized regime-aligned security forces broad latitude and discretion to enforce the decree and conduct investigations. Media reported the illegitimate regime employed the armed forces, FAES, and armed colectivos to enforce quarantine measures. PROVEA documented an excessive use of force in implementing the lockdown, including arbitrary detentions, beatings, torture, and humiliating treatment for allegedly failing to comply with quarantine measures.
On March 17, the illegitimate regime suspended all international travel, although it authorized a number of humanitarian and repatriation flights. On March 16, restrictions were put in place to prevent travel among different states and cities. Many countries experienced severe difficulties in repatriating their citizens due to these restrictions.
Throughout the year high-level regime officials stigmatized returning citizens, blaming them for rising COVID-19 cases and calling them “bioterrorists” and “biological weapons.” On July 15, Maduro called on all citizens to report and apprehend returnees who crossed into the country through unofficial border crossings.
The illegitimate Maduro regime required returnees to spend a mandatory two-week quarantine period at shelters run by the armed forces at the border. Humanitarian organizations and interim government officials reported overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in quarantine shelters that increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. Returnees held in these facilities suffered from insufficient food, water, electricity, and hygiene items, as well as physical insecurity that put vulnerable groups, particularly women and children, at risk of sexual violence and abuse. A COVID-19 diagnostic test was required for release from the quarantine shelters, but in view of the regime’s limited testing capacity, several returnees were held for as long as one month. Media reported returnees were kept from returning to their regions of origin and threatened by armed groups controlling the shelters not to report the poor conditions.
Media reported regime authorities blocked citizens from returning to the country. On June 6, the illegitimate Maduro regime adopted measures to limit the number of citizens returning to the country through the border with Colombia. Migrants were only allowed to return on three specific days a week, and regime authorities set a limit of 1,200-1,300 returnees weekly through Arauca, Cucuta, and Paraguachon. As of September more than 40,000 citizens waited to cross the border into the country through Cucuta, according to the Organization of American States (OAS) commissioner-general for the Venezuela refugee crisis David Smolansky. NGOs reported citizens unable to return to their country faced uncertain legal and financial statuses and were at high risk of victimization for crime, trafficking, and gender-based violence by criminal armed groups.
Following the illegitimate Maduro regime’s closure of official ports of entry, Venezuelans traveling into and out of the country had no choice but to use informal border crossings (trochas) that largely were controlled by illegal armed groups. While no official statistics were available, activists and NGOs reported citizens utilizing the trochas faced significant risks, such as gender-based violence and human trafficking, including forced labor and sexual servitude at the hands of criminal groups. Smugglers and human traffickers also sent refugees and migrants on dangerous sea journeys. In December at least 21 individuals attempting to flee the country and reach Trinidad and Tobago died when their boat capsized. Individuals were often subjected to debt bondage or forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing to illegal armed groups, increasing the vulnerability of migrants to labor exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence. Many were vulnerable to recruitment, sometimes forced, into drug trafficking rings or illegal and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Several applicants reportedly paid several thousand U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The illegitimate regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
The illegitimate regime did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission’s headquarters, particularly vulnerable groups, including women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by regime authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and there is an established system for providing protection to refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties in achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Illegitimate regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In 2019 CONARE announced the creation of a border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.
West Bank and Gaza
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The PA basic law generally provides for freedom of expression but does not specifically provide for freedom of the press. The PA enforced legislation that NGOs claimed restricted press and media freedom in the West Bank, including through PASF harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Notably, Palestinian activists complained of narrowing space for political discussion, with arrests of Fatah party opponents in the West Bank. Other Palestinian activists, especially anticorruption campaigners, complained that the emergency orders put in place to address COVID-19 were abused by the PASF to arrest preemptively 19 activists before they could begin protesting at an intended rally in July.
In Gaza Hamas restricted press freedom through arrests and interrogations of journalists, as well as harassment and limitations on access and movement for some journalists. These restrictions led many journalists to self-censor.
Israeli civil and military law provides limited protections of freedom of expression and press for Palestinian residents of the West Bank. NGOs and Palestinian journalists alleged that Israeli authorities restricted press coverage and placed limits on certain forms of expression. These included restricting Palestinian journalists’ movement, as well as using violence, arrests, closure of media outlets, and intimidation, according to media reports and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms. The Israeli government stated it allowed journalists maximum freedom to work and investigated any allegations of mistreatment of journalists.
Freedom of Speech: Although no PA law prohibits criticism of the government, media reports indicated PA authorities arrested West Bank Palestinian journalists and social media activists who criticized or covered events that criticized the PA.
On August 19, the Preventive Security Organization arrested journalist, film director, and television producer Abdel Rahman Thaher for allegedly criticizing the PA on his Facebook page, according to his lawyer and media reports. He was released on bail on September 21. On October 27, ISF arrested Thaher at his home in Nablus, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On November 24, ISF released him and Thaher claimed he was arrested because of his international media activities, according to media reports.
The law restricts the publication of material that endangers the “integrity of the Palestinian state.” The PA arrested West Bank journalists and blocked websites associated with political rivals, including sites affiliated with political parties and opposition groups critical of the Fatah-controlled PA.
According to HRW, the PA arrested 1,609 individuals between January 2018 and April 2019 for insulting “higher authorities” and creating “sectarian strife.” HRW stated these charges “criminalize peaceful dissent.” The PA arrested more than 750 persons during this period for social media posts, according to data provided to HRW.
In Gaza Hamas arrested, interrogated, seized property from, and harassed Palestinians who publicly criticized Hamas. Media practitioners accused of publicly criticizing Hamas, including civil society and youth activists, social media advocates, and journalists, faced punitive measures including raids on their facilities and residences, arbitrary detention, and denial of permission to travel outside Gaza. On May 11, Hamas arrested independent journalist Yousef Hassan after he released an investigative report on alleged corruption and extortion related to aid distribution, according to the ICHR. He was released after four days. On May 27, the PIJ abducted him for the same report and the following day handed him to Hamas Internal Security authorities, who released him. The ICHR stated the abduction violates Article 11 of the Palestinian Basic Law, which prohibits detaining, detaining, or restricting the freedom of anyone except by judicial order.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent Palestinian media operated under restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA Ministry of Information requested that Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank register with the ministry. According to the PA deputy minister of information, the ministry provides permits to Israeli journalists only if they do not live in a settlement. While officially the PA allowed Israeli reporters to cover events in the West Bank, at times Palestinian journalists reportedly pressured Israeli journalists not to attend PA events.
Hamas permitted broadcasts within Gaza of reporting and interviews featuring PA officials. Hamas allowed, with some restrictions, the operation of non-Hamas-affiliated broadcast media in Gaza. For example, the PA-supported Palestine TV continued to operate in Gaza.
Hamas arrested, detained, and interrogated several journalists throughout the year for reporting on suicides in Gaza, according to media reports. For example, on July 11, Hamas arrested journalist Osama al-Kahlout on charges of encouraging a man to commit suicide after al-Kahlout posted on social media a photo of a young man asking for help and threatening to take his own life. Other journalists said the charge was an attempt to distract attention from a spate of suicides that they alleged was a source of embarrassment for Hamas, according to NGOs and media reports.
In April, Hamas arrested Palestine TV (which is PA-owned) reporter Mohammed Abu Hatab and photographer Mohammed Nassar at the Jabalia camp in northern Gaza for lacking an official permit to film there. Hamas also confiscated their equipment, according to the ICHR. Authorities released them two hours later, returned their confiscated equipment, and made them sign a pledge always to obtain an official permit before filming.
On July 15, Hamas banned Saudi-owned media outlets al-Arabiya and al-Hadath, accusing them of “deceit,” publishing “fabricated information,” and “spreading rumors and lies.” In a July 12 report, al-Arabiya alleged Hamas arrested several Hamas members for collaborating with Israel and a Hamas military commander had fled to Israel. The Palestinian journalists union and Reporters without Borders called for the ban’s reversal.
In areas of the West Bank to which Israel controlled access, Palestinian journalists claimed Israeli authorities restricted their freedom of movement and ability to cover stories. ISF did not recognize Palestinian press credentials or credentials from the International Federation of Journalists. Few Palestinians held Israeli press credentials.
There were reports of Israeli forces detaining journalists in the West Bank. For example, on October 1, ISF arrested journalist Tareq Abu Zeid at his home in Nablus, according to media reports and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Abu Zeid’s wife said Israeli soldiers blew up their front door at 3 a.m. and took her husband, his cell phone, and computers without explaining why he was being arrested.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous reports that the PA harassed, detained (occasionally with violence), prosecuted, and fined journalists in the West Bank during the year based on their reporting.
The PA occasionally obstructed the West Bank activities of media organizations with Hamas sympathies and limited media coverage critical of the PA. For example, on May 15, PA police at a checkpoint stopped, assaulted, and arrested Anas Hawari, a journalist for Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, according to media reports and rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists. Hawari’s lawyer said police knocked out one of Hawari’s teeth during the incident and confiscated his cell phone. On May 21, police released Hawari on bail after charging him with insulting an official, resisting arrest, and violating COVID-19 lockdown measures. The case continued at year’s end.
The PA also had an inconsistent record of protecting Israeli and international journalists in the West Bank from harassment by Palestinian civilians or PA personnel.
In Gaza Hamas at times arrested, harassed, and pressured, sometimes violently, journalists critical of its policies. Hamas reportedly summoned, detained, and questioned Palestinian journalists to intimidate them. Hamas also constrained journalists’ freedom of internal movement in Gaza during the year, attempting to ban access to some official buildings.
Throughout the year, there were reports of Israeli actions that prevented Palestinian or Arab-Israeli journalists from covering news stories in the West Bank and Gaza. These actions included alleged harassment and acts of violence against journalists by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian journalists also claimed that Israeli security forces detained Palestinian journalists and forced them to delete images and videos under threat of violence, arrest, or administrative detention. Israeli authorities defended these detentions on security grounds.
Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain permits to enter Israel, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. In June the Journalists’ Support Committee, a nonprofit journalist advocacy organization, stated Israeli security forces committed more than 50 human rights violations against Palestinian journalists working in Jerusalem in the first half of the year, including arrests and expulsions from the city. In May, then Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan extended for six months the closure order against Palestine TV’s East Jerusalem office, according to media reports. In November 2019 Erdan first ordered the closure when Israeli police raided the office.
Israeli police officers detained, used violence against, and confiscated equipment of journalists during demonstrations in Jerusalem. On June 8, police officers hit, shoved to the floor, and then detained Haaretz photojournalist Tomer Appelbaum at the end of a demonstration against the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Witnesses indicated that Appelbaum was clearly identified as a journalist; however, police stated they did not notice his press credentials until after the incident.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The PA prohibits calls for violence, displays of arms, and racist slogans in PA-funded and -controlled official media. There were no confirmed reports of any legal action against, or prosecution of, any person publishing items counter to these PA rules. Media throughout the West Bank and Gaza reported practicing self-censorship. There were reports of PA authorities seeking to erase images or footage from journalists’ cameras or cell phones.
In Gaza, civil society organizations reported Hamas censored television programs and written materials, such as newspapers and books.
The Israeli government raided and closed West Bank Palestinian media sources, primarily on the basis of allegations the media sources incited violence against Israeli civilians or security services. Conviction of acts of incitement under military law is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. NGOs and observers stated Israeli military regulations were vaguely worded and open to interpretation. ISF generally cited two laws in its military orders when closing Palestinian radio stations: the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations and the 2009 Order Concerning Security Provisions. These laws generally define incitement as an attempt to influence public opinion in a manner that could harm public safety or public order.
While the Israeli government retained the authority to censor the printing of publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Editors and journalists from those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were some accusations of slander or libel against journalists and activists in the West Bank and Gaza.
According to Human Rights Defenders Fund, Israeli individuals and right-wing NGOs used defamation lawsuits to discourage public criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For example, on July 13, the Samaria Regional Council sued former Member of the Knesset and the head of the Zulat Institute Zehava Galon after she criticized on Twitter their granting of a certificate of honor to two settlers who in 2019 allegedly shot and killed an alleged Palestinian attacker. According to B’Tselem, the settlers purportedly continued to shoot the Palestinian after he no longer posed a threat. In June an additional libel lawsuit against Galon, B’Tselem, and three individuals who tweeted on the incident was filed by Yehusha Sherman, who shot the attacker. The lawsuits continued at year’s end.
National Security: Human rights NGOs alleged that the PA restricted the activities of journalists on national security grounds.
Internet was generally accessible throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Frequent power outages in Gaza interrupted accessibility. According to HRW, between January 2018 and March 2019, both the PA and Hamas arrested dozens of persons for their social media posts and brought charges of “harming revolutionary unity” and “misuse of technology.”
The PA actively monitored social media to pressure and harass activists and journalists. There were instances when the PA arrested or detained Palestinians because of their posts on social media. In 2018 the PA arrested and brought to trial Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro for a social media post critical of the PA’s arrest of a Palestinian journalist, according to media reports. Amro’s trial continued at year’s end. Amro was also subject to legal action by Israeli authorities (see Freedom of Peaceful Assembly).
Gaza-based Palestinian civil society organizations and social media practitioners stated Hamas authorities monitored the internet activities of Gaza residents and took action to intimidate or harass them. On September 1, local media reported that the Hamas authorities arrested a Gazan youth after he posted allegations on Facebook claiming Hamas distributed COVID-19-related food donations and financial aid to its affiliates and excluded others. The youth was released the next day.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The PA did not restrict academic freedom in the West Bank, and there were no known reports of PA censorship of school curricula, plays, films, or exhibits. Palestinian law provides for academic freedom, but individuals or officials from academic institutions reportedly self-censored curricula. Faculty members reported PA security agents were present on university campuses among the student body and faculty members, which may have contributed to self-censorship. NGOs claimed that authorities closely monitored criticism of the PA by university students and professors.
Public schools as well as UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools in Gaza followed the same curriculum as West Bank schools. Palestinians in Gaza reported substantially decreased interference by Hamas in public schools at the primary, secondary, and university levels due to COVID-19 related school closures and a focus on online schooling.
Students and faculty from Gaza participating in certain cultural and education programs (including programs sponsored by foreign governments and international organizations) faced questioning from Hamas, according to the ICHR.
Israeli restrictions on movement (see section 2.d.) adversely affected academic institutions and access to education and cultural activities for Palestinians. As of October 9, a total of 52 Palestinian schools in Area C were under pending demolition or stop-work orders, according to the PA Ministry of Education.
Israeli civil law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejecting the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
Israeli authorities provided an edited version of the Palestinian Authority curriculum that deleted certain information on Palestinian history and culture to schools in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of Israeli curriculum. Some Palestinians expressed concern at what they perceived as Israeli efforts to impose Israeli views on these students. Others welcomed the Israeli curriculum, and the additional resources associated with it, as better preparing students in Jerusalem to work in the Israeli workforce, compared to lower paying employment in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank or in manual labor and low-wage sectors in Israel.
The Israeli government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestine Liberation Organization office. The government renewed a closure order for these and other institutions under a 1994 law passed after the Oslo Accords that requires the PA to obtain Israeli permission to open a representative office or hold a meeting in areas Israel recognizes as under its sovereignty. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem that the government stated had PA participation or support, incited violence against Israel, or had anti-Israel or other objectionable content. Israeli authorities said they would also detain and ban PA-affiliated officials in Jerusalem from conducting PA-related activities. According to Haaretz, the Ministry of Public Security approved dozens of such orders during the year. PA officials publicly point to the 1993 letter sent by then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart Johan Holst as proof of an agreement to allow Palestinian institutions and activities in East Jerusalem.
Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza limited and restricted Palestinian residents’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
PA law permits public meetings, processions, and assemblies within legal limits. The law requires permits for rallies, demonstrations, and large cultural events. Both the PA and Hamas security forces selectively restricted or dispersed peaceful protests and demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza during the year.
In July the PASF arrested 22 anticorruption activists gathering for protests after their permit request was denied under coronavirus emergency regulations, according to media reports. The PASF arrested several of the activists as they were heading to the protest location, according to the ICHR. The ICHR claimed the activists were also arrested for social media posts critical of the PA. The PASF released 10 activists shortly after their arrest; the remaining 12 were released on bail after criticism from human rights groups of the arrests. The trials continued at year’s end. Some NGOs claimed the PASF used the emergency COVID-19 measures as a pretext to crack down on dissent.
According to a Hamas decree, any public assembly or celebration in Gaza requires prior permission. Hamas used arbitrary arrest to prevent some events from taking place, including political events affiliated with Fatah. Hamas also attempted to impede criticism of its policies by imposing arbitrary demands for the approval of meetings on political or social topics.
A 1967 Israeli military order stipulates that a “political” gathering of 10 or more persons requires a permit from the regional commander of military forces, which Israeli commanders rarely granted. The penalty for conviction of a breach of the order is up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine. The IDF Central Command declared areas of the West Bank to be “closed military zones” in which the IDF prohibited public assembly by Palestinians. Israeli military law prohibits Palestinians from insulting a soldier, participating in an unpermitted demonstration or march consisting of more than 10 persons, and “incitement” (encouraging others to engage in civil disobedience).
Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro faced 16 charges in a trial in an Israeli military court that began in 2016 and continued through the year. The charges include participation in a march without a permit, assaulting a soldier, and incitement, according to human rights groups. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International stated Amro’s actions during these incidents were consistent with nonviolent civil disobedience. The latest hearing in his case took place in September. Haaretz reported the IDF detained Amro at least 20 times at various checkpoints since 2018. In August, IDF soldiers detained Amro at a checkpoint in Hebron and released him two hours later with no explanation, according to rights groups.
PA law allows freedom of association. PA authorities sometimes imposed limitations on the freedom of association in the West Bank, including on labor organizations (see section 7.a.). NGOs stated a regulation subjecting “nonprofit companies” to PA approval prior to receiving grants impeded their independence and threatened the ability of both local and international nonprofits to operate freely in the West Bank.
In Gaza Hamas attempted to prevent various organizations from operating. This included some organizations Hamas accused of being Fatah-affiliated, as well as private businesses and NGOs that Hamas deemed to be in violation of its interpretation of Islamic social norms. Hamas claimed supervisory authority over all NGOs, and Hamas representatives regularly harassed NGO employees and requested information on staff, salaries, and activities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
PA law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions. The PA’s May 20 decision to end security coordination with Israel exacerbated many of the issues that constrain Palestinian movement. For example, during the olive harvest some Palestinian farmers were left to coordinate access to their olive groves with Israel’s Civil Administration without the assistance of a PA intermediary, according to human rights groups.
Hamas restricted some foreign travel into and out of Gaza, and required exit permits for Palestinians departing through the Gaza-Israel Erez crossing. Hamas also prevented some Palestinians from exiting Gaza based on the purpose of their travel or to coerce payment of taxes and fines. There were some reports unmarried women faced restrictions on travel out of Gaza. Hamas restricts the entry of foreigners into Gaza unless a recognized local entity applies for their entrance prior to arrival. Hamas prohibited several international journalists from entering due to a lack of local agencies or persons applying for permits on their behalf.
Citing security concerns and frequent attempted terrorist attacks, Israel occasionally imposed significant restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli authorities often prohibited travel between some or all Palestinian West Bank towns and deployed temporary checkpoints for that purpose. Palestinians who lived in affected villages stated that “internal closures” continued to have negative economic effects, lowering their employment prospects, wages, and days worked per month. During periods of potential unrest, including on some major Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, Israeli authorities enacted “comprehensive external closures” that prevented Palestinians from leaving the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel placed restrictions on Palestinian farmers accessing their land in the so-called seam zone west of the barrier and east of the green line, according to human rights groups, and there were some reports that soldiers operating the checkpoints at seam-zone access points did not allow farmers to move farming implements and machinery, including trucks for transporting olive harvests, into the area.
The Israeli travel permit system restricts Palestinians’ ability to travel from Gaza to the West Bank. Palestinian higher education contacts reported that permits for Gazans to attend West Bank universities were seldom granted. According to HaMoked, Israeli authorities required Palestinians from the West Bank who are married to a Palestinian in Gaza and reside in Gaza to sign a “Gaza resettlement form” and permanently forego their right to move back to the West Bank.
Israel has declared access-restricted areas (ARAs) on both the coastal and land borders around Gaza, citing evidence that Hamas exploited these areas at times to conduct attacks or to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza. The lack of clear information regarding the ARAs created risks for Palestinians in Gaza who lived or worked either on the Mediterranean Coast or near the perimeter fence. No official signage exists for the line of demarcation, and official policy changed frequently. Hamas’s use of certain technologies for rockets, drones, other weapons, and surveillance systems led Israel to restrict importation of dual-use equipment into Gaza including Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The lack of GPS devices made it more difficult for fishermen to locate and avoid restricted maritime activity areas. In addition the permitted maritime activity area for Palestinians along the coastal region of Gaza changed between zero and 15 nautical miles multiple times throughout the year, according to Gisha, an Israeli organization that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement. Gisha called the changes a form of collective punishment. Human rights NGOs asserted that confusion over permitted activity areas led to multiple instances of Israeli forces firing upon farmers and fishermen. According to the Israeli government, Hamas attempted to conduct terrorist activities by sea. According to the United Nations, regular electrical outages often made it necessary for Gazan farmers to work their fields after dark; in some instances, IDF soldiers shot at farmers near the ARA when farmers irrigated their fields at night.
On September 25, Egyptian naval forces shot and killed two brothers and wounded another fishing off the Gaza coast near Rafah, according to media reports. It was unclear whether the brothers’ boat had crossed into Egyptian waters.
In February 2019 Israeli naval forces allegedly shot Gaza fisherman Khader al-Saaidy with rubber-coated bullets in the face and chest at close range, and he lost sight in both eyes as a result. After examining the case, the Military Prosecutor did not find that the actions of IDF forces raised grounds for any suspicion of criminal misconduct and decided not to launch a criminal investigation, according to the Israeli government.
The barrier that divides the majority of the West Bank from Israel, including Jerusalem, and some parts of the West Bank, significantly impeded Palestinian movement. Israeli authorities stated they constructed the barrier to prevent attacks by Palestinian terrorists. In some areas the barrier divides Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. At its widest points, the barrier extends 11 miles into the West Bank. B’Tselem estimated that 27,000 Palestinians resided in communities west of the barrier who were required to travel through Israeli security checkpoints to reach the remainder of the West Bank.
Other significant barriers to Palestinian movement included internal ISF road closures and Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian persons and goods into and out of the West Bank and Gaza. Major checkpoints, such as Container and Za’tara, caused major disruptions in the West Bank when closed, according to media reports. When Container (near Bethlehem) is closed, it cuts off one-third of the West Bank population living in the south, including Bethlehem and Hebron, from Ramallah and the north. Similarly, Za’tara checkpoint blocks traffic in and out of the entire northern part of the West Bank, including Nablus, Tulkarem, and Jenin, according to media reports. UNOCHA reported during the year that there were 593 permanent obstacles throughout the West Bank. Israeli restrictions on movement affected virtually all aspects of Palestinian life, including attendance at weddings and funerals, access to places of worship, employment, access to agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. There were also reports of patients dying in traffic before reaching hospitals and ambulances on the way to accidents or scenes of attacks being stopped by the IDF for hours at a time.
The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted internal movement in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons and restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
Israeli officials imposed restrictions on movement of materials, goods, and persons into and out of Gaza based on security and economic concerns. Amnesty International and HRW reported difficulties by foreign workers in obtaining Israeli visas, which affected the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. Amnesty International and HRW also reported that the Israeli government denied permits to Amnesty International and HRW employees to enter Gaza from Israel. The United Nations and several international NGOs reported that the Israeli government denied permits to the UN’s and NGO’s local Gazan staff to exit Gaza into Israel. The Israeli government stated all Gaza exit requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with security considerations arising from Hamas’s de facto control of Gaza.
PA-affiliated prosecutors and judges claimed that ISF prohibitions on movement in the West Bank, including Israeli restrictions on the PA’s ability to transport detainees and collect witnesses, hampered their ability to dispense justice.
UNRWA reported staff movement continued to be restricted and unpredictable at several checkpoints, notably those controlling access to East Jerusalem or through the barrier. Movement restrictions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, resulted in the loss of at least 27 staff days. According to UNRWA, on two occasions at checkpoints in the West Bank, including for entry into East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities demanded to search UNRWA vehicles and on at least three occasions personnel assigned to UNRWA’s West Bank Field Office were denied access through a checkpoint and prevented from attending work.
From March to June, Israeli authorities required that each individual UNRWA staff movement between Israel and the West Bank, in both directions, be coordinated through the UN Access Coordination Unit and approved by Israeli authorities, amounting to hundreds of individual approvals, according to UNRWA. This requirement was later removed for West Bank staff entering Israel and East Jerusalem. As of the end of the year, however, UNRWA staff who hold Israeli-issued residency in East Jerusalem or who are Israeli nationals needing to travel from East Jerusalem to the West Bank (Areas A and B where the majority of UNRWA operations are located) were still required to submit a coordination request through the UN Access Coordination Unit, according to UNRWA.
In-country Movement: In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, Hamas occasionally enforced restrictions on internal movement in Gaza. Pressure to conform to Hamas’s interpretation of Islamic norms generally restricted movement by women, who often must travel in groups when visiting certain public areas such as the beach. There were sporadic reports of security officers requiring men to prove a woman with them in a public space was their spouse.
In the West Bank, ISF routinely detained Palestinians for several hours and subjected them to interrogations, according to human rights groups.
Israeli authorities allegedly damaged Palestinian property in the West Bank during raids, sealed off entries and exits to homes and other buildings, and confiscated vehicles and boats. The Israeli government stated that it imposed collective restrictions only if an armed forces commander believed there was a military necessity for the action and that the imposition on the everyday lives of Palestinian civilians was not disproportionate.
Israeli authorities restricted or prohibited Palestinian travel on 29 roads and sections of roads (totaling approximately 36 miles) throughout the West Bank, including many of the main traffic arteries, according to B’Tselem. ISF also imposed temporary curfews confining Palestinians to their homes during ISF arrest operations. Israel continued to restrict movement and development near the barrier, including access by some international organizations.
Palestinian farmers continued to report difficulty accessing their lands in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. NGOs and community advocates reported numerous Palestinian villages owned land rendered inaccessible by the barrier. A complicated Israeli permit regime (requiring more than 10 different permits) prevented these Palestinians from fully using their lands. Israeli NGO HaMoked reported that government of Israel data showed a marked reduction in permit approvals, compared to previous years, to cross the barrier. Data showed 84 percent of permit applications were denied, although only 1 percent were reportedly denied for security reasons. HaMoked also reported that Israeli authorities opened gates to these areas late, which the NGO stated reduced access for Palestinian farmers to cultivate their land.
Israeli restrictions on the importation of dual-use items, including wires, motors, and fiberglass which could be used for the production of weaponry or explosives, prevented some fisherman from being able to repair their boats.
In the West Bank, Israeli military authorities continued to restrict Palestinian vehicular and foot traffic and access to homes and businesses in downtown Hebron. They cited a need to protect several hundred Israeli settlers resident in the city center. ISF continued to occupy rooftops of private Palestinian homes in Hebron as security positions, forcing families to leave their front door open for soldiers to enter. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated that freedom of movement is not an absolute right but must be balanced with security and public order.
The Israeli government, citing security concerns, continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to certain religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. Israeli officials cited security concerns when imposing travel restrictions, including limiting access to Jerusalem during major Jewish holidays as well as continuing construction of Israel’s barrier, which impeded the movements of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.
UNOCHA reported Palestinians in Gaza considered areas up to 1,000 feet from the perimeter fence to be a “no-go” area, and up to 3,300 feet to be “high risk,” which discouraged farmers from cultivating their fields. UNOCHA estimates nearly 35 percent of Gaza’s cultivable land is in these areas.
Foreign Travel: Hamas in Gaza occasionally enforced movement restrictions on Palestinians attempting to exit Gaza to Israel via the Erez Crossing and to Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. Palestinians returning to Gaza were regularly subject to Hamas interrogations regarding their activities in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.
After the PA’s May 20 decision to end security coordination with Israel, Gazans were not able to get advanced medical care outside of Gaza for several weeks. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the ICRC filled the gap temporarily then ceded the coordination role to the World Health Organization until coordination resumed.
Citing security concerns, Israeli authorities often denied or did not respond to Palestinian applications for travel permits through the Erez Crossing, including patients seeking medical care unavailable inside Gaza. Israeli authorities largely limited entry and exit from Gaza at the Erez Crossing to humanitarian cases and limited permits to businesspersons and day laborers working in Israel. These limitations prevented some Palestinians from transiting to Jerusalem for visa interviews; to Jordan (often for onward travel) via the Allenby Bridge; and to the West Bank for work or education. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated there were no new restrictions on items that could be brought through Erez into Israel, but Gazans reported additional restrictions, including not being allowed to carry cell phone chargers or more than one pair of shoes.
The Israeli government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report that as of October 28 the Israeli government had revoked 17 residency permits in Jerusalem on the grounds of regulation 11A of Israel’s Entry Regulations, regarding individuals who stayed outside of Israel for more than 7 years or have acquired Citizenship/ Permanent Residence Status outside of Israel. Some Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status, but the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintain an “affinity to Israel” would not be revoked and that former residents who wished to return to Israel could receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Palestinians possessing residency permits issued by the Israeli government but no PA or Jordanian identity document needed special documents to travel abroad.
During the year the Israeli Supreme Court continued to uphold, with few exceptions, the ban imposed in 2000 on students from Gaza attending West Bank universities. Students in Gaza generally did not apply to West Bank universities because they understood Israeli authorities would deny permits or could revoke them during the school year.
Delays in permit approvals by Israeli officials caused some Palestinians to miss the travel dates for exchange programs abroad and matriculation in foreign universities. In some cases authorities asked students to submit to security interviews prior to receiving permits. Israeli authorities detained some students indefinitely without charge following their security interview, which caused other students to refuse to attend these interviews due to fear of being detained.
According to Gisha, Israeli authorities denied some exit permit applications by residents of Gaza on the grounds that the applicants were “first-degree relative[s] [of] a Hamas operative.” UNOCHA reported that some of their staff members were denied exit permits out of Gaza because UNOCHA coordinates with Hamas as the de facto government in Gaza to facilitate the entry, exit, and transportation of UN personnel.
According to the United Nations, 1,001 persons were displaced in the West Bank and East Jerusalem due to demolitions.
UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations provided services to IDPs in Gaza and the West Bank, with some limitations due to Israeli restrictions on movement and border access.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Israeli security operations in the West Bank led to three fatalities of Palestinian UNRWA beneficiaries, one of whom was killed while reportedly conducting an attack on ISF or Israeli civilians. ISF conducted an estimated 560 operations in West Bank refugee camps, injuring 180 Palestinians, according to the UN. Of these injuries, 43 persons, including eight minors, were injured with live ammunition, the United Nations reported. Israeli authorities demolished 220 structures belonging to UNRWA beneficiaries, which resulted in the displacement of 287 refugees, according to the UN.
In July 2019 the most recent fatality in the Deheisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem occurred when ISF shot and killed 14-year-old Arkan Thaer Mizher. According to the Israeli government, the investigation has concluded and the MAG was reviewing the findings.
UNRWA provided education, health care, and social services in areas of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza; however, the agency continued to experience funding shortfalls throughout the year that caused temporary delays in salary payments to staff. A 2019 UN Office of Internal Oversight Services investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement by UNRWA’s senior management team found no evidence of fraud or misuse of donor funds, although it did highlight mismanagement and significant shortcomings in human resources and accountability mechanisms. UNRWA stated it would continue to prioritize a series of management initiatives to address concerns regarding transparency, accountability, and inclusive decision making at the agency.
Access to Asylum: Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left these persons, who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution, vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) Palestinians were able to obtain a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel without authorization to work or access to social services from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), but. A Supreme Court petition by NGOs demanding these rights was pending as of the year’s end. According to UNHCR, prior to the issuance of permits, COGAT requested proof of efforts to resettle in a third country. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis. Following a HIAS administrative petition, on March 1, PIBA launched a program that allowed Palestinians recognized as trafficking victims to work in Israel.
Access to Basic Services: Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza were eligible to access UNRWA schools and primary health care clinics, although in some cases, movement restrictions limited access to UNRWA services and resources in the West Bank (see section 1.d.).
All UNRWA projects in the West Bank and Gaza required Israeli government permits, but UNRWA does not apply for permits in refugee camps.
Socioeconomic conditions in Gaza severely affected refugees. UNRWA reported that food security continued to be at risk. In March, UNRWA temporarily suspended food distribution at its official distribution centers to avoid spreading COVID-19 but began door-to-door delivery as an alternative soon afterwards.
Israeli import restrictions on certain commodities considered as dual use continued to impede humanitarian operations in Gaza, including those directed toward refugees. In 2016 Israeli authorities introduced a requirement whereby approval of UNRWA projects remained valid for only one year. As project implementation timelines often exceeded one year, this requirement necessitated applications for reapproval of projects, which hampered implementation and increased transaction costs for multiple UNRWA projects.
According to NGOs, 40,000 to 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza lacked identification cards recognized by Israel. Some were born in Gaza but never recognized by Israel as residents; some fled Gaza during the 1967 war; and some left Gaza for various reasons after 1967 but later returned. A small number lacking recognized identification cards were born in Gaza and never left but had only Hamas-issued identification cards. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA administers the Palestinian Population Registry, although status changes in the registry require Israeli government approval. The Israeli government has not processed changes to the registry since 2000.
The PA’s decision to suspend civil and security coordination with Israel caused travel and work disruptions for many Palestinians and left multiple gaps in processes for obtaining work and medical travel permits and other documents. Between May and November, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry did not transfer population registry updates to Israel’s Civil Administration reflecting births, deaths, or passport and ID card numbers. Without this information, Israel did not recognize PA identity cards issued during the suspension. COGAT confirmed that without accurate and updated records in Israeli databases, Israeli authorities cannot process Palestinians’ movement in and out of the West Bank and Gaza.
There was no process for foreign spouses or foreign-born children of Palestinians to obtain permanent legal status in the West Bank. As a result many Palestinian children and young adults, especially those born abroad, are without legal status in the region where they have spent most or all of their lives. In 2019 a court granted Maen Abu Hafez a one-year visitor’s permit to stay in the West Bank, which expired during the year, and his renewal request was rejected. HaMoked requested a renewal on his behalf, but he remained without legal status in the interim. Abu Hafez reportedly lived in the Jenin refugee camp since he was three, when he moved there with his Palestinian father and Uruguayan mother. His family reunification request has been on hold for several years. In 2017 he was detained at a checkpoint and was held for more than two and a half years in an Israeli prison in Ramle. The Israeli government sought to deport him to Brazil, where he was born, although he has no ties there and does not speak Portuguese.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press “within the limits of the law,” the law calls for journalists to uphold national unity and prohibits criticism of the head of state. The Houthis did not respect the rights as provided in the constitution, and the government was unable to enforce them.
Freedom of Speech: All parties to the conflict severely restricted the right to freedom of expression. Female human rights defenders, journalists, and activists faced specific repression on the basis of gender. Local human rights defenders faced harassment, threats, and smear campaigns from the government, Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi forces. Freedom House reported that freedom of personal expression and private discussion remained severely limited as a result of intimidation by armed groups and unchecked surveillance by the Houthi authorities. In multiple instances Houthis went to the homes of activists, journalists, and political leaders opposed to the Houthis and used the threat of arrest and other means to intimidate perceived opponents and to silence dissent.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Prior to the outbreak of conflict, the transitional government approved legislation to regulate broadcasting and television channels. A number of domestic private radio and television stations operated under media production company permits, and several stations broadcast from abroad for domestic audiences.
Violence and Harassment: The government was unable to take any substantive steps to protect journalists from violence and harassment. Progovernment popular resistance forces, Houthis, and tribal militias were responsible for a range of abuses against media outlets.
The UN Group of Experts reported that the Houthis arbitrarily detained journalists and human rights defenders in Sana’a prisons, such as Sana’a Central Prison, unofficial facilities like the security and intelligence detention center, and in secret detention facilities, including former residential buildings in and around Sana’a.
Reporters Without Borders reported that photographer Abdullah Bukeir, who was arrested and detained in a ROYG-controlled facility in April, began a hunger strike and by June was hospitalized because of his condition. As of December, he remained in detention.
Amnesty International reported in July that the Houthis had detained 10 journalists since 2015 on false charges, subjected them to torture and other forms of abuse, and sentenced four of them–Akram al-Walidi, Abdelkhaleq Amran, Hareth Hamid, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri–to death in April for espionage (see section 1.d, Arbitrary Arrest or Detention.). The journalists reportedly suffered from a range of medical problems while in detention.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Houthis controlled several state ministries responsible for press and communications, including the Ministry of Telecommunications. In that capacity they selected items for formerly government-run broadcast and print media and did not allow reports critical of themselves. The Ministry of Telecommunications and internet service providers reportedly blocked websites and domains that authorities deemed critical of the Houthi agenda. The OHCHR reported Houthi forces censored television channels and banned newspapers from publication.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes criticism of the “person of the head of state”; the publication of “false information” that may spread “dissent and division among the people”; materials that may lead to “the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni revolution”; and “false stories intended to damage Arab and friendly countries or their relations.” There was no information during the year whether the ROYG or the Houthis used these laws to restrict public discussion or retaliate against journalists or political opponents.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental actors inhibited freedom of expression, including for members of the press. The OHCHR reported that since the start of the conflict in March 2015 there were 357 human rights abuses against journalists, including 28 killings, two enforced disappearances, one abduction, 45 physical assaults, and 184 arbitrary arrests and detentions. These abuses were committed by both government authorities and nonstate actors.
Censorship affected internet freedom, and there were notable cases of Houthi intrusion into cyberspace. The Houthi-controlled Public Telecommunications Corporation systematically blocked user access to websites and internet domains it deemed dangerous to their political agenda.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The NSB maintained permanent offices on campuses, reflecting continued government concern regarding security and, in some cases, controversial speech. Partisan officials at the Ministry of Higher Education and academic institutions reviewed prospective university professors and administrators for political acceptability before hiring them and commonly showed favoritism toward supporters of specific political parties. There were no reported instances of censored curriculums or sanctioned professors or students; however, after their takeover, Houthi and other actors’ incursions onto campuses and detentions of academics appeared designed to intimidate perceived opponents.
Scholars at Risk (SAR) reported that armed groups, mostly Houthi forces, targeted individual students, faculty, and university administrators over perceived disloyalty to a particular armed group. The Houthis subjected scholars and students to a number of academic reforms aimed at bolstering Houthi influence and quashing opposition. The reforms include the imposition of lectures and apparently politicized courses developed by the Houthis. Students have reportedly been required to study speeches and sermons by Houthi military leaders. One scholar in exile told SAR that Houthi forces have required faculty to attend lectures on the group’s ideology.
On January 25, Houthi militants arrested Hamid Aqlan, president of the Sana’a-based University of Science and Technology, along with one of his administrative colleagues. The Houthis reportedly charged Aqlan with “aiding aggression” based on accusations that he smuggled the university’s financial and electronic records, including those of the university hospital, to the private university’s owners in Aden. Aqlan was brought to an undisclosed location where Houthi soldiers denied him contact with family and colleagues. The day of his arrest, the Houthis announced the appointment of a new president, Adel al-Mutawakkil, whom the ROYG identified as a supporter of the Houthis. On February 2, Houthi forces released Aqlan; however, they detained him again on February 11 at a checkpoint in Ibb governorate, along with his brother and three other companions. On March 4, Aqlan was charged with “falsifying a personal identity.” While his companions were released, Aqlan remained in custody at year’s end.
On February 2, armed Houthi forces raided a Sana’a University lecture hall and assaulted sociology professor Ali Baalawi, apparently for allegedly criticizing the appointment of a military commander’s relative as dean of the Faculty of Arts, despite lacking the appropriate qualifications. Baalawi was promptly removed from campus and reportedly barred from returning to the university.
On May 19, Houthi forces detained Hodeidah University faculty member Wadih al-Sharjabi, apparently for social media commentary critical of the Houthi militia. Al-Sharjabi, a communications lecturer, had reportedly demanded over Facebook that the militia release several university students who were arrested for allegedly fighting alongside state armed forces.
SAR also documented Houthi activities to deter campus activities the Houthis found objectionable. On February 2, Houthi soldiers and a number of pro-Houthi student informants shut down an academic competition hosted at the University of Ibb that they claimed was “immoral” and did not have their advance approval.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but these rights were not respected in the majority of the country, i.e., areas that the ROYG did not control.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly. The Houthis and their affiliates responded to demonstrations and protests in various parts of the country with excessive force. SAR reported that in March students at the University of Science and Technology in Sana’a allegedly received threatening letters after holding a peaceful campus protest against the Houthi occupation of the university and the continued detention of the university’s former president Dr. Hamid Aqlan (see section 2.a, Freedom of Expression–Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
While the law provides for freedom of association, there were reports the Houthis harassed and detained activists and shut down NGOs. Houthi authorities closed numerous NGOs during the year without proper due process, citing treason or conspiring with foreign powers. Houthi authorities created the Executive Office for Monitoring Operations of International Organizations to oversee the work of NGOs and reportedly police NGO activity. Several NGOs originally based in Sana’a moved to Aden or other cities in government-controlled areas, or abroad.
The law regulates associations and foundations and outlines the establishment and activities of NGOs. Authorities required annual registration. The law exempts registered NGOs from taxes and tariffs and requires the government to provide a reason for denying an NGO registration, such as deeming an NGO’s activities “detrimental” to the state. It forbids NGO involvement in political or religious activities. It permits foreign funding of NGOs. The law requires government observation of NGO internal elections. There were no known attempts by NGOs to register during the year.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however there were many restrictions on these freedoms.
In-country Movement: Rebel forces, resistance forces, security forces, and tribes maintained checkpoints on major roads. In many regions, especially in areas outside effective central security control, armed tribesmen frequently restricted freedom of movement, operated their own checkpoints, sometimes with military or other security officials, and often subjected travelers to physical harassment, extortion, theft, or short-term kidnappings for ransom. Damage to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure from the conflict also hindered the delivery of humanitarian aid and commercial shipments (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Women in general did not enjoy full freedom of movement, although restrictions varied by location. Oxfam reported that in areas controlled by radical Islamic groups such as AQAP, men at checkpoints increasingly insisted on adherence to the mahram system, the cultural obligation of women to be accompanied by male relatives in public. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that harassment at checkpoints of women and girls not accompanied by a male, as well as inability to afford transport, hampered women’s ability to reach health, nutrition, and other services.
The Houthis banned the mixing of genders in cafes unless the couple had children or carried a marriage certificate.
Local observers reported individuals from Houthi-controlled areas faced increasing discrimination and difficulties when traveling in the southern portion of the country.
Foreign Travel: The Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 and the government relocation to Aden in 2015 left no official government authority in control of Sana’a airport customs or immigration functions. In 2016 the coalition closed Sana’a International Airport to commercial traffic, permitting only UN humanitarian flights, thereby preventing thousands of local citizens from traveling abroad. Those who needed to leave the country attempted alternative routes that required long journeys across active front lines at high risk and cost.
The closure of airports and land borders as a result of COVID-19 further complicated international travel. In September the Houthi authorities temporarily closed Sana’a airport to UN flights.
In the past women needed the permission of a male guardian, such as a husband, before applying for a passport or leaving the country. A husband or male relative could bar a woman from leaving the country by placing a woman’s name on a “no-fly list” maintained at airports. Prior to the conflict, authorities strictly enforced this requirement when women traveled with children, but there were no reports of government authorities enforcing this requirement during the year. There were attempts, however, by the Houthis to impose similar restrictions on women’s international travel. In view of the deterioration of infrastructure and lack of security due to the conflict, many women reportedly declined to travel alone (see section 6, Women).
Prior to 2014 the transitional government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees (see section 2.f, Protection of Refugees), returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
The Houthi takeover, coalition airstrikes, and active fighting made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to reach many areas of the country due to security concerns (see section 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict–Other Conflict-related Abuse).
UNHCR reported in September that more than 156,000 additional persons had been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, and further displacement occurred during increased fighting in Ma’rib. Close to one million IDPs were living in more than 1,600 IDP sites in deplorable conditions; UNHCR and its partners had access to 660 of those sites to provide assistance.
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations reported in March that heavy fighting in al-Hazm caused massive secondary and tertiary displacements of IDPs towards Ma’rib. An estimated 1,800 households reportedly fled the area as fighting escalated and more than 2,100 IDPs had already reached Ma’rib.
In April, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Lowcock said that 60,000 persons had fled conflict in al-Jawf since January, most of them arriving in Ma’rib.
UNHCR declared in July that up to 670 IDP families had been newly displaced in Abyan due to recent clashes between STC and ROYG forces.
In August the Executive Unit for the Management of IDPs in Ma’rib reported the displacement of 1,580 families from their homes and displacement camps due to military operations launched by Houthi rebels in the Medghal district of Ma’rib.
According to UNHCR, summer flooding temporarily displaced an additional 300,000 individuals, some of whom were already living in IDP camps. The worst hit areas were Ma’rib, Amran, Hajjah, Hudaydah, Ta’iz, Lahj, Aden, and Abyan governorates, where floods killed more than 150 persons.
Humanitarian organizations’ access to IDPs and other vulnerable populations was generally limited and unpredictable due to the continuing conflict; however, many humanitarian organizations maintained a presence in multiple locations. According to the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, local NGOs, and charities that still functioned in the capital supported IDPs and other conflict-affected persons in Sana’a and other parts of the country with food, shelter, nonfood items, and other support. IDPs from Sa’ada reported limited access to cash for purchasing basic household items. COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges of reaching IDPs.
NGOs reported shelter continued to be a primary concern for IDPs. The IOM reported IDPs largely sought refuge with relatives or friends, or rented accommodations where many faced frequent threats of eviction due to late rent payments. Others were held in unconventional shelters in public or private buildings such as schools, health facilities, or religious buildings, primarily in Ta’iz and Lahj. The shifting nature of the conflict displaced many IDPs multiple times as the front lines of the conflict changed, requiring individuals to seek new shelter with every subsequent displacement.
The IOM reported that new arrivals of migrants declined significantly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Between January and September, the IOM recorded somewhat more than 33,000 arrivals, compared to more than 84,000 during the same period in 2019.
The country received refugees from a variety of countries. Many refugees became increasingly vulnerable due to the worsening security and economic situation in the country. Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants shared in the general poverty and insecurity of the country.
According to UNHCR, there were 283,898 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of August, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia. Many were attempting to reach or return to Saudi Arabia for work and had entered the country based on false information from smugglers that the conflict in the country was over, according to UNHCR and the IOM. Many took refuge at the Kharaz refugee camp and towns in the south. The ROYG could not provide physical protection to refugees or migrants; many were held in detention centers operated by the Houthis in the north and by the government in the south. UNHCR and other organizations stated there were reports of refugees and migrants facing physical and sexual abuse, torture, and forced labor in both Houthi and ROYG-controlled facilities, and that many refugees and migrants were vulnerable to human trafficking.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to the IOM, migrants in the country continued to face egregious forms of abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, abduction for ransom, forced labor, and physical violence. The IOM considered women and girls to be particularly vulnerable and more likely to be trafficked and exposed to sexual abuse. The OHCHR reported that UAE-supported Security Belt Forces (SBF) committed rape and other forms of serious sexual violence targeting foreign migrants and other vulnerable groups (see section 1.c, Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict.).
These risks were compounded by armed hostilities concentrated around Shabwah, Abyan, al-Bayda, al-Jawf, Ma’rib, and Sa’ada governorates, and by internal movement restrictions due to COVID-19. These factors resulted in more migrants becoming stranded or trapped for longer periods in areas without assistance and at risk of being injured or killed, according to the IOM. Multiple NGOs and media reported that criminal smuggling groups built a large number of “camps” near the Yemen-Saudi border city of Haradh and in other parts of the country, where militants held migrants for extortion and ransom.
The UN Department of Economic Affairs reported there were 385,600 migrants, including women and children, as of mid-2019. The IOM estimated that more than 14,500 migrants were stranded in August because of the COVID-19 border closures in Aden, Ma’rib, Lahj, and Sa’ada governorates. Through the end of July, the IOM assisted in the return of 946 migrants from the country.
Authorities in both the north and south of the country often detained migrants. According to the IOM, migrants in detention who could afford to pay for their release were reportedly loaded on trucks and moved to other governorates where they were left in secluded areas, on the outskirts of towns, or forcibly transferred to the Sana’a Immigration, Passport, and Naturalization Authority facility. In the north, from April to June, Houthi authorities arrested and relocated 1,500 migrants to the south. The IOM estimated that approximately 5,000 migrants were living in Aden on the streets.
The IOM reported both the ROYG and Houthis detained migrants due to concerns the migrants could be recruited by the other party, and to scapegoat migrants for being carriers of COVID-19. UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations faced challenges accessing detention centers to monitor detained refugees and asylum seekers.
While the government generally deported migrants back to their country of origin, the Houthis frequently detained migrants for indefinite periods.
HRW and the IOM reported overcrowding in detention facilities, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse, with detainees showing signs of sores and festering wounds.
According to local authorities, 390 migrants were relocated from detention centers in Houthi-controlled areas to al-Jawf, and from mid-April to mid-May, 486 were moved to Ta’iz. The Houthis reportedly left at least 20,000 migrants stranded along the border with Saudi Arabia. As of June, approximately 7,000 migrants were reportedly still on the Saudi-Yemen border.
The IOM reported in September that an estimated 4,000 or more migrants in Ma’rib were stranded across the governorate, with many of them having lived there for more than six months, unable to continue their journey northwards due to movement restrictions along the main roads. In addition, more than 500 migrants were under risk of eviction in Ma’rib due to a lack of acceptance from the local community.
HRW reported that in April, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from Sa’ada in the northern part of the country. The Houthi forces described the migrants as “coronavirus carriers,” killing dozens and forcing them to the Saudi border. Saudi border guards reportedly fired on the migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia).
From January 1 through July 31, the IOM reported that 13,416 citizens returned to the country from Saudi Arabia and 366 from the Horn of Africa.
According to reports, the head of the militia that previously detained refugees at the Bureiqa migrant detention center was arrested and all refugees were released.
Access to Asylum: No law addresses the granting of refugee status or asylum, and there was no system for providing protection to asylum seekers. In past years the government provided automatic refugee status to Somalis who entered the country. The Houthis attempted to take over the refugee status determination process in areas under their control, leading many refugees to have lapsed documentation. Houthi armed groups arbitrarily detained migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in multiple facilities in Houthi-controlled territories. UNHCR was generally able to access populations to provide assistance and was working with the Houthis to come to a resolution on registration of refugees. UNHCR continued to conduct refugee status determinations in southern territory under ROYG control, in coordination with the government.
Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement was difficult for all persons in the country, including refugees, in view of the damage to roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure, and COVID-19 travel restrictions. Most of the country’s airports had significant damage or were closed to commercial traffic, making air travel difficult for all, including refugees. In areas controlled by Houthis, unofficial checkpoints blocked and delayed the movement of individuals and goods.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees lacked access to basic services due to the continuing conflict. The United Nations estimated only approximately half of the country’s public-health facilities remained functional during the year. Many were closed due to damage caused by the conflict, some were destroyed, and all facilities faced shortages in supplies, including medications and fuel to run generators.