The Azerbaijani constitution provides for a republic with a presidential form of government. Legislative authority is vested in the Milli Mejlis (National Assembly). The presidency is the predominant branch of government, exceeding the judiciary and legislature. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the April 2018 presidential election took place within a restrictive political environment and under a legal framework that curtailed fundamental rights and freedoms, which are prerequisites for genuine democratic elections. National Assembly elections in 2015 could not be fully assessed due to the absence of an OSCE election observation mission, but independent observers alleged numerous irregularities throughout the country.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service are responsible for security within the country and report directly to the president. The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees local police forces and maintains internal civil defense troops. The State Security Service is responsible for domestic matters, and the Foreign Intelligence Service focuses on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence issues. The State Migration Service and the State Border Service are responsible for migration and border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Separatists, with Armenia’s support, continued to control most of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories. The final status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained the subject of international mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group. Violence along the Line of Contact remained low throughout the year.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; pervasive problems with the independence of the judiciary; heavy restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence against journalists, the criminalization of libel, harassment and incarceration of journalists on questionable charges, and blocking of websites; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; refoulement of refugees to a country where they would face a threat to their life or freedom; severe restrictions on political participation; systemic government corruption; police detention and torture of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and the worst forms of child labor, which the government made minimal efforts to eliminate.
The government did not prosecute or punish most officials who committed human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government habitually violated these rights. The government limited freedom of expression and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. During the year authorities continued to pressure media, journalists in the country and in exile, and their relatives.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but the government continued to repress persons it considered political opponents or critics. The incarceration of such persons raised concerns about authorities’ abuse of the judicial system to punish dissent. Human rights defenders considered six journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end, including Afgan Mukhtarli (see section 1.e. and the Country Reports on Human Rights for Georgia).
A number of other incarcerations were widely viewed as related to the exercise of freedom of expression. For example, on June 12, the State Security Service arrested the editor in chief of the Xeberman.com and Press-az.com websites, Polad Aslanov, on charges of treason. Human rights defenders asserted the case was a reprisal for Aslanov’s public assertion that the State Security Service demanded bribes from Azerbaijani pilgrims seeking to travel to Iran. Aslanov remained in the pretrial detention facility of the State Security Service at year’s end.
Other such examples included opposition Popular Front Party youth activist Orkhan Bakhishli. Bakhishli was arrested in May 2018 four days after giving a speech holding President Aliyev responsible for journalist Elmar Huseynov’s 2005 killing. He was sentenced to six years in prison in September 2018 for alleged blackmail and extortion. On June 3, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years.
The constitution prohibits hate speech, defined as “propaganda provoking racial, national, religious, and social discord and animosity,” as well as “hostility and other criteria.”
In addition to imprisonment, the government attempted to impede criticism through other measures, including placing activists in administrative detention for social media posts critical of the government. For example, on June 25, opposition Popular Front Party member Eldaniz Agayev was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention after criticizing the government in social media. Authorities also attempted to impede criticism by opening disciplinary proceedings against lawyers to intimidate them from speaking with the media, as the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, noted on July 12.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Throughout the year government-owned and progovernment outlets continued to dominate broadcast and print media. A limited number of independent online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies, but authorities pressured them in various ways for doing so. The 2019 International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) Media Sustainability Index stated that “access to independent news sources in Azerbaijan gets more limited from year to year” and that “there is no independent print media in the country.”
Journalists reported that, following their coverage of the October 19 police operation, they were summoned to police precincts. Not all journalists responded to the summons, but those who did noted they were intimidated and made to justify their coverage before being released.
Authorities continued exerting pressure on leading media rights organizations and independent media outlets outside the country as well as individuals associated with them in the country.
Foreign media outlets, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network.
Violence and Harassment: Sometimes police used force against journalists and prevented their professional activities. According to the Index on Censorship project, at least three journalists sustained minor injuries from police during an attempted unsanctioned opposition rally in downtown Baku on October 19, and one journalist, Nurlan Gahramanli, was beaten by officers in a police car after being detained.
Local observers reported that journalists from independent media outlets were subject to harassment and cyberattacks during the year. The harassment mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, Meydan TV, and Obyektiv Television.
Activists claimed that impunity for assaults against journalists remained a problem. Authorities did not effectively investigate the majority of attacks on journalists, and such cases often went unsolved. Civil society activists continued to call on the government to effectively investigate the high-profile killings of journalists in 2015 (Rasim Aliyev), 2011 (Rafiq Tagi), and 2005 (Elmar Huseynov).
Lawsuits believed to be politically motivated were used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. On February 25, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes conditionally sentenced the editor in chief of Bastainfo.com, Mustafa Hajibeyli, to five and one-half years in prison with two years’ probation on charges of calls against the state, abuse of power, and forgery after republishing articles covering the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. On March 18, Criminal.az editor Anar Mammadov received the same sentence. Both journalists asserted the charges against them were false and meant to intimidate them and others from independent journalistic activity.
Most locally based media outlets relied on the patronage of individuals close to the government or the State Media Fund for financing. Those not benefitting from this type of financing experienced financial difficulties, such as problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media outlets practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation. The National Radio and Television Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses and cover written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel or slander. The law imposes a fine for libel of 1,000 to 1,500 manat ($590 to $880); the fine for slander is 1,000 to 2,000 manat ($590 to $1,180). Insulting the president is punishable by up to two years’ corrective labor or up to three years’ imprisonment.
The authorities continued to block independent media websites that offered views that differed from government narratives and to incarcerate persons who expressed critical views online. Human rights defenders reported that individuals were regularly summoned to police stations across the country and forced to delete social media posts that were critical of the government and threatened with various punishments if they did not comply.
The 2019 IREX Media Sustainability Index reported that in 2018 the number of blocked websites blocked for some period of time reached 85, compared with 25 in 2017. The websites of Voice of America, RFE/RL, and Azerbaijani media outlets including Azadliq, Bastainfo.com, Criminal.az, Topxeber.az, Fia.az, Monitortv.info, Xural.com, Az24saat.org, Anaxaber.az, and Arqument.az, and the Germany-based media outlet Meydan TV remained blocked by authorities during the year.
Activists asserted authorities conducted cyberattacks and used other measures and proxies to disrupt internet television programs. For example, on April 21, progovernment REAL TV threatened to release intimate photographs of expatriate journalist Sevinj Osmangizi unless she stopped her online television program. Osmangizi also stated that the government intercepted her digital communications with other Azerbaijani expatriates. Activists and journalists also suspected the government was behind the hacking of social media accounts. On January 20, the Facebook page of Ali Kerimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, was hacked and all posts since 2017 were deleted. In November hackers took control of National Council member Gultekin Hajibeyli’s Facebook account for the second time since June 2018, blocking more than 30,000 of her followers. Following both hacks, Hajibeyli lost 130,000 of her 200,000 followers.
On June 12, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes charged the editor of the realliq.info website, Ikram Rahimov, with extortion of money and sentenced him to five years and six months in prison. Rahimov stated the case was punishment for his public criticism of then presidential assistant Ali Hasanov.
The government required internet service providers to be licensed and to have formal agreements with the Ministry of Transportation, Communications, and High Technologies. The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.
There were strong indicators the government monitored the internet communications of civil society activists. For example, activists reported being harassed by police and forced to delete critical Facebook posts under threat of physical abuse. During the year activists were questioned, detained, and frequently sentenced to administrative detention for posting criticism of government actions and commenting on human rights abuses online.
The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report covering the period from June 2018 through May showed a further reduction in internet freedom in the country. As a result, Freedom House downgraded the country’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” The report stated that the government blocked access to additional news websites and intensified cyberattacks against activists and journalists; and prosecuted online journalists and ordinary social media users, while noting the release of some who had been incarcerated in connection with their online activities.
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom. Opposition party leaders reported their members had difficulty finding and keeping teaching jobs at schools and universities.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted these rights.
The government severely restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Authorities at times responded to peaceful protests and assemblies by using force and detaining protesters. The law permits administrative detention for up to three months for misdemeanors and up to one month for resisting police. Punishment for those who fail to follow a court order (including failure to pay a fine) may include fines of 500 to 1,000 manat ($295 to $590) and punishment of up to one month of administrative detention.
While the constitution stipulates that groups may peacefully assemble after notifying the relevant government body in advance, the government continued to interpret this provision as a requirement for prior permission. Local authorities required all rallies to be preapproved and held at designated locations. Most political parties and NGOs criticized the requirements as unacceptable and characterized them as unconstitutional.
Activists stated that police routinely arrested individuals who peacefully sought to exercise their fundamental freedoms on false charges of resisting police that consistently resulted in up to 30 days of administrative detention. For example, following an approved opposition-planned rally in support of the release of blogger Mehman Huseynov and other political prisoners on January 19, authorities detained and sentenced 31 individuals to periods of administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days for participating in the planning and execution of the event. Activists asserted the authorities illegally identified thousands of rally participants through facial recognition software and private cell phone data that police then used to threaten them not to associate with the political opposition.
Following the January 19 rally, authorities denied all opposition applications for public demonstrations until September 26, when the Baku mayor’s office authorized a rally in Lokbatan, a site located on the outskirts of the city and unreachable by mass transit. The Baku mayor’s office then allowed the opposition to conduct a “picket” in front of its building on October 8 to protest the unsuitability of the Lokbatan site. Police dispersed the picket when more people than expected showed up to observe.
Opposition leaders called for an unsanctioned October 19 demonstration in the Baku city center after their application was again approved only for the remote Lokbatan site. In response authorities launched a massive police operation to prevent the demonstration, during which the internet was turned off in much of Baku and a large segment of the city center was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Media outlets showed numerous examples of police detaining individuals who were not engaged in protest activity as well as examples of police punching, kicking, and committing other abuses on individuals who were already subdued. Opposition Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli was violently taken into custody. He later reported he was placed in a bus where he was severely beaten by police who were seeking to record a video of him apologizing for political activities, and subsequently choked and beaten unconscious while in police custody. Opposition National Council of Democratic Forces board member Tofig Yagoblu was also taken into custody and sentenced to administrative detention. His family members reported that, after being taken to a Baku police station, he was similarly brutally beaten by police officers who also sought to record him repudiating the opposition. He reportedly suffered a broken rib during his beating. In a November 7 appeal, 21 civil society representatives called on the UN Committee against Torture and the CPT to investigate these and other cases of what they described as politically motivated torture. At least 100 individuals were detained during the October 19 operation, approximately 40 of whom were sentenced to administrative detention.
Opposition leaders again applied for permission to hold a rally on November 2 and again received permission only for the Lokbatan site. After initially calling for members to again attempt to gather in the city center, they canceled the unauthorized rally after credible threats of a higher level of police violence. Earlier that week the progovernment media outlet haqqin.az published an article stating the police would show less restraint than on October 19, and the nationalist “self-sacrificer” group, headed by Fuad Muradov and reputed to have close links to security services, called opposition leaders and threatened the life of Ali Kerimli should the demonstration occur.
Police summoned more than 100 members of the opposition Musavat Party around the country to police stations and warned them not to participate in a planned unsanctioned picket scheduled for November 12 in front of the Baku Executive Authority. On November 12, police prevented the picket from taking place, including by deploying large numbers of officers blocking roads and detaining dozens of party members who attempted to assemble. The government released those who had tried to gather after several hours, with the exception of one organizer who was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
The government also disrupted events organized by opposition groups. For example, on June 28, police interrupted a fundraising event organized to pay fines for opposition activists at the Baku office of the Musavat Party. Police took Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli into custody from the event and took him to the Binagadi Police Station, where he was warned and then released.
Police also restricted freedom of assembly for events not associated with the opposition. For example, on March 8 and October 20, Baku police roughly dispersed women who had gathered to protest violence against women.
On September 10, Baku municipal authorities announced the closure of Mehsul Stadium, the only location in recent years the government had approved for public demonstrations by the political opposition, for renovation and repurposing as a fitness park. Opposition activists and others stated the project was a pretext for further restrictions on freedom of assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the law places some restrictions on this right, and amendments enacted during 2014 severely constrained NGO activities. Citing these amended laws, authorities conducted numerous criminal investigations into the activities of independent organizations, froze bank accounts, and harassed local staff, including incarcerating and placing travel bans on some NGO leaders. Consequently, a number of NGOs were unable to operate.
A number of legal provisions allow the government to regulate the activities of political parties, religious groups, businesses, and NGOs, including requiring NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice if they seek “legal personality” status. Although the law requires the government to act on NGO registration applications within 30 days of receipt (or within an additional 30 days, if further investigation is required), vague, onerous, and nontransparent registration procedures continued to result in long delays that limited citizens’ right to associate. Other laws restrict freedom of association, for example, by requiring deputy heads of NGO branches to be citizens if the branch head is a foreigner.
Laws affecting grants and donations imposed a de facto prohibition on NGOs receiving cash donations and made it nearly impossible for them to receive anonymous donations or to solicit contributions from the public.
The administrative code and laws on NGOs, grants, and registration of legal entities impose additional restrictions on NGO activities and the operation of unregistered, independent, and foreign organizations. The law also places some restrictions on donors. For example, foreign donors are required to obtain preapproval before signing grant agreements with recipients. The law makes unregistered and foreign NGOs vulnerable to involuntary dissolution, intimidates and dissuades potential activists and donors from joining and supporting civil society organizations, and restricts the ability to provide grants to unregistered local groups or individual heads of such organizations.
In 2017 the Cabinet of Ministers issued regulations for establishing a “single window” mechanism to streamline the grant registration process. Under the procedures, grant registration processes for multiple agencies are merged. The procedures were not fully implemented, however, further reducing the number of operating NGOs.
In 2016 the Ministry of Justice adopted rules on monitoring NGO activities that authorize it to conduct inspections of NGOs with few provisions protecting their rights and provide the potential of harsh fines on NGOs if they do not cooperate.
The far-reaching investigation opened by the Prosecutor General’s Office in 2014 into the activities of numerous domestic and international NGOs and local leadership remained open during the year. As a result, the bank accounts of the American Bar Association, IREX, and Democracy and Human Rights Resource Center remained frozen and the organizations were unable to operate.
The government continued to implement rules pursuant to a law that requires foreign NGOs wishing to operate in the country to sign an agreement and register with the Ministry of Justice. Foreign NGOs wishing to register a branch in the country are required to demonstrate they support “the Azerbaijani people’s national and cultural values” and commit not to be involved in religious and political propaganda. The decree does not specify any time limit for the registration procedure and effectively allows for unlimited discretion of the government to decide whether to register a foreign NGO. As of year’s end, one foreign NGO had been able to register under these rules.
NGO representatives stated the Ministry of Justice did not act on applications they submitted, particularly those from individuals or organizations working on issues related to democratic development. Activists asserted the development of civil society had been stunted by years of government bureaucracy that impeded registration and that the country would otherwise have more numerous and more engaged independent NGOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected many of these rights but continued its practice of limiting freedom of movement for some prominent opposition figures, activists, and journalists.
Foreign Travel: While authorities lifted the travel bans of several opposition figures, lawyers, and journalists during the year, travel bans on others remained. Those whose travel bans were lifted included opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, former REAL Party Assembly head Azer Gasimli, 11 freelance journalists who worked with Meydan TV, and human rights lawyers Asabali Mustafayev and Emin Aslan.
Authorities continued, however, to prevent a number of other opposition figures, activists, and journalists from traveling outside the country. Examples included Popular Front Party chairman Ali Kerimli (banned from traveling since 2006), investigative journalist and activist Khadija Ismayilova, journalist Shahvalad Chobanoglu, and lawyer Intigam Aliyev.
The law requires men of draft age to register with military authorities before traveling abroad. Authorities placed some travel restrictions on military personnel with access to national security information. Citizens charged with or convicted of criminal offenses but given suspended sentences were not permitted to travel abroad until the terms of their suspended sentences had been met.
The government reported 651,458 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). The vast majority fled their homes between 1988 and 1994 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
IDPs had access to education and health care, but their unemployment rate was higher than the national average. Some international observers stated the government did not adequately promote the integration of IDPs into society.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Refoulement: There were no reports of refoulement, unlike in 2018, when the press reported that Turkish citizens were transferred without due process from Azerbaijan to Turkey, where they were detained by Turkish authorities who alleged they were followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to some refugees through the Refugee Status Determination Department at the State Migration Service, which is responsible for all refugee matters. Although UNHCR noted some improvements, the country’s refugee-status determination system did not meet international standards. International NGOs continued to report the service remained inefficient and did not operate transparently.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: According to UNHCR, the country did not allow Russian citizens who fled the conflict in Chechnya access to the national asylum procedure. UNHCR noted, however, that the country tolerated the presence of Chechen asylum seekers and accepted UNHCR’s role in providing for their protection and humanitarian needs.
Access to Basic Services: The estimated 1,120 refugees (a number that included state-recognized refugees and those recognized as such only by UNHCR) in the country lacked access to social services. Many IDP and refugee children also enrolled at ordinary schools in numerous regions throughout the country.
Temporary Protection: The government did not provide temporary protection to asylum seekers during the year.
According to UNHCR statistics, there were 3,585 persons in the country under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate at year’s end. According to the State Migration Service, 291 foreigners and stateless persons were granted citizenship during the year. The vast majority of stateless persons were ethnic Azerbaijanis from Georgia or Iran. NGOs stated there were many other undocumented stateless persons, with estimates ranging from hundreds to tens of thousands.
While the law provides for the right to apply for stateless status, some persons could not obtain the documentation required for the application and, therefore, remained formally unrecognized. The law on citizenship makes it difficult for foreigners and stateless persons to obtain citizenship.
For the most part, stateless persons enjoyed freedom of movement within the country. Stateless persons were not, however, issued travel documents or readmitted to Azerbaijan if they left the country. The law permits stateless persons access to basic rights, such as access to health care and employment. Nevertheless, their lack of legal status at times hindered their access to these rights.
The constitution allows citizenship to be removed “as provided by law.” During the year the government stripped 95 persons of citizenship. In October 2018 the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights published a statement noting the government’s 2015 deprivation of journalist Emin Huseynov’s citizenship should be viewed “as part of a broader pattern of intimidation of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”
Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral National Assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National Assembly elections were held in 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International observers considered the National Assembly elections and the 2016 presidential election generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.
The Ministry of Interior is responsible for law enforcement, migration, and border enforcement. The State Agency for National Security, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for investigating corruption and organized crime, among other responsibilities. The army is responsible for external security but also can assist with border security. The National Protective Service is responsible for the security of dignitaries and answers to the president. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and corporate and political pressure on media; acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against Roma; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for media, gravely damaged media pluralism. In October the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders described the media situation as “worse than ever.” He said that the country was “embroiled in an extremely serious media civil war,” and expressed concern about harassment of journalists, political manipulation of media, and a collapse of professional standards in the media.
According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, there was a persistent deterioration in the freedom of expression and a collapse of professional and ethical standards supporting a high-quality media environment. In a public statement in September, the NGO outlined “continued trends of increased control of major media by the government, especially before the past [European Parliament] and forthcoming [local] elections.” According to Transparency International Bulgaria, media ownership “is often unclear” and many media outlets “are financially dependent on state advertising, which may color their reporting and affect any criticism they may otherwise provide of government authorities.”
The International Research and Exchanges Board’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index identified an increase in the country in crimes against media professionals, verbal attacks against journalists by government officials, and a lack of transparency in the ownership of online media contributing to the distribution of fake news and propaganda.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for use of and incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability. NGOs alleged that the presence of nationalist parties in the government “empowered” supporters to use hate speech regularly.
Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal. In August the prosecutor general and his deputies requested from the Supreme Judicial Council a decision on whether media publishing “false information” or “manipulative allegations” about prosecutors should be prosecuted. In response, the Supreme Judicial Council’s Prosecutorial College called on the public and the media to be more tolerant and responsible when commenting on the nomination for a new prosecutor general.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index reported widespread “corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs,” “judicial harassment of independent media,” as well as increased “threats against reporters.” Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency in their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives.
Violence and Harassment: In February investigative journalist Hristo Geshov complained that he received anonymous threats after he released a video of his initial investigation of an illegal water supply business in Troyan. In May, two unidentified persons abducted Geshov and held him captive overnight until he agreed to take down his zovnews.com story on the case. As of September there was no further information on law enforcement action to identify the abductors.
In August the specialized prosecution service accused online news provider Mediapool of vandalism and desecrating the memory of a deceased magistrate. The service condemned Mediapool for publishing a story covering the 72-hour arrest of a man who had written obscenities on the magistrate’s obituary posted inside the courthouse.
In September photojournalist Veselin Borishev spent a night in jail after police arrested him for taking pictures of them during a protest. The Interior Ministry issued an official apology and opened an internal investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists continued to report editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders. According to the international NGO Association of European Journalists, self-censorship was widespread, especially in the smaller regional media.
In June, NetInfo executive director and minority shareholder Hristo Hristov complained of pressure and “increased interference in the editorial policies” of online news providers Gong, Vesti, and Dariknews from the new majority shareholders, brothers Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev. The NetInfo board of directors subsequently removed Hristov from his CEO position.
Human rights lawyers expressed concerns that changes in the Personal Data Protection Act passed in January present the government with opportunities to muzzle free speech, as they empower authorities to fine media and journalists in cases when “freedom of speech does not prevail over the right of a target of journalistic investigation to remain outside the focus of public attention.” According to the Association of European Journalists, the new legislation could force journalists to self-censor.
The Association of European Journalists protested the removal on September 12 of long-time anchor Sylvia Velikova from her rule-of-law-focused morning program on Bulgarian National Radio, attributing it to Velikova’s opposition to the nomination of Ivan Geshev as sole candidate for the next prosecutor general. Following protests, Velikova was reinstated.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine of 3,000 to 15,000 levs ($1,680 to $8,400) and public censure. In June the Sofia City Court imposed a 1,000 lev ($560) fine on Economedia journalist Rosen Bosev in a libel lawsuit filed by the former head of the Financial Supervision Commission, Stoyan Mavrodiev, who was offended by Bosev’s statement on television that Mavrodiev had repressed Economedia’s Dnevnik and Capital publications. The Association of European Journalists protested the court decision, accusing Judge Petya Krancheva of “settling a score” with Bosev, who had written critical articles about her.
In January the Sofia City Court ruled against Sofia regional governor Ilian Todorov’s libel appeal against freelance journalist Ivo Indjev, who posted a series of articles online in which he called Todorov a “xenophobe,” “anti-Semite,” “pro-Nazi nationalist,” and “Kremlin marionette,” among other things. The court’s decision confirmed the trial court’s “not guilty” verdict and made the argument that “as a public person occupying a high-level government position, the claimant should possess a higher threshold of tolerance to criticism.”
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. There were reports, however, that the government exceeded its legal authority in monitoring private online communications. In 2018 the interior minister acknowledged that it was a routine practice for the security services to call individuals for questioning over their social media behavior.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government mostly respected these rights.
On April 18, workers from the Dunarit defense industry plant, who wanted to gather for peaceful support of two coworkers who were appearing at a remand hearing at the Specialized Criminal Court. In an open letter to the media, they complained that police pushed them away from the court building, surrounded them, took away their identity cards, and issued official warnings on the basis of suspicion of an attempted attack on the court. Police justified their actions with reference to an “order from higher up.”
Authorities continued to deny registration of the Macedonian activist group OMO Ilinden, despite a January judgment and 10 prior decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that the denials violated the group’s freedom of association.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report widespread “pushbacks,” violence, robbery, and humiliating practices against migrants and asylum seekers along the border with Turkey. In August media publications citing “internal sources” from the European border control agency FRONTEX alleged that border police had “chased migrants with dogs, beaten them, and forced them back across the border.” The interior minister denied the allegations, claiming that border guards “use force only when the situation demands it, such as in cases of aggression against them.”
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Refoulement: Human rights organizations criticized the government for deporting Turkish citizens back to Turkey where they would face imprisonment due to their political activity. In July, for example, the Sofia Administrative Court approved the extradition of Ilhan Karabag, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin, who had spent three years in a reception center as an asylum seeker. The NGO Bordermonitoring reported the presence of a representative of the Turkish diplomatic mission at the court hearings and protested, asserting the presence of the representative was an attempt to pressure the court.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers and refugees who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention.
Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center where they have been accommodated is located. The restriction is valid until the asylum procedure is completed.
Access to Basic Services: The refugee integration ordinance authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, specifying the services they will receive–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. NGOs claimed the government made inconsistent efforts to integrate refugees. According to the Asylum Information Database country report published in March, “no integration activities are planned, funded or available to the general population of recognized refugees or subsidiary protection holders.” According to the State Agency for Refugees, as of October, four refugee families totaling 27 persons had signed integration agreements, and two more families were negotiating agreements with municipal authorities.
In June the State Agency for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration inaugurated a safety zone for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children at the Voenna Rampa reception center to provide 24-hour care and specialized services in an environment adapted to their needs.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. As of November the country had accepted 67 relocated refugees and was in the process of interviewing another 26.
Temporary Protection: The Council of Ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to 208 persons as of September.
The law affords the opportunity for a stateless person to apply for citizenship after three years of receiving permission for long-term or permanent residence in the country. In February the European Network on Statelessness criticized the country for “serious shortcomings” in its treatment of stateless persons, including detaining them. In 2018 Eurostat estimated the number of stateless persons at 1,870, while UNHCR placed the number of persons under its statelessness mandate at 92 at the end of 2018.
Romania is a constitutional republic with a democratic, multiparty parliamentary system. The bicameral parliament consists of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, both elected by popular vote. Observers considered presidential elections held on November 10 and 24 and parliamentary elections in 2016 to have been generally free and fair and without significant irregularities.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for the General Inspectorate of the Romanian Police, the gendarmerie, border police, the General Directorate for Internal Protection (DGPI), and the Directorate General for Anticorruption (DGA). The DGPI has responsibility for intelligence gathering, counterintelligence, and preventing and combatting vulnerabilities and risks that could seriously disrupt public order or target Ministry of Internal Affairs operations. The minister of interior appoints the head of DGPI. The Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI), the domestic security agency, investigates terrorism and national security threats. The president nominates and the parliament confirms the SRI director. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over SRI and the security agencies that reported to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Significant human rights issues included: police violence against Roma; endemic official corruption; law enforcement authorities condoning violence against women and girls; and abuse against institutionalized persons with disabilities.
The judiciary took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but authorities did not have effective mechanisms to do so and delayed proceedings involving alleged police abuse and corruption, with the result that many of the cases ended in acquittals. Impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses was a continuing problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government partially respected this right. Independent media organizations noted excessive politicization of the media, corrupt financing mechanisms, and editorial policies subordinated to the former elected ruling party and owners’ interests. Reporters said their freedom of expression was also limited by restricted access to information of public interest issued by the previous government and public institutions, including expenses, contracts, or bids involving public funds, and officials’ academic records. Reporters and NGOs often had to sue state-controlled ministries, agencies, or local entities to access public information.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits denying the Holocaust and promoting or using the symbols of fascist, racist, xenophobic, or Legionnaire ideologies, the last being the nationalist, extremist, anti-Semitic interwar movement. Various government bodies, mainly the gendarmerie, continued to fine, place under temporary arrest, ban, or block individuals who protested in the streets against corruption, the government, the early release of inmates, or child abuse and for better health, education, and social services. When fines were challenged, some courts ruled in favor of the protesters. On May 5, in a high-profile case, the Bucharest Court rejected the gendarmerie’s appeal in the case of Ioan Duia, who is deaf and mute and was fined 2,000 lei ($500) by the gendarmerie for shouting slogans against the ruling party.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: While independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without overt restriction, politicians or persons with close ties to politicians and political groups either owned or indirectly controlled numerous media outlets at the national and local levels. The news and editorial stance of these outlets frequently reflected their owners’ views and targeted criticism at political opponents and other media organizations.
Violence and Harassment: Dozens of reporters throughout the country continued to be harassed, sued, or threatened by the authorities they investigated or by their proxies. On March 22, former justice minister Tudorel Toader refused to renew accreditation for private ProTV’s reporter Ovidiu Oanta and Realitatea TV’s Ionela Arcanu, both of whom covered justice issues. Toader invoked a law stating that an accreditation can be refused if the reporter “disturbs the activity of that institution.” The two journalists were known for their tough questions during his news conferences. Following NGO and independent media protests and allegations that the minister might have violated the constitution, Oanta’s accreditations were returned. Arcanu was reaccredited on May 8, after Toader left office.
On April 15, journalist Emilia Șercan, who investigated cases of plagiarism by government officials, reported that she had received death threats. She filed a criminal complaint, and on September 18, DGA prosecutors charged the former rector of the National Police Academy, Adrian Iacob, and the former deputy rector, Mihail-Petrica Marcoci, with instigating blackmail and instructing police officer Gheorghe Adrian Barbulescu to issue death threats against the reporter to stop her investigations. On December 10, Bucharest Court sentenced Barbulescu to one year in prison. Because he collaborated with prosecutors and disclosed the superiors who ordered him to issue the threats, he was not sent to jail. Instead, the court mandated that he would be monitored by the probation service for two years. The ruling in Barbulescu’s case was not final.
On June 11, reporter Diana Oncioiu of the Let There Be Light (Sa Fie Lumina) media project received death threats while she was investigating the sexual abuse of students at Husi Theological Seminary in Vaslui County. An unknown individual told the reporter that her head would be “ripped off” if she continued to document private matters of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Following the reporter’s criminal complaint, police identified the suspect as Dragos T., a former student of the Husi Seminary. In September, however, prosecutors decided not to pursue criminal charges against Dragos T., as the threats “were not premeditated but a spontaneous gesture” and ordered him to perform 50 days of community service. In Dela0.ro, Oncioiu published an investigation into sexual child abuse cases that found courts determined three out of four cases were considered consensual. In November the Superior Council of Magistrates chair Lia Savonea requested the Judicial Inspection to investigate whether another article by Oncioiu published in Dela0.ro affected “judicial independence” and “magistrates’ impartiality.” The Judicial Inspectorate’s investigation against the reporter and the outlet remained pending.
The government did not systematically restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. During the year, however, many individuals in various counties continued to be fined for criticizing or using derogatory language on Facebook, mainly against interior ministry employees or agencies. On January 21, the Satu Mare police told local media that they fined three individuals 200 lei ($50) each for insulting police officers for parking their cars in parking spaces designated for persons with disabilities. Following the fine, the Facebook page featuring instances of illegal parking was disabled.
On June 26, the National Union of Police Agents (SNAP) sued the members of rap and hip-hop band Parazitii and their music production house to force them to withdraw a song criticizing police. The union asked for damages of 100,000 euros ($110,000) and public apologies for using insulting language. The band’s lawyer asserted that the trial constituted censorship of an artistic act. On August 12, the Bucharest Court rejected SNAP’s complaint as groundless and asserted that it could not claim damages in the name of police as it represented only 8,000 of the 65,000 police employees. SNAP appealed the decision.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of association, but the government occasionally restricted freedom of peaceful assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, which the government has generally respected. The law provides that unarmed citizens may assemble peacefully but also stipulates that meetings must not interfere with other economic or social activities and may not take place near such locations as hospitals, airports, or military installations. In most cases organizers of public assemblies must request permits in writing three days in advance from the mayor’s office of the locality where the gathering is to occur.
In October 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that public gatherings, including protests, must be declared in advance when they are to be held in markets, public spaces, or in the vicinity of institutions “of public or private interest.” The decision was mandatory. Activists opposed these restrictions, stating that by announcing the protests, those who take to the streets will be forced to take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for larger groups or for instigators to violence who may be brought there to compromise peaceful anticorruption protests. Civic organizations also warned that in Bucharest authorities granted public spaces for longer periods to NGOs with no activity only as a pretext to refuse permits to protest to legitimate organizations.
In August 2018 a protest at Victoria Square in Bucharest attracted approximately 100,000 protesters. According to the Ministry of Interior, several hundred persons allegedly attempted to get close to the cabinet office building and threw objects at gendarmes. Media and civic groups reported the number of violent protesters was much lower, amounting to several dozens of persons. Gendarmes used tear gas and water cannon indiscriminately, harming peaceful protesters, some of whom were children or elderly. NGOs, observers, and journalists noted gendarmes launched tear gas canisters in adjacent areas of the square against persons who did not pose a threat. Gendarmes also used violence against protesters who left the protest and were on adjacent streets. Numerous broadcast television reports showed members of the gendarmerie punching, kicking, and hitting peaceful protesters, with their batons. Several protesters suffered injuries caused by shrapnel from exploding tear-gas canisters.
More than 770 criminal complaints concerning violent incidents during the August 2018 protest that allegedly constituted excessive force against peaceful protesters were submitted to law enforcement. During the year investigations into alleged attacks by gendarmerie against protesters remained stalled, and the case was transferred from one prosecutor’s office to another.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits fascist, racist, or xenophobic ideologies, organizations, and symbols.
In August 2018 the government adopted an ordinance that authorizes the Ministry of Public Finances to check whether NGOs use the funds redirected by citizens from their income tax according to the organizations’ primary goals. The ADHR-HC asserted this measure would allow the government to harass NGOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The internal movement of beneficiaries of international protection and stateless persons was generally not restricted. Asylum seekers may be subject to measures limiting their freedom of movement and to detention in specific circumstances. The law and implementing regulations provide that the General Inspectorate for Immigration may designate a specific place of residence for an applicant for asylum while authorities determine his or her eligibility, or may take restrictive measures, subject to approval by the prosecutor’s office, that amount to administrative detention in “specially arranged closed areas.” According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of October no such cases of asylum detention were recorded during the year. Applicants who do not qualify for asylum are treated as aliens without a right to stay in the country and may be taken into custody pending deportation. According to the law, those applying for asylum while in public custody were released from detention if granted access to the ordinary procedure. Detention in public custody centers is subject to regular review and should not exceed six months unless there are specific circumstances, in which case detention may be extended for up to 18 months. Applicants for or beneficiaries of international protection in certain circumstances, particularly those declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, may be subject to administrative detention in public custody centers.
The government may grant “tolerated status” to persons who do not meet the requirements for refugee status or subsidiary protection, but who cannot be returned for various reasons. These reasons include cases where stateless persons are not accepted by their former country of habitual residence or where the lives or well-being of returnees could be at risk. Persons with “tolerated status” have the right to work but not to benefit from any other social protection or inclusion provisions, and the government restricted their freedom of movement to a specific region of the country.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to UNHCR, several incidents of harassment, discrimination, and crimes against refugees and migrants were reported throughout the year in Bucharest and other parts of the country, although most incidents were not reported because of fear, lack of information, inadequate support services, and inefficient redress mechanisms.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, which could include irregular migrants potentially in need of international protection.
Refoulement: The law establishes exceptions to the principle of nonrefoulement and the withdrawal of the right to stay following a declaration of a person as “undesirable.” This may occur, for example, when classified information or “well founded indications” suggest that aliens (including applicants for asylum, or persons granted asylum) intend to commit terrorist acts or favor terrorism. Applicants for protection declared “undesirable” on national security grounds were taken into custody pending the finalization of their asylum procedure and then deported.
Access to Asylum: The law provides access to asylum procedures to foreign nationals and stateless persons who express their desire for protection, which may be in the form of refugee status or temporary “subsidiary protection” status. The asylum law prohibits the expulsion, extradition, or forced return of any asylum seeker at the country’s border or from within the country’s territory, but this was not without exception, particularly in cases that fell under the country’s national security and terrorism laws.
The law also refers to the concept of a safe third country. The law extends to irregular migrants who transited and were offered protection in a third country considered safe or who had the opportunity at the border or on the soil of a safe third country to contact authorities for the purpose of obtaining protection. In such cases authorities could deny access to asylum procedures if the designated safe third country agreed to readmit the applicant to its territory and grant access to asylum procedures.
Freedom of Movement: The law incorporates four “restrictive” measures under which the internal movement of applicants for asylum may be limited. The first two establish an obligation to report regularly to the General Inspectorate for Immigration or to reside at a regional reception center. A third restrictive measure allows authorities to place applicants in “specially arranged closed areas” for a maximum of 60 days, either to access the asylum procedure or if the asylum seeker is deemed to pose a danger to national security. There was no case of an asylum applicant being placed in a specially arranged closed area through October. Authorities may also place asylum applicants in administrative detention in a public custody center if they are subject to a transfer to another EU member state under the Dublin Regulations or if they have been declared “undesirable” for reasons of national security, pending their removal from the country.
According to UNHCR, irregular migrants, persons declared as “undesirable,” asylum seekers deemed to pose a “risk of absconding,” as well as other categories of foreigners may face detention in public custody centers. Under provisions of the law to limit “abuse to the asylum procedure,” irregular migrants who submitted their first application for international protection while in custody were released from detention only if granted access to the ordinary asylum application procedure. The provisions raised concerns among UN agencies and civil society due to the ambiguity in the phrases “abuse of the asylum procedure” and “risk of absconding.”
The period of detention in a public custody center could be prolonged up to a maximum of 18 months.
Employment: While persons granted international protection have the legal right to work, job scarcity, low wages, lack of language proficiency, and lack of recognized academic degrees and other certifications often resulted in unemployment or employment without a legal contract and its related benefits and protections. Obtaining a legal work contract remained difficult for various reasons, including tax concerns and the reluctance of employers to hire refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Effective access by persons with refugee status or subsidiary protection to education, housing, lifelong learning and employment, public health care, and social security varied across the country, depending on the level of awareness of various public and private actors responsible for ensuring access to these services.
Recipients of subsidiary protection complained of problems regarding their freedom of movement to other countries due to the additional visa requirements. UNHCR reported that refugees saw citizenship acquisition as a cumbersome, costly, and difficult process, with some requirements, particularly related to the applicant’s financial situation, that were difficult to meet.
According to UNHCR, as of June there were 337 stateless persons with valid residence documents in the country. These included legal residents under the aliens’ regime, stateless persons of Romanian origin, as well as 112 persons granted some form of international protection. Data on stateless persons, including on persons at risk of statelessness and persons of undetermined nationality, were not reliable due to the absence of a procedure to determine statelessness, the absence of a single designated authority responsible for this purpose, and the lack of adequate identification and registration of persons with unknown or undetermined nationality.
The law includes favorable provisions for stateless persons of Romanian origin to reacquire citizenship. Nevertheless, a significant gap persisted due to the lack of safeguards against statelessness for children born in the country, who would be stateless because their parents either were themselves stateless or were foreigners unable to transmit their nationality.
Turkey is a constitutional republic with an executive presidential system and a 600-seat parliament. The unicameral parliament (the Grand National Assembly) exercises legislative authority. In presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers expressed concern regarding restrictions on media reporting and the campaign environment that restricted the ability of opposition candidates, including the jailing of a presidential candidate at the time, to compete on an equal basis and campaign freely. In March municipal elections, Council of Europe observers expressed similar concerns about limitations on freedom of expression, particularly for the media, and about a legal framework that contributed to an unequal campaign environment. The observers also criticized the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to rerun the Istanbul mayoral race in June and several decisions replacing winning opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidates with second-place governing-party candidates.
The National Police and Jandarma, under the control of the Ministry of Interior, are responsible for security in urban areas and rural and border areas respectively. The military has overall responsibility for border control and external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over law enforcement, but mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption remained inadequate, and impunity remained a problem.
Under broad antiterror legislation the government restricted fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law. Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds, primarily for alleged ties to the movement of cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of masterminding the coup attempt, and designated by the government as the leader of the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”).
Significant human rights issues included: reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons, including former opposition members of parliament, lawyers, journalists, foreign citizens, and employees of the U.S. Mission, for purported ties to “terrorist” groups or peaceful legitimate speech; the existence of political prisoners, including elected officials and academics; significant problems with judicial independence; severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, closure of media outlets, and unjustified arrests or criminal prosecution of journalists and others for criticizing government policies or officials, censorship, site blocking and the existence of criminal libel laws; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly, association, and movement; some cases of refoulement of refugees; and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and members of other minorities.
The government took limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish members of the security forces and other officials accused of human rights abuses; impunity remained a problem.
Clashes between security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization and its affiliates continued, although at a reduced level compared with previous years, and resulted in the injury or death of security forces, PKK terrorists, and civilians. The government did not release information on efforts to investigate or prosecute personnel for wrongful or inadvertent deaths of civilians linked to counter-PKK operations.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits, and the government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech, for example, through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists during the preceding three years hindered freedom of speech and that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for a conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a poll by Reuters conducted in 2018 as part of its Digital News Report: Turkey Supplementary Report, 65 percent of respondents in Turkey stated, “…concern that openly expressing their views online could get them into trouble with the authorities.”
Expression critical of the government was frequently met with criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups or terrorism. In October, during Operation Peace Spring, the government launched investigations against more than 800 individuals largely for social media posts deemed critical of government actions in northeast Syria. The Ministry of Interior reported in the same month it had detained 186 and arrested 24 individuals based on charges related to support for terror because of their social media posts.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. Based on HRA and HRFT statistics, during the first 11 months of the year, the government investigated more than 36,000 individuals and filed criminal cases against more than 6,000 people related to accusations they insulted the president or the state. In May a court sentenced construction worker Deniz Avci to two years’ imprisonment for insulting the president after he shared two cartoons depicting President Erdogan on social media. Avci’s lawyer noted the government had not opened any lawsuits against the cartoons’ creator or publisher.
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied. The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons who have been issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, or other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” alleging ties to the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
Estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists ranged from at least 47 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to 136 according to the International Press Institute (IPI). The majority faced charges related to antistate reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. Hundreds more remained out of work after the government closed more than 200 media companies allegedly affiliated with the PKK or Gulen movement, mostly in 2016-17, as part of its response to the 2016 coup attempt.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On September 6, an Istanbul court sentenced Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chairperson Canan Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting the republic” and “insulting the president” for tweets she shared between 2012 and 2017. She remained free pending a legal appeal at years’ end.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by members of parliament on the floor of parliament, providing for the possible issuance of fines to violators.
On December 2, the Diyarbakir public prosecutor requested charges be filed against former Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen and the former members of the bar’s executive board for violating Article 301 of the penal code, the article that criminalizes, among other things, openly provoking hatred and hostility and insulting parliament. The charges stemmed from a statement the Diyarbakir Bar Association released on April 24, 2017, saying, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in enhanced caution in their public reporting.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters Without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most-watched television stations and most-read national daily newspapers. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of independent journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In April 2018, 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were convicted of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. The court placed the journalists on probation and banned them from traveling abroad until the appeals process concluded. In April six defendants returned to prison after an appeals court upheld their convictions. Following a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in September that dismissed most of the cases, only one former staff member remained jailed, but travel bans on the others remained in place. The original court set aside the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and held a retrial for 13 of the original defendants in November, acquitting one and ruling against the Supreme Court of Appeals’ decision for the other 12. The case continued at year’s end as the defendants appealed the decision.
Additional journalists whose detentions were considered politically motivated included four journalists and editors who had worked for the now-closed, Gulen-linked Zaman newspaper. Authorities arrested the four in 2016, and they remained in detention on terrorism and coup-related charges. International human rights organizations condemned the sentences of six other journalists sentenced to aggravated life prison sentences on February 16 for alleged links to the 2016 coup attempt. On July 6, courts convicted an additional six journalists associated with the closed Zaman newspaper of terrorism-related charges and sentenced them to between eight and more than 10 years’ imprisonment.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country. For example, after serving three months in prison for “membership in a terror organization” and being acquitted in December 2018 due to lack of evidence, Austrian journalist and student Max Zringast remained under judicial control and was barred from leaving the country.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
In a spate of violence during the spring, six journalists from various outlets across the country were attacked in the space of five weeks. In May six individuals attacked Yenicag newspaper columnist Yavuz Demirag, ostensibly because they disagreed with his reporting. All three were released after questioning by authorities. In another attack in May, three individuals who attacked journalist Selahattin Onkibar were released under judicial control. The Turkish Journalists Union criticized the lack of investigations and blamed the increase in attacks against journalists on a sense of impunity on the part of those responsible for attacks.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against an individual or publication in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public. In November reporters Ruken Demir (Mesopotamia Agency) and Melike Aydın (Jinnews) were placed in pretrial detention pending a hearing on charges of supporting a terrorist organization that reportedly stemmed from the content of their reporting.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of news media, online media, and books. The Ministry of Interior disclosed that, between January 1 and April 9, it examined 10,250 social media accounts and took legal action against more than 3,600 users whom it accused of propagandizing or promoting terror organizations, inciting persons to enmity and hostility, or insulting state institutions. Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, publishing houses were required to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association (TPA) reported that the country’s largest bookstore chain, D&R, removed some books from its shelves and did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The TPA reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The TPA reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Publishers were also subject to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities directly banned books because of objectionable content. For example, in September a court in Kars banned two books related to Kurds or “Kurdistan” for promoting “a terrorist organization.”
In July an Ankara court ordered domestic internet service providers to block in-country access to 135 web addresses representing a wide variety of platforms, including the independent news site Ozgur Gelecek (see Internet Freedom).
The government’s efforts to control media continued. A July report by Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (a think tank with close ties to the ruling AKP) identified some foreign media outlets reporting from the country (e.g., BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Voice of America) as “antigovernment” and “proterrorism” for stories the organization deemed too critical of the Turkish government or promoting terrorist-related perspectives. In response the Turkish Journalists Union filed a complaint about the report, stating that it made the outlets and their correspondents “public targets.” Other critics and free speech advocates, including the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, asserted the publication laid the groundwork for greater suppression of foreign reporting and correspondents.
Some journalists reported their employers fired them or asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. Failure to comply typically resulted in a dismissal, with media groups occasionally citing “financial reasons” as a blanket cause for termination.
Some writers and publishers were subject to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Media and Law Studies Association codirector and lawyer Veysel Ok and reporter Cihan Acar were sentenced to five months’ imprisonment on the charge of “degrading the judicial bodies of the state.” The lawsuit was based on an interview Ok gave to the newspaper Ozgur Dusunce in which he questioned the independence of the judiciary.
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that the media generally favored the ruling AKP political party, including during the March municipal elections (see section 3).
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” For example, RTUK sanctioned television channel TELE1 for broadcasting a speech made by HDP cochair Sezai Temelli in parliament. As of August RTUK’s authority extended to online broadcasters as well. Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. Civil society organizations reported concerns about the high cost of the license and requirement to obtain vetting certification from local police.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of the year. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” For example, in July a court of appeals sentenced famous local singer and actress Zuhal Olcay to 11 months and 20 days in prison for allegedly insulting the president in a song at a concert.
The government also targeted lawmakers, mostly from the pro-Kurdish HDP, with a significant number of insult-related cases. As of December at least 4,912 HDP lawmakers, executives, and party members had been arrested since July 2016 for a variety of charges related to terrorism and political speech.
While leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, free speech advocates pointed out that the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted.
According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 the government launched 36,660 investigations against at least 6,320 individuals related to insulting the president, including 104 children between the ages of 12 and 15. Comprehensive government figures for 2019 were unavailable at year’s end.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In one example in July, two filmmakers were sentenced to four years, six months in prison for their 2015 documentary movie, Bakur, about the PKK. According to the court, the documentary was “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Many observers, however, viewed the prosecution as an example of the government using antiterror laws to limit freedom of expression.
Prominent columnist Ahmet Altan remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and received an aggravated life sentence in February 2018. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his life imprisonment sentence in July and recommended he face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization.” In November the court convicted Altan on the lesser charge but ordered his release for time served. He was released on November 4 but rearrested on November 12 following the prosecutor’s objection to his release. Economist Mehmet Altan was previously convicted, along with his brother Ahmet, on terror-related charges for allegedly sending coded messages to the 2016 coup plotters during a panel discussion on a television program. The Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict against Mehmet Altan due to a lack of sufficient and credible evidence, and he was acquitted in the retrial.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in June a criminal court in Istanbul accepted an indictment charging two Bloomberg News reporters for their coverage of the country’s economy, alleging that their reports had undermined the country’s economic stability. If convicted, they could face as many as five years in prison.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2018: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism highlighted fewer instances of network shutdowns but the continuation of blocked access to several news and citizen journalism websites, as well as increasing self-censorship.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked Wikipedia and other news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove the offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information Technologies Institution (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($8,500 to $85,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In August the BTK announced it would block access to 135 web addresses. The action targeted opposition news portals and public media accounts–notably the Twitter account of HDP Istanbul member of parliament Oya Ersoy and accounts that posted updates about the continuing Gezi trial. The BTK stated the move was “to protect national security and public order, prevent crime or protect public health.” Domestic and international media organizations and activists condemned the decision.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that are responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks. Content providers, including Twitter and Facebook, were required to obtain an operating certificate for the country.
Internet access providers, including internet cafes, were required to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO Engelliweb, the government blocked an additional 54,903 domain names during 2018, bringing the total number of blocked sites to 245,825. Of the new domain names that were blocked, 95 percent were blocked through a BTK decision.
Wikipedia has been blocked in the country for more than two years on the basis of national security concerns. In May, following two years of a state-imposed ban against the Wikipedia website, the Wikipedia Foundation brought a case against the country in the ECHR. In July the ECHR decided to expedite the case, due to its public importance. The Constitutional Court began deliberations on the website’s appeal of the ban in September and in late December ruled the government’s ban was a violation of the freedom of expression.
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the first six months of the year, the company received 6,073 court orders and other legal requests from Turkish authorities to remove content, the highest number of such requests worldwide.
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics lost their jobs or faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy during the year. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education. According to press reports, as of August, 273 departments for 78 public universities did not have any academic staff. In July the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the Academics for Peace, for “terrorist propaganda” after they signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence against Kurds in the southeast and calling for peace, constituted a violation of their right to freedom of expression. Following the high court’s verdict, as of November lower courts acquitted 486 academics, and 336 cases remained pending. Most academics who were acquitted were not reinstated to their previous positions.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The state-run broadcaster TRT banned songs from the airwaves and defended the practice, stating it was respecting the law that forbids the broadcast of content encouraging persons to smoke or drink or that conveys “terrorist propaganda.” In September prosecutors accepted a criminal complaint against 18 rappers who took part in the #SUSAMAM project, a 15-minute rap video that examined a wide spectrum of social issues.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face during a protest. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRA and HRFT jointly reported that in the first 11 months of the year, police intervened in 962 demonstrations. As many as 2,800 persons claimed they faced beating and inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests. In July students at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University were confronted by police spraying tear gas before being forcibly removed. The students had set up tents to protest the cutting of trees for the construction of a new state dormitory on campus.
On March 8, police used tear gas to break up an International Women’s Day march of several thousand demonstrators near Istanbul’s Taksim Square. President Erdogan claimed some participants continued their protest during the call to prayer, which he said constituted an insult to religion (a crime according to domestic law). Progovernment media extensively covered the events with columnists widely condemning the demonstrators and largely echoing Erdogan’s criticisms, although some in progovernment media criticized his use of religion in this way. The women’s committee in charge of organizing the event issued a statement denying the accusations and asserting police used excessive force against the demonstrators.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Domestic and international observers were admitted to observe one hearing.
The government also selectively restricted gatherings to designated sites or dates, particularly limiting access to Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Street and Ankara’s Kizilay Square, and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from gathering there. Although police removed barriers around the human rights monument in Ankara’s Kizilay Square in July, a mobile police presence remained. The government selectively banned many demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government. In September-October, Ankara police prevented mothers of military cadets sentenced to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the coup attempt from gathering outside the AKP headquarters building in Ankara. In contrast, during the same period, police did not prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, instead requiring the group to hold the weekly gathering on a nearby side street. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu previously accused the group of exploiting the concept of motherhood to mask support for terrorism.
The governors of Kayseri and Istanbul banned an academic conference hosted by the Hrant Dink Foundation in their respective provinces. The conference was the sixth in a series of similar events across the country. In a press statement, the group said the conference was a legal action taken directly in line with its government-approved foundational charter and did not violate the sections of law pertaining to assemblies and demonstrations.
Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year. For example, in January police prevented HDP lawmakers from holding a press conference in support of HDP member of parliament Leyla Guven’s hunger strike in front of the HDP Diyarbakir provincial headquarters. Police also violently disrupted a February demonstration in Van on the same topic.
In contrast with previous years, labor rights activists and political parties participated in largely peaceful marches throughout the country on May 1 (Labor Day). Turkish authorities detained 127 marchers in Istanbul who attempted to gather in Taksim Square (which the government specified as off limits).
The governors of Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya, Gaziantep, and Mersin issued bans on public activities by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons during the year. In May and June, police broke up public events related to Pride Month using batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in Izmir and Istanbul. In Izmir groups reported police detained 16 persons for several hours, and police in Istanbul reportedly detained three to five individuals. Police in Ankara also responded to similar events with tear gas despite court rulings that the governorate’s blanket ban on public events by LGBTI groups was not legal. Activists reported that despite the court’s ruling, the government continued to impose individual bans on events and assemblies.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent from reopening associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security. In July the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures announced the government had closed 1,750 nongovernmental associations and foundations under state of emergency measures. Of those, the government allowed the reopening of 208 groups. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting LGBTI rights, and women’s groups in particular complained the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. In December the government closed Antakya Purple Solidarity Women’s Association, alleging the association was providing training without the requisite permissions. Bar association representatives reported that police sometimes attended civil society organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In February the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it would seek life imprisonment for philanthropist Osman Kavala, the former editor in chief of opposition-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet, and 15 other journalists, artists, and human rights activists for “attempting to overthrow the government” by “organizing and financing” the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Human rights groups criticized the 657-page indictment as not containing “a shred of evidence” of criminal activities. Kavala, the founder of Anadolu Kultur, an organization dedicated to cross-cultural and religious dialogue, had been in prison since 2017. Hearings in the trial began in June. Defendants asserted the evidence presented by the prosecutor did not amount to a crime, contained inaccuracies, and made conclusions based on supposition rather than fact.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued. The defendants were charged with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop entitled, Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security, held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. A court had released Kilic under judicial control in August 2018 while his case continued. In November the prosecutor recommended conviction for Kilic and five other defendants on terror-related charges and requested acquittal for the remaining five. The case continued at years’ end.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In March authorities lifted passport restrictions for 57,000 individuals, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement. The government declared Hakkari Province a “special security zone” and limited movement into and out of several districts in the province for weeks at a time, citing the need to protect citizens from PKK attacks.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allowed severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as to their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained that the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security.
For those barred from travel, some chose to leave the country illegally. In October a boat carrying 19 citizens seeking to flee the country capsized in the Aegean Sea, killing seven, including five children.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring displaced residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria. The renewal of conflict between the government and the PKK in the southeast in 2015 resulted in hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In some cases those displaced joined IDPs remaining from the conflict between security forces and the PKK between 1984 and the early 2000s. A reduction in urban clashes and government reconstruction efforts during the year permitted some IDPs to return to their homes. Overall numbers remained unclear at year’s end.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation. In Nusaybin the government built and distributed 778 housing units to residents whose homes were destroyed in antiterror operations.
The government took steps during the year to increase services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were displaced Syrians. A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea. The Directorate General for Migration Management reported 414,313 “irregular migrants” were apprehended as of November. UNHCR reported 185,000 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. Some 89,000 were deported to their countries of origin. Most of these individuals were from Pakistan or Afghanistan, according to UNHCR. Reports of larger-scale detentions of individuals, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, were also received. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 144 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Multiple sources reported that authorities denied entry to undocumented Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans during the year. There were reports that Turkish border guards intercepted or summarily deported Syrians and Afghans seeking asylum. In the days immediately following the Ministry of Interior’s announcement of stricter enforcement of refugee registration requirements in Istanbul, UNHCR confirmed that a small number of Syrian refugees had been involuntarily returned to Syria. Turkish border guards also reportedly killed or injured Syrian asylum seekers at the border (see section 1.a.). During the offensive by Syrian government forces in Idlib in June and July, there were reports of displaced Syrians in Turkey being forced to return back across the border into Syria (also see Refoulement).
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained closed to all but urgent humanitarian, medical, and family reunification cases since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, only three were open for limited civilian access. The rest were for military or military and humanitarian assistance only. Since November 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to gain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they can register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. In June in the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul, tensions between local residents and Syrian refugees erupted into violence that continued for two nights and resulted in the destruction of several Syrian businesses. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers (also see Refoulement).
In certain districts of Istanbul, NGO staff members reported receiving verbal threats and harassment from residents of host communities, urging them not to help Syrians.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement and tens of thousands of deportations have taken place during the year. The government increased efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children and some specialized medical cases and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. During the year the government also increased enforcement in major cities, such as Istanbul, against those who were either unregistered or registered to live in another province. In one instance an operation in July in Istanbul apprehended 6,122 individuals, including 2,600 Afghans and 1,000 Syrians, who either did not have valid registration to reside in Istanbul or who did not have registration at all.
The Ministry of Interior stated that all refugees of nationalities other than Syrian apprehended during these operations were sent to “repatriation centers.” Multiple refugee advocacy and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, reported the refoulement of some Syrians throughout the summer, during active conflict in Idlib, and the fall. While some deported Syrians acknowledged they were living unregistered when they were apprehended and deported, others said they were living outside their city of registration or claimed to have been carrying valid government documents guaranteeing their ability to reside in Turkey. One international human rights group reported that 23 Syrians claimed they were forcibly repatriated although they had not been willing to sign a “voluntary return form” or signed only after being coerced or misinformed. The government contended all returns were voluntary.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to millions of Syrians while maintaining conditional/subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional/subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some contacts expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are supposed to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM). Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence, the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions.
Access to Basic Services: The government provided free access to the public medical system to Syrians registered for temporary protection and subsidized medical care to other conditional refugees. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children. Many encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier or meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,000 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 36.9 percent remained out of school as of September. According to UNICEF, nearly 526,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for durable solutions within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 100,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
Temporary Protection: Turkey adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government offered temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In 15 provinces the DGMM no longer processed new registrations beyond newborns and highly vulnerable Syrians. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care. By year’s end the DGMM had closed all but seven camps in five provinces. Residents of these camps numbered 63,443 at year’s end, according to authorities.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2018, 74,939 Syrians held valid residence permits; 2019 figures were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December there were at least 405,500 babies born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Interior Ministry.