China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued to impose ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics such as public health.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens could discuss some political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP or criticized President Xi’s leadership. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Many others confirmed authorities regularly warned them against meeting with foreign reporters or diplomats, and to avoid participating in diplomatic receptions or public programs organized by foreign entities.
Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media, or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures, as did members of their family. In addition an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities. An increasing threat of peer-to-peer observation and possible referral to authorities further eroded freedom of speech.
In January the China Independent Film Festival, established in Nanjing in 2003, abruptly suspended operations, citing challenges to its editorial independence. Over its history the festival shared documentaries that addressed topics the authorities considered politically sensitive, including the forced relocation of local communities for largescale development projects.
In April authorities sentenced Chen Jieren, an anticorruption blogger, to 15 years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” extortion, blackmail, and bribery. Chen, a former state media journalist, was detained in 2018 after he accused several Hunan party officials of corruption in his personal blog.
On September 22, a Beijing court sentenced outspoken CCP critic Ren Zhiqiang to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine of more than four million renminbi ($600,000) for his convictions on multiple charges including corruption, bribery, embezzlement of funds, and abuse of power by a state-owned enterprise official. In February, Ren published an essay online criticizing the CCP’s COVID-19 response. While not mentioning President Xi by name, Ren wrote that he saw “a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being called emperor.” Ren was detained in March. His case was largely viewed not as a corruption case, but as a crackdown for his critical public comments against Xi.
Authorities arrested or detained countless citizens for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on public health concerns, including COVID-19. From January 1 to March 26 alone, NGO China Human Rights Defenders documented 897 cases of Chinese internet users targeted by police for their information sharing or online comments related to COVID-19. Based on research conducted by China Digital Times, during the same period authorities charged 484 persons with criminal acts for making public comments about the COVID-19 crisis.
This trend remained particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government imposed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped Muslims and members of non-Han ethnic minorities and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate.
During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists.
Numerous ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
The government sought to limit freedom of speech in online gaming platforms. The popular Chinese-made online game Genshin Impact censored the words “Taiwan” and “Hong Kong” among others in its in-game chat program. Users noted the program’s censorship covered all users, regardless of the country of citizenship or where the game was being played.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all. The government’s propaganda department issued daily guidance on what topics should be promoted in all media outlets and how those topics should be covered. Chinese reporters working for private media companies confirmed increased pressure to conform to government requirements on story selection and content.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) directly manages internet content, including online news media, and promotes CCP propaganda. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The CCP continued to monitor and control the use of non-Mandarin languages in all media within the country. In April live streamers working in the southern part of the country accused Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, of suspending users who spoke Cantonese on its livestreaming platform. One user who regularly used Cantonese in his livestream programs said he had received three short suspensions for “using language that cannot be recognized.” He noted the app included automatic guidelines prompting users to speak Mandarin “as much as possible.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over technologies such as livestreaming and continued to pressure on digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the CCP does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories.
Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, and his colleague Ke Chengbing remained in detention on charges of “picking quarrels.” Detained in March 2019, as of March 19, Wei had not been allowed to meet with his lawyer. An NGO reported that authorities installed surveillance cameras at the home of Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan.
In June after two years in custody, Chongqing entrepreneur Li Huaiqing went on trial for “inciting subversion of state power;” a verdict had not been announced by year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. Dozens of Uyghur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
Restrictions on domestic and foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments increased significantly.
Journalists faced the threat of demotion or dismissal for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. During the year the scope of censorship expanded significantly with several Chinese journalists noting “an atmosphere of debilitating paranoia.” For example, long-standing journalist contacts declined off-the-record conversations, even about nonsensitive topics. In one case, a reporter noted a fear of talking to foreign journalists and said that journalists and editors were even frightened to talk to one another. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media. The government also silenced numerous independent journalists by quarantining them under the guise of pandemic response.
In December, Bloomberg reporter Haze Fan was arrested at her apartment complex on suspicion of “endangering national security.” Details surrounding the reasons for her arrest were unclear at year’s end.
In June, Lu Yuyu, founder of the blog Not News, was released from prison after four years following a 2017 conviction for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an ill-defined offense regularly used to target journalists. According to testimony he provided the Committee to Protect Journalists, Lu was seriously beaten twice while incarcerated. Lu said that while in the Dali City detention center he was regularly taken to a special interrogation room, tied to a tiger chair to immobilize his arms and legs, and then shown videos of other persons’ confessions. On one occasion he said he was placed in shackles and handcuffs and then beaten in his cell by at least two guards.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China’s annual report on media freedoms found 82 percent of surveyed correspondents said they experienced interference, harassment, or violence while reporting; 70 percent reported the cancellation or withdrawal of interviews, which they knew or believed to be due to actions taken by the authorities; 25 percent were aware of sources being harassed, detained, called in for questioning, or otherwise suffering negative consequences for interacting with a foreign journalist; and 51 percent said they were obstructed at least once by police or other officials.
In February authorities expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters. In March the government designated the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Voice of America as foreign missions, forcing all three to report details to the government about their staffing, finances, and operations within the country. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club described the use of press accreditation as the most brazen attempt in the post-Mao era to influence foreign news organizations and to punish those whose work the government deems unacceptable.
Authorities used the visa renewal process to challenge journalists and force additional foreign reporters out of the country. In May officials refused to renew a work permit for a New York Times correspondent, who was then forced to leave the country. In September a Washington Post correspondent departed voluntarily, but authorities declined to issue a new work permit for her successor, leaving the Post without a single reporter in the country.
In late August, Chinese authorities stopped renewing press credentials for journalists regardless of nationality working at U.S. news organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead issued letters in lieu of press cards that it warned could be revoked at any time.
Local employees working for foreign press outlets reported increased harassment and intimidation, in addition to authorities’ continued tight enforcement of restrictions on these employees. Foreign news bureaus are prohibited by law from directly hiring Chinese citizens as employees and must rely on personnel hired by the Personnel Service Corporation, affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The code of conduct threatens dismissal and loss of accreditation for those citizen employees who engage in independent reporting. It instructs them to provide their employers information that projects “a good image of the country.” Previously, media outlets reported they were able to hire local staff but had to clear them with government officials. More recently, they said, all hiring must be preapproved and new staff were wary of taking on responsibilities that might be considered politically sensitive, limiting their portfolios and contributions.
In March the Beijing Personnel Service Corporation for Diplomatic Missions ordered the dismissal of at least seven Chinese nationals who worked at U.S. news organizations in Beijing.
According to a foreign reporter, one of his drivers was briefly separated from his car and authorities planted a listening device in his clothing and ordered him to monitor the reporter’s conversations during a trip to Inner Mongolia. On a reporting trip to Inner Mongolia, a different foreign reporter was detained for more than four hours. During the reporter’s detention, one officer grabbed her by the throat with both hands and pushed her into a cell even after she identified herself as an accredited journalist.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the 2019 Foreign Correspondents’ Club report, 94 percent of reporters who traveled to Xinjiang were prevented from accessing locations. Reporters documented cases of staged traffic accidents, road blockages, hotel closures, and cyberattacks. Nearly all foreign journalists reported constant surveillance while they worked in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Reporters noted local contacts warned them any resident seen talking to foreigners would almost certainly be detained, interrogated, or sent to a “re-education camp.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Regulations grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties.
The government sought to exercise complete control over public and private commentary regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, undermining local and international efforts to report on the virus’s spread. COVID-19 information on Chinese social media was closely guarded from the outbreak’s earliest manifestation. Beginning on December 31, 2019, and continuing into 2020, the popular livestreaming and messaging platforms WeChat and YY imposed new censorship protocols, including on words related to the virus causing COVID-19, SARS, and potential disease vectors. On January 2, PRC state media aggressively highlighted the detention of eight doctors in Wuhan who warned about new virus reports via social media in late December, including Dr. Li Wenliang. Li, who later died from the virus, was condemned for “making false statements” on the Internet and was forced to write a self-criticism saying his warnings “had a negative impact.” Top national television news program Xinwen Lianbo reported the detentions while Xinhua published a call from Wuhan police for “all netizens to not fabricate rumors, not spread rumors, not believe rumors.” On January 14, plainclothes police detained journalists trying to report from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital and forced them to delete their television footage and hand in phones and cameras for inspection.
On February 2, government authorities told media outlets not to publish negative coronavirus-related articles. On February 6, the government tightened controls on social media platforms following a Xi Jinping directive to strengthen online media control to maintain social stability. On the same day, citizen journalist and former rights lawyer Chen Qiushi disappeared in Wuhan after posting mobile-phone videos of packed hospitals and distraught families. On February 9, citizen journalist and local businessman Fang Bin disappeared after posting videos from Wuhan that circulated widely on Chinese social media. On February 15, activist Xu Zhiyong was arrested after publishing a February 4 essay calling on Xi Jinping to step down for suppressing information about the virus. On February 16, Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest, barred from social media, and cut off from the Internet after publishing an essay declaring, “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” On February 26, citizen journalist Li Zehua, who quit his job at state broadcaster CCTV to report independently from Wuhan, was detained. With security officers at his door, Li recorded a video testament to free speech, truth, and the memory of the Tiananmen movement.
In March, Renwu magazine published an interview with a frontline doctor that included allegations the outbreak started in December but that officials warned doctors not to share information about the virus. The story was deleted several hours after it went online.
In April authorities charged three persons with the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for their volunteer work with the “Terminus 2049” project, which republishes social media and news reports likely to be censored by the government, including coronavirus outbreak pieces.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon character on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent Xi. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films were subject to government censorship. The CCP issued a series of internal notices calling for films to highlight Chinese culture and values and promote the country’s successful growth. The popular World War Two historical drama The Eight Hundred, released in August, was originally scheduled for release in July 2019 but was abruptly pulled from distribution after censors noted the movie’s heroes rallied around the historically accurate Republic of China flag, which is still in use as the flag of Taiwan. The film was re-edited (and the flag altered) before the August release.
Foreign movies shown in the country were also subject to censorship. In December authorities ordered theaters to stop showing the fantasy action movie Monster Hunter after one day because of a short scene where soldiers made a joke involving the English-language words “knees” and “Chinese.” The movie remained banned even after the German producers apologized and deleted the scene. In September before its release in the country, domestic media outlets were ordered not to cover the new movie Mulan.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects, including for example portions of the U.S. vice-presidential debate when China was a topic of discussion.
Government regulations restrict and limit public access to foreign television shows, which are banned during primetime, and local streamers had to limit the foreign portion of their program libraries to less than 30 percent.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
Media reported in May that Chongqing announced a reward of up to 600,000 renminbi ($90,000) for reporting cases concerning imported illegal overseas publications.
Media reported in June that authorities in many rural counties, such as Libo County in Guizhou Province, were cracking down on “politically harmful publications.”
After schools reopened following the COVID-19 outbreak, school libraries in at least 30 provinces and municipalities expunged many titles from their libraries. Government officials ordered school officials to remove books according to a 2019 directive that sought to eliminate any books in school libraries that challenged the “unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory, books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear, or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.”
Authorities often justified restrictions on expression on national security protection grounds. In particular government leaders cited the threat of terrorism to justify restricting freedom of expression by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, government censors stifled online discussions of the virus. According to Citizen Lab research, between January and May, authorities suppressed more than 2,000 key words related to the pandemic on the messaging platform Wechat, which had an estimated one billion users in the country.
In January and February, authorities censored and otherwise attempted to control online references to Li Wenliang, a local doctor who first raised concerns regarding the outbreak with his colleagues. Li died on February 7, triggering widespread nationwide reactions on social media referring to him as a “whistleblower,” “hero,” and “martyr” for his attempts to warn his colleagues of a “SARS-like virus” as he treated patients in Wuhan. Upon his death, national authorities sent officials from the anticorruption agency National Supervisory Commission to investigate “issues related to Dr. Li Wenliang.” Official media released on March 19 investigation results that acknowledged a police “reprimand letter” issued to Li for his “SARS-related messages in a WeChat group.” The March 19 report called the reprimand letter “inappropriate” while also saying “some hostile forces, aiming to attack the CPC and the Chinese government,” had given Li “untrue” labels.
WeChat similarly blocked private discussions alluding to reports that government officials had allegedly informed foreign governments about the pandemic before they said anything to their own citizens. By March, WeChat began censoring and controlling references to international medical organizations, including the Red Cross and the World Health Organization. During the same period, internet company JOYY Inc.’s video streaming app YY blocked phrases that included any criticism of President Xi or the country’s pandemic response.
On February 3, Xi Jinping told local authorities to ensure the internet is “always filled with positive energy” as part of epidemic prevention efforts. Local authorities issued complementary directives warning citizens not to post information that ran counter to CCP information related to COVID-19 on any social media platforms, including in private messaging groups.
On March 23, Nanjing Normal University’s School of Journalism and Communication published a report estimating more than 40 credible news reports referencing the outbreak published by mainstream Chinese outlets had disappeared since January 23.
Domestic internet authorities led by the Cybersecurity Defense Bureau targeted individuals accused of defaming the government online, whether in public or private messages. Media reports detailed individual cases of police detaining citizens who were identified via search engines. Victims were frequently questioned for hours until they agreed to sign letters admitting their guilt and promising to refrain from “antisocial” behavior. In several cases citizens told reporters that police warned suspects their children could be targeted for their parents’ crimes.
The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to communicate freely.
The Cybersecurity Law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and it criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
CAC regulations require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature reflects government positions and priorities. These regulations extend long-standing traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.
The government expanded its list of foreign websites blocked in the country, which included several thousand individual websites and businesses. Many major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and the Economist, as well as websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Authorities blocked many other websites and applications, including but not limited to Google, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Authorities also blocked access to scores of foreign university websites.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as the 2019-20 Hong Kong prodemocracy protests, Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users in the country, including government and party officials and prominent journalists and media figures. During the year individuals reported that authorities forced them to give security personnel access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their posts.
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On April 22, prominent blogger Liu Yanli was sentenced to four years in prison by Dongbao District Court in Jingmen City, Hubei Province, on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” During her trial the court cited 28 social media posts and articles penned by Liu that criticized past and current Chinese leaders, decried widespread corruption and lack of transparency, demanded protection for military veterans, and called for democratic reform.
Online references to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned based on a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts or relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction.
While censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting content deemed sensitive, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as the Ministry of Public Security and law enforcement authorities.
The government continued to restrict academic and artistic freedom and political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities scrutinized the content of cultural events and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, and civil society) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, and Deng Xiaoping thought. The government’s most recent publicly available education planning document, Education Modernization Plan 2035, specifies 10 strategic tasks, the first being to study Xi Jinping thought, implement it throughout the education system, including at primary and secondary education levels, and strengthen political thought education in institutes of higher education. In October the Ministry of Education ordered 37 of the country’s top universities to offer courses about Xi Jinping’s political theories and to require all students to take the courses.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with CCP thought. In July, Beijing police detained Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun for six days as they investigated him for alleged solicitation of prostitutes in Chengdu in December 2019. Authorities also detained, but did not release, Xu’s publisher Geng Xiaonan and her husband Qin Zhen. Police were investigating Geng for “illegal business operations” ostensibly related to her private publishing business. Observers and Professor Xu’s close associates believed the prostitution charge was fabricated so police could punish him for expressing opinions criticizing the CCP and national leaders. These observers also believed Geng was being punished for publicly supporting Xu after his detention.
In November media reported a growing number of professors being penalized after having been reported by classroom informants for making statements or sharing views perceived as challenging CCP official narratives. For example, a renowned historian was delivering a live-streamed speech at an academic seminar on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union when an hour into the lecture, the feed was suddenly cut due to such a tip, according to the Beijing university that hosted the seminar.
Academics who strayed from official narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic faced increased harassment, censorship, and in some cases interventions by universities and the police. In April, Hubei University investigated a professor for her expression of support for a novelist who documented the government’s lockdown of the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first erupted. The Free to Think 2020 report released in November by Scholars at Risk noted additional examples, such as the arrest in April of Chen Zhaozhi, a retired University of Science and Technology Beijing professor. Professor Chen commented in an online debate that the coronavirus should be referred to as a “Chinese Communist Party virus” rather than a Chinese virus. According to a media report, in March a primary school teacher in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, was banned from teaching and demoted for making a “wrong” comment on COVID-19 in Wuhan.
Media reports suggested that ideological education was on the rise in primary and secondary schools. In May the Shandong provincial education bureau released a document requiring primary and middle schools to hold Children’s Day activities to instill core socialist values in students and to establish “a sense of honor and mission as communist successors.” On June 1, the Ministry of Education issued the Notice on Studying and Implementing President Xi Jinping’s Children’s Day Message to Masses of Children, urging schools to deepen students’ comprehension of “the great significance of Xi Jinping’s message.” In June schools were reportedly required by the Shandong education bureau to establish “ideological control teams” to ensure teachers did not criticize the government or its socialist system and to monitor references to religious beliefs in class.
In August the Inner Mongolia’s Department of Education announced a new program to change the language of instruction in several core elementary and secondary classes from Mongolian to Mandarin. The policy change sparked a regionwide school boycott and protests among those who viewed the program as an attempt at cultural erasure through education policy. By September 17, approximately 90 percent of student boycotters were back in school after local authorities pressured their parents. According to media reports, nine ethnic Mongolians, mostly teachers and students, committed suicide after coming under such pressure. In August the CCP stepped up moves to eliminate the Mongolian language in schools in Inner Mongolia, ordering Mongolian-language primary schools to switch to Chinese-language teaching by the third grade.
During the academic year, schools faced new prohibitions on the use of international curricula. In January the Ministry of Education announced a ban on foreign textbooks and teaching materials in primary and secondary schools. The CCP’s management of teaching materials spanned nearly all levels of education.
Foreign universities establishing joint venture academic programs in the country must establish internal CCP committees and grant decision-making power to CCP officials. Foreign teachers reported being ordered not to discuss sensitive topics in their classrooms.
Authorities on occasion blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uyghurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. For example, in response to the Hong Kong national security law passed in July, which allows PRC authorities to prosecute acts deemed to violate Chinese law wherever they occur, U.S. professors and universities proposed allowing potentially vulnerable students to opt out of classroom discussions that China might view as problematic and incorporating warning labels into class materials for similarly sensitive information. Chinese students studying abroad reported self-censoring because they understand they were being watched and reported on to the PRC even in the classroom, and U.S. professors also reported cases of suspected PRC intelligence gathering in their classes. An online PRC government portal that allows informants to report on behavior believed to harm China’s image saw a 40 percent increase in reports since October 2019.
Authorities in Xinjiang continued to disappear or detain Uyghur academics and intellectuals. Some prominent officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed still to be held in the camps or otherwise detained included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; Yalqun Rozi, writer, and Gulshan Abbas, retired doctor. Feng Siyu, a Han Chinese student of Rahile Dawut, was also detained. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all remained disappeared as of December. Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained detained on charges of “separatism;” some human rights groups reported he had been sentenced to death. Economist Ilham Tohti remained in prison, where he was serving a life sentence after his conviction on separatism-related charges in 2014. For the first time since the 1950s, a non-Uyghur was appointed to lead Xinjiang University, the top university in the autonomous region. Some observers expected this development would likely further erode Uyghur autonomy and limit Uyghurs’ academic prospects.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views. For example, police in Huizhou detained human rights activist Xiao Yuhui who had retweeted a WeChat post calling for individuals to save Hong Kong.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
Police continued to detain Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, who had both been arrested in December 2019 after they met earlier that month in Xiamen, Fujian, to organize civil society and plan nonviolent social movements in the country. They were charged with “incitement to subvert state power” and “subversion of state power;” the latter crime carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence. Authorities continued to deny the families and their lawyers access to Xu and Ding. Some others indirectly connected were detained but ultimately released during the year, such as disbarred human rights lawyer Wen Donghai and activists Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun, and Dai Zhenya. Those who fled the country did not return.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, and other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Many such events were canceled during the year due to COVID-19 controls.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by charity law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: as a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities and sponsoring included burdensome reporting requirements. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding.
According to a 2016 CCP Central Committee directive, all domestic NGOs were supposed to have a CCP cell by the beginning of the year, although implementation was not consistent. According to authorities, these CCP cells were to “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” Authorities are also to conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations or for one-time activities. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned. In November 2019 the Foreign Ministry publicly confirmed for the first time that public security authorities had investigated and penalized a foreign NGO, in this case the New York-based Asia Catalyst, for carrying out unauthorized activities; Asia Catalyst did not undertake any PRC-focused activities during the year.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the NGO law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Many government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional supervisory units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of November 2, approximately 550 foreign NGO representative offices (representing 454 distinct organizations) had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with nearly half of those focusing on industry or trade promotion activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2019, there were more than 860,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs, or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, foreign NGOs must maintain a representative office in the country to receive funds, or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict, evict, and investigate local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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, but the government regularly encroached upon this right. Although an independent press, an impartial judiciary, and unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters, human rights advocates claimed that those rights were increasingly jeopardized or already being eroded. Some SAR and Chinese central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence or self-determination.
Freedom of Speech: There were legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. In July some of the initial NSL arrests included individuals carrying stickers and signs with slogans critical of the government. In September the government charged an activist for chanting antigovernment slogans under a colonial-era sedition statute that had not been used since the SAR’s handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong activists and legal scholars raised concerns that the sedition statute is incompatible with the freedoms listed in Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, since 2016 the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates, in order to run for office, to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China. In July the commission disqualified several candidates for speech made before passage of the NSL. In November the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing issued a decision that any public or elected officials found to be engaged in “unpatriotic” behavior, including speech, would immediately be disqualified for the positions they held. The decision was applied to four sitting Legislative Council members earlier disqualified for running for re-election. The SAR government subsequently announced the four members were immediately disqualified for the remainder of the Legislative Council session. There was no judicial recourse.
In November the government announced plans to require all civil servants to swear oaths of loyalty to the SAR government and the Basic Law. Government officials began to conduct the oaths in December. According to media reports, civil servants may lose their jobs if they refuse to swear the oath and may face criminal charges, including under the NSL, if they later engage in behavior, including speech, deemed to violate the oaths. Hong Kong authorities and Beijing officials insinuated that interactions with foreign diplomats could be considered “collusion” under the NSL.
Any speech critical of the central or local government or its policies may be construed as prosecession, subversive, or inciting hate against the government. On November 8, when a crowd of protesters chanted protest slogans as they gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of student Chow Tsz-lok, whose cause of death remained unknown but occurred in the proximity of protests, police warned protesters that their actions could violate both the NSL and COVID-19 restrictions.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, although they were increasingly constrained. In August, Hong Kong immigration authorities denied a visa to Hong Kong-based Irish journalist Aaron McNicholas, the newly selected editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website. In September, SAR police told media organizations that journalists would henceforth have to be credentialed by and registered with police to cover public events, such as demonstrations or conferences. Police claimed this was required to deter “fake” reporters at protests, while media advocates stated that the SAR’s real objective was to control access to information. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club stated that the change disregards the vetting and membership processes of Hong Kong’s independent journalist associations.
SAR police in November arrested a producer of a documentary on a violent incident in 2019, when rod-wielding men attacked protesters at the Yuen Long subway station. Activists and protesters claimed that police were deliberately slow to respond to the incident; many accused police of colluding with the mob. Police arrested the producer for violating a traffic ordinance by using license plate information from a publicly available government website to identify owners of vehicles, including police, near the subway station. Media outlets reported that for years many journalists routinely used the website to inform their reporting. While the law exists, authorities did not enforce it until after reportedly changing the website to remove the option of stating such research was for journalistic purposes.
Violence and Harassment: On August 10, Jimmy Lai, owner of the independent newspaper Apple Daily, as well as his two sons and four senior executives, were arrested on suspicion of fraud. All were subsequently released on bail. That same day, police raided the Apple Daily offices, permitting only progovernment journalists to cover their search. A court later found the search and seizure of reporting material illegal and required it be returned. In 2019 the personal information of 132 members of Apple Daily’s staff was published online anonymously; the newspaper reported that its investigation traced the leak to PRC national security agencies. Several journalists from other outlets alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them, a claim supported by the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. Some media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship. In August staff at i-Cable Communications Limited, a television and internet broadcaster, protested management’s decision to replace several executives and the news director with persons perceived as more progovernment. Former i-Cable staff reported that the coverage and editing of stories were increasingly designed to reduce the presence of pro-opposition themes and personalities. In May the public broadcasting service Radio Television Hong Kong suspended a satirical television program after the Communications Authority issued it a warning for “denigration of and insult to police,” reportedly after pressure from the police commissioner. In September, Radio Television Hong Kong extended the employment probation of a reporter following complaints from progovernment groups about her tough questioning of SAR officials. In December there were media reports that a Hong Kong bookstore chain refused to stock a book on Hong Kong history because of concerns about the NSL.
The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use. Messages posted on Facebook, Telegram, and LIHKG (a local website) led to arrests under the NSL, causing concern and self-censorship. In December police cited Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai’s use of Facebook and Twitter as circumstantial evidence in the decision to charge Lai with collusion under the NSL. NGOs and some media outlets reported focusing on digital security to protect their privacy, partners, and sources.
When handling issues related to national security violations, the national security divisions of the police force may require a person who published information or the relevant service provider to remove the content or assist the national security divisions. Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, and Twitter reported denying the SAR government access to individuals’ data.
There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events.
Universities allowed contracts to lapse or fired prodemocracy professors. In July the University of Hong Kong fired Benny Tai, a tenured law professor and prodemocracy activist. The decision was made by a board appointed by the chief executive.
Academics and prodemocracy advocates reported NSL-related changes to secondary education texts. In August some textbook publishers agreed to a government-initiated voluntary review of liberal arts textbooks and subsequently, removed the phrase “separation of powers,” images related to Hong Kong’s protests, and some criticism of the Chinese political system, according to media reports.
SAR officials encouraged teachers to avoid voicing political opinions in academic settings. In October officials revoked the registration of a primary school teacher who allegedly used materials related to Hong Kong independence in a classroom discussion of freedom of speech, effectively banning the teacher from working in Hong Kong’s education sector for the rest of his life. In November officials revoked the registration of a second teacher for alleged factual misrepresentation in a history lesson. In July officials announced they had begun nearly 200 investigations of teachers for participation in the 2019 protest movement.
COVID-19 precautions limited cultural events. In September a museum dedicated to memorializing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre opened in a new, permanent location after several years of temporary locations and difficulties maintaining a lease due to alleged landlord pressure.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government, however, restricted public gatherings, claiming COVID-19 concerns.
While the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government cited COVID-19 restrictions to ban peaceful assembly, although civil rights organizations stated the denial was based more on political than public-health considerations. Before 2019 police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and central government. After violence occurred during some of the 2019 protests, police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches.
In April police arrested 15 high-profile prodemocracy leaders, including former chairs of the Democratic and Labor parties, for “organizing and participating in unlawful assembly” in 2019.
Because of the strict limits on any public gathering due to health restrictions, police have not issued any “letters of no objection” for public demonstrations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time since 1990, police denied a permit for a June 4 Tiananmen Square vigil, citing social distancing concerns. Police also refused to allow the Chinese National Day prodemocracy protest in October, although official gatherings did take place. Protesters marched in defiance of the ban, flanked by a heavy police presence; there were dozens of arrests.
SAR law provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it if the group was deemed a national security concern. Several proindependence political parties and activist groups disbanded in June after the NSL was announced, due to fear their freedom of association would no longer be respected.
Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison and fined. Those convicted of providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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.
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:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the government increasingly restricted this right. Regional and local authorities used procedural violations and restrictive or vague legislation to detain, harass, or prosecute persons who criticized the government or institutions it favored. The government exercised editorial control over media, creating a media landscape in which most citizens were exposed to predominantly government-approved narratives. Significant government pressure on independent media constrained coverage of numerous topics, especially of Belarus, LGBTI persons, the environment, elections, COVID-19, criticism of local or federal leadership, as well as secessionism or federalism. The government used direct ownership or ownership by large private companies with government links to control or influence major national media and regional media outlets, especially television. Censorship and self-censorship in television and print media and on the internet was widespread, particularly regarding points of view critical of the government or its policies. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters further stifled freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism, under which citizens may be punished for certain types of peaceful protests, affiliation with certain religious denominations, and even certain social media posts, as a tool to stifle dissent. As of August the Ministry of Justice had expanded its list of extremist materials to include 5,080 books, videos, websites, social media pages, musical compositions, and other items, an increase of approximately 80 items from 2019. According to the prosecutor general, authorities prosecuted 585 extremism cases in 2019, the majority of which included charges of “extremism” levied against individuals for exercising free speech on social media and elsewhere.
On March 27, the State Duma passed legislation criminalizing the dissemination of false “socially significant information” online, in mass media, or during protests or public events. This law in effect toughened a March 2019 law that prohibited the dissemination of “incorrect socially meaningful information, distributed under the guise of correct information, which creates the threat of damage to the lives and health of citizens or property, the threat of mass disruption of public order and public security, or the threat of the creation of an impediment to the functioning of life support facilities, transport infrastructure, banking, energy, industry, or communications.” Authorities used the law to target human rights defenders and civil society activists in criminal investigations, most recently by accusing them of spreading unreliable information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 15, Agora International Human Right Group published a report showing that over the course of 450 days, authorities initiated approximately 200 cases against the dissemination of “unreliable socially significant information.” A total of 33 of the cases were filed between April 3 and June 9 and involved criminal complaints that mainly targeted activists, journalists, bloggers, and legislators.
In early May prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the activities of Grigoriy Vinter, the head of the Vologda chapter of the NGO For Human Rights, after posts criticizing authorities for transporting prisoners who showed COVID-19 symptoms were published on a social media page that he administered. Vinter had previously faced similar politically motivated investigations for his human rights advocacy.
By law authorities may close any organization a court determines to be extremist, including media outlets and websites. Roskomnadzor, the country’s media oversight agency, routinely issued warnings to newspapers and internet outlets it suspected of publishing extremist materials. Three warnings in one year sufficed to initiate a closure lawsuit.
During the year authorities invoked a 2013 law prohibiting the distribution of “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relations” to minors to punish the exercise of free speech by LGBTI persons and their supporters. For example, Russian media reported that on July 10, LGBTI artist and activist Yuliya Tsvetkova was fined by a local court in the Russian Far East for social media posts and drawings depicting same-sex couples with their children, rainbow-colored cats, and matryoshka dolls holding hands. Tsvetkova was also under investigation for spreading pornography among minors for her body-positive projects in 2019. On September 22, her case was returned to the Investigative Committee for Khabarovsk Kray for further investigation in what experts believe was an attempt to prolong the trial.
Authorities investigated individuals for speech allegedly violating a law that prohibits “offending the feelings of religious believers.” For example, at the end of January, popular stand-up comic Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation into one of his performances from 2019. Media reported that an audience member complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, possibly with a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. In March, Dolgopolov announced that he had returned to Russia; the status of the investigation was unclear.
During the year authorities prosecuted individuals for speech that allegedly violated the law prohibiting the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” On August 8, media reported that the Investigative Committee opened a case against Voronezh resident Aleksandr Khoroshiltsev for posting a photo of Adolf Hitler on the website of the Immortal Regiment, the name given to the yearly procession of individuals with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II. Authorities told journalists that posts such as Khoroshiltsev’s were aimed at rehabilitating the Nazi regime.
The law bans the display of Nazi symbols and the symbols of groups placed on the government’s list of “extremist” organizations. There was no official register or list of banned symbols. On May 15, a district court in Kemerovo sentenced Vladislav Koretskiy, an 18-year-old student, to 10 days incarceration for publishing social media posts in 2016 and 2017 containing images of swastikas.
The law prohibits showing “disrespect” online for the state, authorities, the public, flag, or constitution. For example, on March 3, a district court in Tomsk fined activist Sergey Chaykovskiy, the executive director of the National Bureau for the Development of Democracy, for an Instagram post that showed a speech by Nancy Pelosi accusing Putin of interfering in the conflict in Ukraine. Chaykovskiy captioned the post “Vladimir Putin will answer for his crimes in Ukraine” and was found guilty of disrespecting authorities online.
During the year authorities enforced a law prohibiting the “propaganda of narcotics” to prosecute or threaten to block independent outlets. For example, in January the Supreme Court upheld lower court orders to block the distribution of an article by independent journalists chronicling the story of a heroin user. Free speech advocates expressed concern that the law allowed the government to ban any nonfiction article on drug use it deemed inappropriate.
During the year authorities used a law banning cooperation with “undesirable foreign organizations” to restrict free expression. For example, in March authorities opened an administrative case against the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for publishing a text from the Open Russia movement on its website. Prosecutors accused the foundation, which aids drug addicts and advocates for changes to laws on narcotics, of cooperating with an “undesirable foreign organization.”
Government-controlled media frequently used derogatory terms such as “traitor,” “foreign agent,” and “fifth column” to describe individuals expressing views critical of or different from government policy, leading to a societal climate intolerant of dissent.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government continued to restrict press and media freedom. More than 80 percent of country’s mass media was funded by the government or progovernment actors. Government-friendly oligarchs owned most other outlets, which are permitted to determine what they publish within formal or informal boundaries set by the government. In the regions each governor also controlled regional media through direct or indirect funding or through affiliated structures. The federal government or progovernment individuals completely or partially owned all so-called federal television channels, the only stations with nationwide reach. The 29 most-watched stations together commanded 86 percent of television viewership; all were owned at least in part by the federal or local governments or by progovernment individuals. Government-owned media outlets often received preferential benefits, such as rent-free occupancy of government-owned buildings, and a preferential tax rate. On a regional level, state-owned and progovernment television channels received subsidies from the Ministry of Finance for broadcasting in cities with a population of less than 100,000 and on the creation and production of content. At many government-owned or -controlled outlets, the state increasingly dictated editorial policy. While the law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent, another provision of the ambiguously worded law apparently bans foreign ownership entirely. The government used these provisions to consolidate ownership of independent outlets under progovernment oligarchs and to exert pressure on outlets that retained foreign backers. In its annual report on freedom of the press, Freedom House rated the country “not free.”
By law the Ministry of Justice is required to maintain a list of media outlets that are designated “foreign agents.” As of August there were 11 outlets listed. The decision to designate media outlets as foreign agents may be made outside of court by other government bodies, including law enforcement agencies.
The law allows authorities to label individuals (both Russian and foreign citizens) as “foreign agents” if they disseminate foreign media to an unspecified number of persons and receive funding from abroad. Human rights defenders expressed concern that this legislation would be used to further restrict the activities of or selectively punish journalists, bloggers, and social media users. Individuals labeled a “foreign agent” are required to register with the Ministry of Justice, and those living abroad also must create and register a legal entity inside the country in order to publish materials inside the country. All information published by the “foreign agent” individual must be marked as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Fines for noncompliance with the law range from 10,000 to five million rubles ($133 to $66,500).
A parliamentary commission investigated alleged foreign interference into Russian domestic affairs. After the September 13 regional elections, the commission reported that “foreign agent” NGOs tried to discredit the election and undermine the confidence of Russians in the democratic procedures. According to the commission, the interference tactics were diverse and included disinformation on social networks and round-the-clock hacker attacks on the servers of the Russian Central Election Commission.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists continued to be subjected to arrest, imprisonment, physical attack, harassment, and intimidation as a result of their reporting. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, as of December incidents of violence and harassment against journalists included one killing, 42 attacks, 97 detentions by law enforcement officers, 46 prosecutions, 27 threats, and six politically motivated firings. Journalists and bloggers who uncovered government malfeasance or who criticized the government often faced harassment, either in the form of direct threats to their physical safety or threats to their livelihood, frequently through legal prosecution.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by government officials and police. For example, according to press reports, on June 30, a police officer severely injured David Frenkel, a journalist with the independent MediaZona outlet, as he was reporting on the nationwide vote on constitutional amendments in St. Petersburg. Frenkel was at a polling station investigating alleged violations of voting procedure. The head of the local voting commission requested that police remove Frenkel from the premises for purportedly interrupting the polling station’s work. A video widely circulated on social media showed the police officer tackling Frenkel, breaking his collarbone in the process. Frenkel was charged with three administrative offenses for allegedly interfering with the election commission’s work, ignoring police orders, and violating COVID-19 restrictions. Frenkel was eventually fined a nominal sum for the violations. His fines were upheld on appeal. Frenkel filed a lawsuit against the police officer involved; a preliminary investigation of the officer’s actions was reportedly launched but found no grounds for the opening of a case.
There were reports of police briefly detaining journalists to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, on May 5, OVD-Info reported that police detained journalist Sergey Poznyakov as he was traveling to the editorial office of the newspaper Communists of Russia, where he worked as a correspondent. Police claimed they detained him because he did not show his documents, although Poznyakov asserted that he did. Police allegedly blocked the entrance to the newspaper’s office for five days, possibly in retaliation for its staff releasing red balloons, a symbolic gesture to communism, during a May Day celebration.
There were reports of police framing journalists for serious crimes to interfere with or punish them for their reporting. For example, Ivan Safronov, a former national security journalist for major national daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, was arrested by the FSB and charged with treason in July. Safronov was working as an aide to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, at the time of his arrest. The charges alleged Safronov was recruited by Czech intelligence agents in 2012 to pass sensitive Russian military information to another foreign government. Observers speculated the charges might be related to a 2017 Kommersant article coauthored by Safronov, detailing the potential sale of Russian military aircraft to Egypt. Safronov also provoked a strong reaction from the government for a 2019 article in Kommersant speculating on a shakeup of the leadership in the Federation Council. Safronov was subsequently fired from Kommersant, according to some accounts, due to government pressure on the publisher. Safronov’s supporters noted the treason charges complicated his defense in that independent examination of the evidence would likely be impossible. If convicted, Safronov faces up to 20 years in prison. As of December Safronov remained in custody.
There were reports of police raids on the offices of independent media outlets that observers believed were designed to punish or pressure the outlets. For example, in July police raided the offices and private homes of the opposition organization MBK Media and its associated human rights foundation, Open Russia. These raids were ostensibly connected to the continuing investigation of the Russian groups’ founder, Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, for alleged tax violations in 2003. Independent journalists believed the raids were actually tied to planned protests against recent constitutional amendments. MBK Media representatives pointed out that many of the staff members were only children in 2003, emphasizing their view that the raids were intended to interfere with their work.
In another example, in January Leonid Krivenkov, a retired cameraman for a major Russian state television broadcaster, was severely beaten by two unknown assailants. The attack came several weeks after Krivenkov gave multiple interviews detailing political censorship and corruption at the broadcaster. Krivenkov alleged the two men disparaged him for not respecting his homeland as they beat him. He was treated for a broken nose and severe bruising.
On October 15, journalist Sergey Plotnikov was abducted and beaten by unidentified persons in Khabarovsk, where he had been reporting on continuing protests in the city. He was reportedly handcuffed, driven into the forest outside the city, and threatened by shooting live rounds of ammunition into the ground near his feet. Plotnikov sustained a wound on his temple and was released the following morning.
Journalists reported threats in connection with their reporting. On April 13, Chechnya head Kadyrov posted a video statement on social media condemning Novaya Gazeta over an article alleging that local authorities’ response to COVID-19 was abusive. Kadyrov made death threats against the newspaper, stating that Russian authorities needed to stop Novaya Gazeta journalists before Chechen authorities would be forced to “commit a crime.” The article’s author, Yelena Milashina, had previously suffered an attack in Chechnya in February after she was ambushed and beaten by unknown assailants at her hotel. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov dismissed Kadyrov’s statement by saying that there was nothing out of the ordinary in Kadyrov’s reaction to Milashina’s reporting. On September 29, a Moscow court fined Novaya Gazeta for disseminating “fake” information in the article.
There was no progress during the year in establishing accountability in a number of high-profile killings of journalists, including the 2004 killing of Paul Klebnikov, the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, and the 2009 killing of Natalia Estemirova.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored media, much of which occurred online (also see section 2.a., Internet Freedom and Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
There were reports that the government retaliated against those who produced or published content it disliked. For example, the founder and editor of the independent news site Koza.Press, Irina Murakhtayeva (known professionally as Irina Slavina), was subjected to various forms of harassment and substantial fines by law enforcement in recent years. On October 1, law enforcement officers forcibly entered her Nizhny Novgorod apartment, ostensibly with a search warrant related to the civil society organization Open Russia. On October 2, Murakhtayeva committed suicide by self-immolation outside a regional Ministry of Internal Affairs building, writing on Facebook, “For my death, please blame the Russian Federation.”
There were reports that the government placed restrictions on printing presses to prevent them from printing materials for the political opposition. For example, on June 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ center for combating extremism searched a printing house in St. Petersburg. Authorities detained three activists who ordered leaflets that opposed proposed constitutional amendments and criticized President Putin. The activists were charged under an article on production or distribution of campaign materials in violation of the law during elections and referenda.
Self-censorship in independent media was also reportedly widespread.
Libel/Slander Laws: Officials at all levels used their authority to restrict the work of and to retaliate against journalists and bloggers who criticized them, including taking legal action for alleged slander or libel, which are criminal offenses. For example, on June 15, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal libel case against anticorruption crusader, opposition activist, and prominent blogger Aleksey Navalny after he used social media to criticize a WWII veteran’s participation in a propaganda video supporting President Putin’s constitutional amendments package. Navalny faced penalties ranging from a substantial monetary fine to 240 hours of community service if convicted.
National Security: Authorities cited laws against terrorism or protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. For example, on September 9, Russian military historian Andrey Zhukov was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Zhukov was arrested in 2018 on allegations linked to “the history of the Russian Armed Forces and his vigorous activity online.” According to Zhukov’s colleagues, his interests included the formation, reassignment, and deployment of the country’s military units from World War I to the present. Before his arrest, Zhukov was also researching participants in World War II, their relatives, and their military awards.
There were reports that authorities charged journalists with terrorism offenses in retaliation for their reporting. For example, in June 2019 security services in Dagestan arrested Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist and head of the religious affairs section of the independent newspaper Chernovik. Chernovik had long reported threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and other pressure for its work uncovering corruption and wrongdoing by local officials. In 2012 the newspaper’s editor in chief fled the country after receiving death threats, and its founder was shot 14 times outside the newspaper’s office in 2011, a crime that remained unsolved. Authorities charged Gadzhiyev and 10 codefendants with “taking part in the activities of a terrorist organization” and “organizing the financing of a terrorist organization” for purportedly diverting charitable donations to support the Islamic State in Syria. Conviction on the charges may result in up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Human rights defenders emphasized the charges were entirely based on a confession by a suspect who subsequently maintained that it was false and coerced, that Gadzhiyev had written critically of the Islamic State, and that there were other contradictions in the state’s case. They maintained that the case against him was fabricated. Gadzhiyev has remained in detention awaiting trial after a court repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In April additional charges were filed against Gadzhiyev in Dagestan accusing him of participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry up to an additional 10 years in prison if Gadzhiyev is convicted. Memorial declared him to be a political prisoner.
There were reports that critics of the government’s counterterrorism policies were themselves charged with “justifying terrorism.” For example, on July 6, Pskov-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty contributor Svetlana Prokopyeva was convicted of “justifying terrorism” and fined in relation to a 2018 radio piece that delved into the motivations of a teenage suicide bomber who had attacked a regional FSB office. In the piece Prokopyeva discussed whether the country’s repressive political environment might have influenced the attack. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva, who was ultimately required only to pay a fine and was able to avoid incarceration. As she had been charged under antiterrorism laws, however, Prokopyeva was placed on a government list of “terrorists and extremists,” barring her from foreign travel as a result.
The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.).
The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity. Internet advocates asserted the measure allows for surveillance by intelligence agencies and enables state authorities to control information and block content. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. In July the Account Chamber announced that the proposed plan to create an independent DNS did not meet its deadline, citing COVID-19 related delays.
The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. The law provides that companies refusing to localize Russian users’ data may be subject to penalties ranging from 5,000 rubles ($66) to six million rubles ($78,700), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($236,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In February a Moscow district court fined Twitter and Facebook 4.7 million rubles ($62,800) each for refusing to store the data of Russian users on servers located inside Russia. The two companies were also reportedly at risk of further fines for noncompliance with this requirement.
Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.
Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. Companies are fined up to six million rubles ($79,300) if they refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of five million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On August 10, a Moscow court fined Google for repeatedly failing to filter contents prohibited in Russia.
The law requires owners of internet search engines (news aggregators) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.
A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search-engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.”
There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).
The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In March, Roskomnadzor announced the launch of an automated system for checking proxies, VPNs, and search engines for compliance with the requirements for blocking access to prohibited sites.
The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June 2019 authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. In March the Digital Revolution hackers group announced that the FSB had purchased the Fronton program, which allows for cyberattacks to crash servers and hack smart devices. On May 5, a political activist in St. Petersburg, Denis Mikhailov, reported a spam attack on the anniversary of an anti-Putin protest. Mikhailov noted that he received several hundred telephone calls from unknown numbers on that day.
The government took further steps during the year to restrict academic freedom and cultural events.
There were reports that the government censored textbooks, curricula, and other school materials. For example, in January the state university Higher School of Economics (HSE) published amendments to its student rules and labor regulations. These changes limited the rights of students to make political statements on behalf of student groups, effectively prohibiting activities by students or faculty deemed “socially divisive” by university administrators. Student newspapers also lost their status as student groups at the university, eliminating their school funding. The policy changes were seen as a direct response to a number of high-profile student political protests and the appearance of an opposition leader on a student talk show in 2019.
There were reports that the government sanctioned academic personnel for their teachings, writing, research, or political views. In August the HSE decided not to renew the contracts of five lecturers due to the “reorganization” of the university. Among the lecturers was Kirill Martynov, a political correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Martynov claimed the official explanation for HSE’s failure to renew his contract was dubious, suggesting that it was related to his journalistic work. The university also failed to renew the contract of world-renowned sociologist Ella Paneyakh. Media outlets reported that HSE administrators asked their faculty members not to criticize Russian authorities while publicly identifying with the university.
During the year authorities in Chechnya retaliated against artists for alleged lack of compliance with local traditions. In July Chechnya head Kadyrov announced that singers who appear in public (including at weddings) must have their lyrics approved by the Chechen Ministry of Culture and a special commission that checks them for compliance with “the Chechen mentality.”
In June a Moscow court convicted well-known theater director Kirill Serebrennikov of embezzlement and sentenced him to a fine, three years of probation, and a three-year ban on leading a state-funded cultural institution in Russia. Serebrennikov had been on trial since 2018 for embezzlement of state funds to stage a Shakespeare play that the government alleged he never produced. According to media outlets, however, the play had been staged more than 15 times, and observers believed the charges were politically motivated, citing Serebrennikov’s participation in antigovernment protests and criticism of government policies. The prosecution was widely seen by observers as a warning to the artistic community as a whole.
There were reports that authorities failed to protect performers and audiences from threats and physical attacks during cultural events they opposed. For example, on January 30, The Economist magazine reported that teatr.doc, an experimental theater company based in Moscow, was attacked by an ultraconservative group during a play that explored LGBTI themes. The agitators allegedly entered the theater, stopped the play, and shouted homophobic slurs. Police were called in and a fight broke out, but no charges were brought. On another occasion, bomb threats were called in to the theater, forcing the performance to stop and providing authorities an opportunity to check audience members’ documents.
There were reports that authorities forced the cancellation of concerts of musicians who had been critical of the government. In most cases the FSB or other security forces visited the music venues and “highly recommended” cancelation of the concerts, which the owners and managers understood as a veiled threat against the venue if they did not comply. For example, on January 28, Novaya Gazeta reported that the Prosecutor’s Office in the Kaluga region warned the organizers of a concert by the ska-punk band Distemper that the band’s lyrics contained “propaganda of radical anarchist views” and reminded them that they faced criminal liability for “incitement to extremist activity.” As a result the organizers decided to cancel the concert.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, but local authorities restricted this right. The law requires organizers of public meetings, demonstrations, or marches by more than one person to notify the government, although authorities maintained that protest organizers must receive government permission, not just provide notification. Failure to obtain official permission to hold a protest resulted in the demonstration being viewed as unlawful by law enforcement officials, who routinely dispersed such protests. While some public demonstrations took place, on many occasions local officials selectively denied groups permission to assemble or offered alternate venues that were inconveniently or remotely located. Many public demonstrations were restricted or banned due to COVID-19 measures. Each region enforced its own restrictions. As of September, Moscow and St. Petersburg had banned all mass events.
Although they do not require official approval, authorities restricted single-person pickets and required that there be at least 164 feet separating protesters from each other. In 2017 the Constitutional Court decreed that police officers may stop a single-person picket to protect the health and safety of the picketer. In July the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that single-person pickets are considered mass events and violate the COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings.
The law requires that “motor rallies” and “tent city” gatherings in public places receive official permission. It requires gatherings that would interfere with pedestrian or vehicle traffic to receive official agreement 10 days prior to the event; those that do not affect traffic require three days’ notice. The law prohibits “mass rioting,” which includes teaching and learning about the organization of and participation in “mass riots.” The law allows authorities to prohibit nighttime demonstrations and meetings and levy fines for violating protest regulations and rules on holding public events.
The law provides heavy penalties for engaging in unsanctioned protests and other violations of public assembly law. Protesters convicted of multiple violations within six months may be fined substantially or imprisoned for up to five years. The law prohibits “involving a minor in participation in an unsanctioned gathering,” which is punishable by fines, 100 hours of community service, or arrest for up to 15 days.
Arrests or detentions for organizing or taking part in unsanctioned protests were common. The July 9 arrest of Khabarovsk Kray governor Sergey Furgal sparked more than four months of continuous protests in the region, with solidarity protests occurring in other Russian Far East cities including Vladivostok, Birobidzhan, and on Sakhalin Island. None of the protests was sanctioned by authorities. According to official Khabarovsk Kray statistics, between July 11 and September 6, a total of 4,126 citations were issued for drivers participating in motor rallies that “interfered” with the flow of traffic, 173 citations were issued for participation in an unsanctioned meeting, and 22 individuals were detained. Among those detained and fined was Father Andrey, an Orthodox priest who did not chant slogans or hold placards. He received the largest fine during the series of protests and was detained for three days.
In another example, on April 20, authorities detained at least 69 protesters in North Ossetia’s capital, Vladikavkaz, who opposed the government’s policy imposing self-isolation due to public-health concerns. The 2,000-person protest demanded economic support during the pandemic.
Police often broke up protests that were not officially sanctioned, at times using disproportionate force. For example, on July 19, police officers reportedly severely beat Academy of Science biochemist Anton Rasin, who was participating in a march in Vladivostok in solidarity with the Khabarovsk protests. Rasin claimed officers beat him when he asked plainclothes officers to produce their identification. On July 20, he was convicted and sentenced to five days in jail by the court for failure to obey law enforcement directions.
Authorities regularly detained single-person picketers. For example, on April 26, police detained Andrey Boyarshinov in Kazan while standing in a single-person picket to protest the demolition of a prerevolutionary building. Police claimed that Boyarshinov was in violation of a self-isolation order in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect it. Public organizations must register their bylaws and the names of their leaders with the Ministry of Justice. The finances of registered organizations are subject to investigation by tax authorities, and foreign grants must be registered.
The government continued to use the “foreign agents” law, which requires NGOs that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” to harass, stigmatize, and, in some cases, halt their operation, although fewer organizations were registered than in previous years. As of December the Ministry of Justice’s registry of organizations designated as “foreign agents” included 75 NGOs. NGOs designated as “foreign agents” are banned by law from observing elections and face other restrictions on their activity.
For the purposes of implementing the foreign agents law, the government considered “political activities” to include: organizing public events, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets; organizing and conducting public debates, discussions, or presentations; participating in election activities aimed at influencing the result, including election observation and forming commissions; public calls to influence local and state government bodies, including calling for changes to legislation; disseminating opinions and decisions of state bodies by technology; and attempting to shape public political views, including public opinion polls or other sociological research.
To be delisted, an NGO must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice proving that it did not receive any foreign funding or engage in any political activity within the previous 12 months. If the NGO received any foreign funding, it must have returned the money within three months. The ministry would then initiate an unscheduled inspection of the NGO to determine whether it qualified for removal from the list.
The law on “foreign agents” requires that NGOs identify themselves as “foreign agents” in all of their public materials. Authorities fined NGOs for failing to disclose their “foreign agent” status on websites or printed materials. For example, as of August the human rights NGO Memorial was fined at least 24 times for purported violations of the “foreign agents” law. The fines totaled more than five million rubles ($66,500). On December 3, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) initiated a search of Memorial’s Moscow headquarters to verify compliance with the “foreign agents” law. Media reported that the PGO’s “verification” would continue through December 29 and involve requests to review hundreds of documents, in what Memorial characterized as an effort to harass the NGO and hinder its work.
Organizations the government listed as “foreign agents” reported experiencing the social effects of stigmatization, such as being targeted by vandals and online criticism, in addition to losing partners and funding sources and being subjected to smear campaigns in the state-controlled press. At the same time, the “foreign agent” label did not necessarily exclude organizations from receiving state-sponsored support. As of September 2019, four NGOs labeled as “foreign agents” had received presidential grants for “socially oriented projects.”
The law requires the Ministry of Justice to maintain a list of “undesirable foreign organizations.” The list expanded during the year to 31 organizations, since the Ministry of Justice added the European Endowment for Democracy, the Jamestown Foundation, Project Harmony, Inc., seven organizations associated with Falun Gong, the Prague Civil Society Center, and the Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe. By law a foreign organization may be found “undesirable” if it is deemed “dangerous to the foundations of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, its national security, and defense.” Authorities have not clarified what specific threats the “undesirable” NGOs posed to the country. Any foreign organization deemed “undesirable” must cease its activities. Any money or assets found by authorities may be seized, and any citizens found guilty of continuing to work with the organization in contravention of the law may face up to seven years in prison.
Authorities imposed criminal penalties for purported violations of the law on “undesirable foreign organizations.” On October 2, a Krasnodar court convicted and sentenced Yana Antonova, a pediatric surgeon and a former coordinator of Open Russia in Krasnodar, to 240 hours of forced labor for “participating” in activities of “undesirable foreign organization.” Open Russia was declared an “undesirable foreign organization” in 2017. Authorities opened a criminal case against Antonova in March 2019 for reposting articles on her social media accounts and for conducting a single-person picket.
NGOs engaged in political activities or activities that purportedly “pose a threat to the country” or that received support from U.S. citizens or organizations are subject to suspension under the 2012 “Dima Yakovlev” law, which also prohibits NGOs from having members with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship.
Authorities continued to misuse the country’s expansive definition of extremism to stifle freedom of association. In 2017 the Supreme Court criminalized the activity of members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, prohibiting all activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal entities throughout the country and effectively banning their worship. The parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and its regional branches were placed on the Justice Ministry’s list of “extremist” groups, and members were subject to imprisonment, detention, house arrest, or criminal investigation participating in the activities of a “banned extremist organization” (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
There were reports civil society activists were beaten or attacked in retaliation for their professional activities and that in most cases law enforcement officials did not adequately investigate the incidents. For example, media outlets reported that on August 13 in St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Shurshev, a lawyer at the local office of Aleksey Navalny’s team, was beaten for the fourth time in a year. According to Shurshev, police did not respond to any of his reports of attacks.
In multiple cases, authorities arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted civil society activists in political retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
There were reports authorities targeted NGOs and activists representing the LGBTI community for retaliation (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but in some cases authorities restricted these rights.
In-country Movement: Although the law gives citizens the right to choose their place of residence, adult citizens must carry government-issued internal passports while traveling domestically and must register with local authorities after arriving at a different location. To have their files transferred, persons with official refugee or asylum status must notify the Ministry of Internal Affairs in advance of relocating to a district other than the one that originally granted them status. Authorities often refused to provide government services to individuals without internal passports or proper registration, and many regional governments continued to restrict this right through residential registration rules.
Authorities imposed in-country travel restrictions on individuals facing prosecution for political purposes.
Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom to travel abroad, but the government restricted this right for certain groups. The law stipulates, for example, that a person who violates a court decision does not have a right to leave the country. A court may also prohibit a person from leaving the country for failure to satisfy debts; if the individual is suspected, accused, or convicted of a crime; or if the individual had access to classified material. The law allows for the temporary restriction of the right to leave the country for citizens with outstanding debts. According to press reports citing statistics from the Federal Bailiff Service, approximately 10 million Russians were unable to leave the country because of debts in 2019.
Since 2014 the government restricted the foreign travel of millions of its employees, prescribing which countries they are and are not allowed to visit. The restriction applies to employees of agencies including the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Federal Prison Service, the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Bailiff Service, the General Administration for Migration Issues (GAMI), and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Citizenship: There were reports that the government revoked citizenship on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis. For example, in April the Internal Affairs Ministry stripped the citizenship of Feliks Makhammadiyev and Konstantin Bazhenov, two members of Jehovah’s Witnesses convicted of “extremism” on the basis of their religious beliefs. Makhammadiyev was left stateless as a result. As of November Makhammadiyev was still serving a three-year prison term. In another case Yevgeniy Kim, who served more than three years in a Russian prison for conviction of “extremism,” was rendered stateless in January 2019 when Sverdlovsk region authorities canceled a 2005 decision to grant him citizenship after he had given up his Uzbek citizenship. Since his release in April 2019, Kim has been held in a migration detention center awaiting deportation to Uzbekistan, where authorities continued to refuse to accept him since he no longer held citizenship there.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated the country was home to 5,300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) as of December 2019. Of the 5,300 IDPs, the IDMC asserted that 1,800 were due to conflict and violence.
According to the government’s official statistics, the number of “forced” migrants, which per government definition includes refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, decreased from 9,485 in 2019 to 5,323 in June, of whom 1,085 were IDPs. The government indicated that the majority of forced migrants came from former Soviet republics, namely Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
Reliable information on whether the government promoted the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs was not available. According to Svetlana Gannushkina from the independent NGOs Civic Assistance Committee and Memorial, most IDPs in the country were displaced by the Ossetian-Ingush conflict of 1992 and the Chechen wars in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. The Ossetian-Ingush conflict displaced Ingush people from the territory of North Ossetia-Alania, and the Chechen wars displaced Chechens. The government provided minimal financial support for housing to those who are registered as IDPs, but the Civic Assistance Committee criticized the government’s strict rules to qualify and the long line to wait for housing support.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported it had a working relationship with the government on asylum, refugee, and stateless persons problems. The Civic Assistance Committee reported, however, that the government failed to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: NGOs reported that police detained, fined, and threatened with deportation migrants, refugees, and stateless persons.
The government considered Ukrainian asylum seekers to be separate from asylum seekers from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. In some cases temporary asylum holders who received refugee status from third countries were not granted exit visas or allowed to depart the country.
In March the country closed its borders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, trapping many migrants within the country. Many lost their jobs during that time and faced erratic and ad hoc repatriation measures. Lacking information and fearing the reintroduction of more stringent in-country travel restrictions, many found themselves on the street or stuck in makeshift camps near a transport hub until the country gradually opened up the borders after several months. For example, on September 21, Human Rights Watch reported on a temporary tent camp in the Samara region that housed approximately 4,500 Uzbek migrants who were waiting for a train to take them back to their country. Many had been there for months, living in extremely cramped, substandard conditions with no certainty of when they would be able to leave the country safely. On September 24, the department of the All-Russian Congress of Uzbekistanis in the Samara region announced that these migrants were granted permission to leave the country by October 3.
Refoulement: The concept of nonrefoulement is not explicitly stated in the law. The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of persons to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The responsible agency, GAMI, did not maintain a presence at airports or other border points and did not adequately publicize that asylum seekers may request access to the agency. Asylum seekers had to rely on the goodwill of border guards and airline personnel to call immigration officials. Otherwise they faced immediate deportation to neighboring countries or return to their countries of origin, including in some cases to countries where they may have had reasonable grounds to fear persecution. While there were no statistics available on the number of persons subjected to such actions, in May the Civic Assistance Committee reported “the scale of expulsion of refugees must be considerable.”
Human rights groups continued to allege that authorities made improper use of international agreements that permit them to detain, and possibly repatriate, persons with outstanding arrest warrants from other former Soviet states. This system, enforced by informal ties among senior law enforcement officials of the countries concerned, permitted authorities to detain individuals for up to one month while the Prosecutor General’s Office investigated the nature of the warrants. International organizations reported six cases of refoulement of asylum seekers in 2018, and NGOs cited cases in which officials detained persons (most commonly from Central Asia) and returned them clandestinely to their country of origin.
In an example of clandestine repatriation, on September 1, Shobuddin Badalov, an activist from the Group 24 movement that is banned in Tajikistan, reportedly disappeared in Nizhny Novgorod. His lawyer and associates believed he was kidnapped and extradited without judicial process to Tajikistan. Badalov had been granted temporary asylum status in 2019. On October 3, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that Badalov had voluntarily flown from Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport to Dushanbe on September 1. On November 3, the government of Tajikistan confirmed Badalov’s detention in Tajikistan.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. NGOs reported applicants commonly paid informal “facilitation fees” of approximately 33,000 rubles ($440) to GAMI adjudicators to have their application reviewed. Applicants who did not speak Russian often had to pay for a private interpreter. Human rights organizations noted that nearly all newly arrived asylum seekers in large cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, were forced to apply in other regions, allegedly due to full quotas. NGOs also noted difficulty in applying for asylum due to long queues and lack of clear application procedures. GAMI approved only a small percentage of applications for refugee status and temporary asylum, except for Ukrainians whose applications had a much higher chance of approval.
Human rights organizations noted the government’s issuance of refugee and temporary asylum status decreased steadily over the previous few years, pointing to the government’s systematic and arbitrary refusal to grant asylums. NGOs also reported that authorities encouraged applicants to return to their countries of origin.
Authorities reportedly also had blanket authority to grant temporary asylum to Syrians, but local migration experts noted a decrease in the number of Syrians afforded temporary asylum, suggesting that GAMI had not renewed the temporary asylum of hundreds of Syrians and, in some cases, encouraged applicants to return to Syria.
Employment: Employers frequently refused to hire applicants who lacked residential registration. UNHCR reported that employers frequently were not familiar with laws permitting employment for refugees without work permits and refused to hire them. NGOs reported that refugees and migrants were vulnerable to exploitation in the form of forced labor because of the lack of proper documents and insufficient Russian language skills.
Access to Basic Services: By law successful temporary asylum seekers and persons whose applications were being processed have the right to work, to receive medical care, and to attend school. NGOs reported authorities provided some services to Ukrainian asylum seekers, but there were instances in which applicants from other countries were denied the same service, including access to medical care and food banks.
While federal law provides for education for all children, regional authorities occasionally denied access to schools to children of temporary asylum and refugee applicants who lacked residential registration or who did not speak Russian. The Civic Assistance Committee reported that approximately one-third of the children of refugees were enrolled in schools. When parents encountered difficulties enrolling their children in school, authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR to resolve the problem.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of January 1, some 41,946 persons, 96 percent of whom were citizens of Ukraine, held a certificate of temporary asylum in Russia. A person who does not satisfy the criteria for refugee status, but who for humanitarian reasons could not be expelled or deported, may receive temporary asylum after submitting a separate application. There were reports, however, of authorities not upholding the principle of temporary protection.
According to the 2010 population census, the country was home to 178,000 self-declared stateless persons. Official statistics did not differentiate between stateless persons and other categories of persons seeking assistance. Law, policy, and procedures allow stateless persons and their children born in the country to gain nationality. The Civic Assistance Committee noted that most stateless persons in the country were elderly, ill, or single former Soviet Union passport holders who missed the opportunity to claim Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union broke up. The NGO reported various bureaucratic hurdles as obstacles to obtaining legal status in the country.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Neither in law nor practice were constitutional provisions providing for freedom of expression respected.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan regions punished persons for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Radio Free Asia reported in February that seven Tibetans were detained for “spreading rumors” about COVID-19. Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent, including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention for “undermining social stability and inciting separatism.”
In July media sources reported that a court in the northeastern TAR sentenced Tibetan lyricist Khadro Tseten to seven years’ imprisonment and singer Tsego to three years’ imprisonment for a song praising the Dalai Lama that circulated on social media. The court found Tseten guilty of “incitement to subvert state power” and “leaking state secrets.” Local authorities had detained the two in April 2019. The song was posted on social media by an unnamed woman who was also detained but was reportedly released after a year of detention, according to Tibetan language media.
In December, Rights Defender, a Chinese blog site, reported a Chinese court sentenced Lhundhup Dorje, a Tibetan from Golog Prefecture in the TAR, to one year in prison on charges of “inciting separatism.” In March, Lhundhup Dorje posted a graphic on Weibo that used the phrase “Tibetan independence.” In May he posted a photo of the Dalai Lama on Weibo. Due to these social media posts, he was arrested on July 23.
According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan language education, and interrogated the account owners.
There were no reported cases of self-immolation during the year. The practice was a common form of protest of political and religious oppression in past years. It has declined in recent years, reportedly, according to local observers, because of tightened security by authorities, the collective punishment of self-immolators’ relatives and associates, and the Dalai Lama’s public plea to his followers to find other ways to protest PRC government repression. Chinese officials in some Tibetan areas withheld public benefits from the family members of self-immolators and ordered friends and monastic personnel to refrain from participating in religious burial rites or mourning activities for self-immolators.
The law criminalizes various activities associated with self-immolation, including “organizing, plotting, inciting, compelling, luring, instigating, or helping others to commit self-immolation,” each of which may be prosecuted as “intentional homicide.”
During the year, the TAR carried out numerous propaganda campaigns to encourage pro-CCP speech, thought, and conduct. These included a “TAR Clear and Bright 2020” program, designed to crack down on persons “misusing” the internet, including by making “wrong” comments on the party’s history and “denigrating” the country’s “heroes and martyrs.” The TAR Communist Party also launched specialized propaganda campaigns to counter support for “Tibetan independence” and undermine popular support for the Dalai Lama. The PRC’s continuing campaign against organized crime also targeted supporters of the Dalai Lama, who were considered by police to be members of a criminal organization. In September the TAR Communist Party secretary Wu Yingjie publicly urged everybody to follow Xi Jinping and criticize the Dalai Lama.
A re-education program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland” continued to expand. Participants in the program received state subsidies and incentives for demonstrating support for and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and quotations from past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Mandarin Chinese.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. CCP propaganda authorities were in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
In January the TAR People’s Congress passed the “TAR Regulations on Establishing a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress,” which mandated media organizations cooperate with ethnic unity propaganda work and criminalized speech or spreading information “damaging to ethnic unity.”
In April the TAR Department of Propaganda held a special region-wide mobilization conference on political ideological issues, and some journalists and media workers in the region reported they had officially promised to implement the CCP’s line and resolutely fight separatism and “reactionary press and media” overseas.
Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted such permission. When authorities permitted journalists to travel to the TAR, the government severely limited the scope of reporting by monitoring and controlling their movements, and intimidating and preventing Tibetans from interacting with the press.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2020 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation, particularly after they received messages or calls from friends overseas or from foreigners based in other parts of the PRC. Some of these persons deleted their social media contacts or shut down their accounts completely.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment. Authorities banned some writers from publishing; prohibited them from receiving services and benefits, such as government jobs, bank loans, and passports; and denied them membership in formal organizations.
Police in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, arrested Tibetan writer and poet Gendun Lhundrub in December and held him at an undisclosed location, according to Radio Free Asia. In October the former monk released an anthology of poems and wrote on the website Waseng-drak that writers require freedom of expression.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
In May the TAR city of Nakchu seized and destroyed “illegal publications” as well as illegal equipment for satellite signal reception.
There was no internet freedom. In May, TAR party secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely control the internet, strengthen online propaganda, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and make the masses listen to and follow the Party.”
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in many parts of the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage.
Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information.
In July in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, many locals reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to send any messages, organize gatherings, or use symbols that would imply a celebration of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique. In May the TAR Cyber Security and Information Office held its first training program for “people working in the internet news and information sector” with the goal of spreading “positive energy” in cyberspace.
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as by making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants. Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal, including the loss of their jobs and the risk of imprisonment.
The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its July conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “show loyalty to the party” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage. In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan culture, living patterns, and customs. Forced assimilation was pursued by promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, weakening Tibetan language education in public schools, and weakening monasteries’ role in Tibetan society, especially with respect to religious education.
The government gave many Han Chinese persons, especially retired soldiers, incentives to move to Tibet. Migrants to the TAR and other parts of the Tibetan plateau were overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. Government policies to subsidize economic development often benefited Han Chinese migrants more than Tibetans.
The PRC government continued its campaign to resettle Tibetan nomads into urban areas and newly created communities in rural areas across the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Improving housing conditions, health care, and education for Tibet’s poorest persons were among the stated goals of resettlement. There was, however, also a pattern of settling herders near townships and roads and away from monasteries, the traditional providers of community and social services. A requirement that herders bear a substantial part of the resettlement costs often forced resettled families into debt. The government’s campaign cost many resettled herders their livelihoods and left them living in poverty in urban areas.
A September report by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) alleged a PRC so-called government vocational training and job placement program during the first seven months of the year forced approximately 500,000 Tibetan rural workers away from their pastoral lifestyle and off their land into wage labor jobs, primarily in factories, and included many coercive elements.
Government policy encouraged the spread of Mandarin Chinese at the expense of Tibetan. Both are official languages of the TAR and appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
PRC law states that “schools and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many students at all levels had limited access to officially approved Tibetan language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious subjects, particularly computer science, physical education, the arts, and other “modern” subjects. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, only used Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan language or culture courses. Mandarin was used in courses that taught technical skills and qualifications.
“Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and ethnic Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, only used Tibetan as the language of instruction in Tibetan language or culture courses. Mandarin was used in courses that taught technical skills and qualifications.
In February many Tibetans posted articles and photos on social media to celebrate International Mother Language Day. That month Lhasa police detained five Tibetans and sent them to a week-long re-education program for discussing the importance of the Tibetan language in a bar. Security officials reportedly told them that discussing Tibetan language instruction was a political crime.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structures, where they exercised control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. Requirements introduced by the party included geographic residency limitations on who may attend each monastery. This restriction, especially rigorous in the TAR, undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced religious instruction from a select number of senior teachers based at monasteries across the Tibetan plateau.
In August the TAR Religious Affairs Bureau held a training course for Tibetan Buddhist nuns and CCP cadres working in convents. Nuns were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with Socialism,” and the CCP cadres promised to manage the monasteries and convents with firm determination.
Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
Tibetans do not enjoy the rights to assemble peacefully or to associate freely.
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize. Persons who organize public events for any purpose not endorsed by authorities face harassment, arrest, prosecution, and violence. Unauthorized assemblies were frequently broken up by force. Any assembly deemed by authorities as a challenge to the PRC or its policies, for example, to advocate for Tibetan language rights, to mark religious holidays, or to protect the area’s unique natural environment, provoked a particularly strong response both directly against the assembled persons and in authorities’ public condemnation of the assembly. Authorities acted preemptively to forestall unauthorized assemblies. In July for example, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces received official warnings not to organize gatherings to mark the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
In accordance with PRC law, only organizations approved by the CCP and essentially directed by it are legal. Policies noted above designed to bring monasteries under CCP control are one example of this policy. Persons attempting to organize any sort of independent association were subject to harassment, arrest on a wide range of charges, or violent suppression.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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.
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.