Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to HRW, however, sedition and criminal defamation laws were used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or opposed state policies. In certain cases, local authorities arrested individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. Freedom House, in its most recent report, asserted that freedom of expression was weakening in the country and noted the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. The report stated authorities have used security, defamation, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media outlets. In some instances the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from media outlets that criticized the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship.
On January 10, Assam’s prominent academic Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested in Guwahati and charged with sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. On January 11, Gohan and Gogoi were awarded interim bail, and Mahanta was awarded absolute bail. On February 15, Gohan and Gogoi were given absolute bail. Gogoi was later arrested on December 10 while protesting the enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act; his case was referred to the National Investigation Agency for sedition, criminal conspiracy, unlawful association, and assertions prejudicial to national integration.
On March 10, filmmakers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals joined a protest in Kolkata against the “unofficial ban” on the Bengali feature film Bhabishyater Bhoot (Spirits of the Future), a political satire by director Anik Datta. Media reported that two days after the film’s release on February 15, most cinema halls in West Bengal refused to screen the film, citing unofficial pressure from authorities. The government’s film certification board had already cleared the film. Following an April 11 Supreme Court order, the West Bengal government paid a fine of two million rupees ($30,000) to the film’s producer.
On April 28, police in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada prevented film director Ram Gopal Varma from addressing a press conference in the city to promote his movie, Lakshmi’s NTR, which portrays the life of former state chief minister N.T. Rama Rao. Varma alleged that police acted under pressure from the ruling Telugu Desam Party, which opposed the movie’s release during national elections. Police claimed that Varma was not allowed to address a press conference as prohibitory orders were in force during the conduct of the elections.
In late April, BJP Party workers in Assam allegedly attacked journalists in the Nalbari, Tinsukia, and Jorhat Districts when the journalists were covering the national elections. On May 6, Trinamool Congress Party workers in West Bengal allegedly attacked journalists covering elections in several locations.
On July 21, Tamil Nadu police arrested a 24-year-old man in Nagapattinam District for consuming beef soup in a Facebook posting. Police filed charges against him for disturbing peace and communal harmony. Four others were arrested on July 11 for allegedly attacking the accused but were later granted bail.
On July 28, two men shot and killed Pradeep Mandal, a journalist with Hindi daily Dainik Jagran in Bihar’s Madhubani town. Media outlets reported that he was targeted for exposing bootleggers’ syndicates in the state. Bihar has imposed a prohibition on the sale and consumption of liquor.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and, in some areas, blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement. Several journalists reported that the heavy deployment of security forces, accompanied by a communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir from early August, severely hampered the freedom of the press in Jammu and Kashmir. Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Srinagar-based newspaper the Kashmir Times, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in August stating that journalists were not allowed to move freely in Jammu and Kashmir. The petition also claimed the intimidation of journalists by the government and security forces. On September 1, authorities stopped another Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, from flying to Germany to participate in a program organized by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index identified physical attacks on journalists and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for non-English language journalists, those in rural areas, and female journalists. Journalists working in “sensitive” areas, including Jammu and Kashmir, continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions, and local affiliates reported increased fears of violence. Attacks on journalists by supporters of Hindu nationalist groups increased prior to the May national elections, according to the report. Reports of self-censorship due to fear of official or public reprisal were common, including the use of Section 124a of the penal code, which includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
The Editors Guild of India claimed the government limited press freedom by exerting political pressure and blocking television transmissions. The guild separately called for authorities to restore communications in Jammu and Kashmir, where a prolonged communications shutdown limited media freedom.
On July 12, Hyderabad police arrested journalist Revathi Pogadadanda, reportedly in connection with a six-month-old case registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Police allegedly did not produce an arrest warrant at the time of arrest and released her on bail a week later. Pogadadanda alleged her arrest was part of the government’s vindictive action against her mentor and senior journalist Ravi Prakash, who had published two interviews online accusing the Telangana chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, and a prominent industrialist, P.V. Krishna Reddy, of corruption in a multimillion dollar public transport scam. On October 5, Prakash was arrested on allegations of corporate fraud. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced both arrests.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were some accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books due to material that government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018.
On April 8, the Manipur High Court ordered the release of television journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem. Police arrested Wangkhem in November 2018 under the National Security Act for criticizing the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his social media posts.
On May 26, the Bengaluru police filed a “first information report”–a report prepared by police upon first receipt of information of a possible crime–against Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Kannada daily Vishwavani, for allegedly publishing derogatory remarks against K. Nikhil, son of then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Police did not make any arrests.
On May 29, six unidentified persons grievously injured journalist Pratap Patra in Balasore District of Odisha. Patra alleged he was attacked after publishing an investigative article on May 8 against a local sand miner, who had been illegally quarrying sand. The article led authorities to levy a fine of 1.6 million rupees ($23,000) on the sand-mining company. Police arrested three individuals on June 2.
On June 8, Uttar Pradesh police arrested and filed criminal charges against a freelance journalist for allegedly posting a video of a woman claiming to be in a relationship with state chief minister Yogi Adityanath. On June 11, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the journalist and chastised the Uttar Pradesh government for the arrest.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
A right to information response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in 2017 revealed that at least 20,030 websites were blocked at that time. The government proposed rules in February that would give it broad latitude to demand content removal from social media sites, which civil society organizations felt could be used to stifle free speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
Several individuals in Telangana were either arrested or disciplined during the year for making or posting critical comments through videos and social media platforms about Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao and other leaders of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi Party. On April 24, Telangana police arrested Thagaram Naveen for producing and sharing a derogatory video about Rao. On April 30, Hyderabad police arrested Chirpa Naresh for posting abusive comments and sharing morphed images of Rao and then member of parliament K. Kavitha.
On May 25, police arrested tribal rights activist and academic Jeetrai Hansda for a Facebook post defending his community’s right to eat beef. Hansda was arrested in response to a complaint filed in 2017 by the Hindu nationalist students’ organization ABVP under charges that he violated sections of the Indian Penal Code that govern insults to religious feelings and attempts to promote enmity between groups of people.
On August 14, police in Assam registered a complaint against Gauhati University research scholar Rehana Sultana over a two-year-old Facebook post, allegedly about the consumption of beef. According to media reports, police took note after the two-year-old post resurfaced.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. In August 2018 numerous outlets reported that the Indian Department of Telecom was seeking the views of telecom companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders on ways to block mobile apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram, “in cases where national security or public order are under threat.”
There were government restrictions on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, and censorship of online content. There were also reports the government occasionally monitored users of digital media, such as chat rooms and person-to-person communications. The law permits the government to block internet sites and content and criminalizes sending messages the government deems inflammatory or offensive. Both central and state governments have the power to issue directives for blocking, intercepting, monitoring, or decrypting computer information. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions, often during periods of political unrest.
In 2015 the Supreme Court overturned some provisions of the information technology law that restricted content published on social media, but it upheld the government’s authority to issue orders to block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, and friendly relations with foreign states or public order” without court approval. In 2017 the Ministry of Communications announced Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules allowing the government to shut telephone and internet services temporarily during a “public emergency” or for “public safety.” According to these rules, an order for suspension could be made by a “competent authority” at either the federal or state level.
According to NGO Software Freedom Law Center, the central and state governments shut down the internet in different locations 134 times in 2018, the highest annual figure ever recorded. The NGO also reported that, through August, the central and state governments on 77 occasions temporarily shut down the internet in different locations across the country. The government continued to block telecommunications and internet connections in certain regions during periods of political unrest. In February mobile internet connections were blocked for four days in Manipur after protests occurred in the state. Landline connections remained offline for more than one month in parts of the state, while mobile telephone, mobile data, and internet connections took longer to be restored. The government frequently curtailed internet access during periods of violence and curfew in Jammu and Kashmir and occasionally in other parts of the country, particularly Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh. In December, in response to protests concerning the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, internet shutdowns were again used throughout the country. NGOs maintained that local officials often used Section 144 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure that empowers authorities to maintain public peace and stability, as the legal basis for internet shutdowns.
From August to mid-October, the government imposed severe restrictions on communications in Jammu and Kashmir, citing security concerns. On August 4, the government suspended all communications, including internet, mobile telephones, and landlines, across Jammu and Kashmir. Several petitions were filed in the Supreme Court protesting the government’s actions, including a plea by social activist Tehseen Poonawalla, who maintained that the communications shutdown amounted to a suspension of freedom of speech and deprivation of personal liberty under the constitution. On August 13, the Supreme Court granted the government additional time to keep the restrictions in place, noting that the situation was “sensitive.” NGOs maintained that the suspension of communications adversely affected the daily lives of residents, preventing them from reaching loved ones and accessing health care as well as causing financial stress to businesses reliant upon it. Landlines were restored in September. On October 14, postpaid mobile telephone access was restored; government authorities noted text messaging would be restored on January 1. Prepaid mobile telephones and the internet mostly remained blocked.
NGOs asserted that this approach bypassed some safeguards in the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules, including oversight by a review committee. A UNESCO report stated that one-half of the shutdowns were reported from Jammu and Kashmir, where in the first four months of the year, there were 25 reported cases of internet shutdown.
Requests for user data from internet companies continued to rise. According to Facebook’s transparency report, the government made 37,385 data requests in 2018, a 70 percent rise from 2017. Google also highlighted an increase in government requests for user data in its 2018 Transparency Report, receiving 24,404 user-data disclosure requests. Twitter reported 777 account information requests from the government during the same period.
In its Freedom in the World 2019 country report for India, Freedom House noted that central and state governments frequently suspended mobile internet services to curb collective action by citizens. NGOs also asserted that the legal basis for internet shutdowns was not always clear, creating issues of accountability and legal remedy.
Press outlets reported several instances in which individuals were arrested or detained for online activity. In January an Indian politician from Tamil Nadu was arrested for posting an altered picture of Prime Minister Modi with a begging bowl. Several media outlets reported on a spate of arrests of individuals in connection with social media posts following the February 14 attack on Indian troops in Pulwama District in Jammu and Kashmir. Press outlets reported that police continued to arrest individuals under section 66A of the Information Technology Act for sending offensive messages, despite a Supreme Court ruling striking down the statute.
The Central Monitoring System (CMS) continued to allow governmental agencies to monitor electronic communications in real time without informing the subject or a judge. The CMS is a mass electronic surveillance data-mining program installed by the Center for Development of Telematics, a government-owned telecommunications technology development center. The CMS gives security agencies and income tax officials centralized access to the telecommunication network and the ability to hear and record mobile, landline, and satellite telephone calls and Voice over Internet Protocol, to read private emails and mobile phone text messages, and to track geographical locations of individuals in real time. Authorities can also use it to monitor posts shared on social media and track users’ search histories on search engines, without oversight by courts or parliament. This monitoring facility was available to nine security agencies, including the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the Ministry of Home Affairs. The law governing interception and monitoring provides an oversight mechanism to prevent unauthorized interceptions. Punishment for unauthorized interception includes fines, a maximum prison sentence of three years, or both.
The government occasionally applied restrictions on the travel and activities of visiting foreign experts and scholars. Academics continued to face threats and pressure for expressing controversial views.
On April 3, Odisha Tourism Department authorities canceled a book reading session by noted historian William Dalrymple, which was originally scheduled for April 5-8 at the Mukteswar heritage temple in Bhubaneswar. The cancellation followed a police complaint filed by a Hindu nationalist who claimed that the reading would hurt the sentiments of Hindus. The activist, Anil Dhir, alleged that ritualistic worship happens in the temple, and it would hurt the sentiments of Hindus if the temple were “misused.” Police, however, cited the ongoing elections and enforcement of a model code of conduct as justification for canceling the event.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly occasionally detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.
Security forces, including local police, often disrupted demonstrations and reportedly used excessive force when attempting to disperse protesters.
There were sometimes restrictions on the organization of international conferences. Authorities required NGOs to secure approval from the central government before organizing international conferences. Authorities routinely granted permission, although in some cases the approval process was lengthy. Some human rights groups claimed this practice provided the government tacit control over the work of NGOs and constituted a restriction on freedoms of assembly and association.
NGO Human Rights Forum alleged that police routinely denied permission to the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist New Democracy to organize a public meeting on June 10 against the Supreme Court decision on eviction of forest dwellers. The NGO criticized police for failing to provide justification for their decision. Many indigenous persons who came to participate in the public meeting were arrested, and many others were prevented from reaching Hyderabad, the NGO alleged.
The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government required “prior approval” for some NGOs to receive foreign funds, suspended foreign banking licenses, or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without the proper clearances or that mixed foreign and domestic funding. In other instances, the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations. Further FCRA requirements announced in September require NGOs to file an additional affidavit declaring that, among other things, the entity has not been prosecuted or convicted in engaging in propagation of sedition. The government has used sedition laws to prosecute those critical of government.
Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by MHA officials who they said were purportedly under pressure to demonstrate strict enforcement of the law. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on nonpublic investigations by the Intelligence Bureau.
Some NGOs alleged they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” issues, such as human rights or environmental activism. The Center for Promotion of Social Concerns and its partner program unit People’s Watch continued court proceedings against the nonrenewal of their FCRA license. In June, acting on an MHA complaint, the CBI filed a first information report against Supreme Court advocate Anand Grover and the NGO Lawyers Collective, an organization run by Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising, alleging discrepancies in the utilization of foreign funds. On July 11, the CBI accused Grover and Jaising of violating FCRA provisions and raided their home and offices. On July 25, the Bombay High Court stated the CBI allegation against Lawyers Collective–about mixing FCRA funds with domestic funding–was “vague and arbitrary,” and it directed the CBI not to take any coercive steps in relation to the first information report until August 19. Civil society groups, including HRW and the International Commission of Jurists, criticized the CBI action as “dubious” and politically motivated.
In October 2018 the Enforcement Directorate, a government agency that investigates financial crimes, raided the premises of Amnesty International India’s Bengaluru office and froze its bank accounts on suspicion it had violated foreign funding guidelines. On July 25, media outlets reported that after the completion of the directorate’s probe, the agency issued a show-cause notice to Amnesty International India for alleged contravention of Foreign Exchange Management Act provisions for an amount of more than 510 million rupees ($7 million).
Amnesty International India disputed the validity of the charges and alleged the harassment and intimidation of its staff. The 2018 raid on Amnesty came days after the Enforcement Directorate searched the premises of environmental nonprofit Greenpeace India in Bengaluru, also for allegedly violating foreign funding rules. In February a letter by three UN special rapporteurs to the government expressed serious concerns at the “smear campaign” and actions taken against Amnesty International India and Greenpeace, saying the ability to access foreign funding is an integral part of the right to freedom of association.
On February 28, the government outlawed the religious-political organization Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir under the UAPA for alleged support of extremism and militancy. On March 22, the government similarly banned another Kashmiri organization, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which supports the independence of the union territory. Political parties and civil society groups in the state described these bans as an attack on civil liberties.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. In 2015 the implementation of a land-boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh enfranchised more than 50,000 previously stateless residents, providing access to education and health services.
The country hosts a large refugee population, including 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased challenges regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, all other refugees were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.
In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The MHA and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: On May 28, Assam Border Police arrested 52-year-old Mohammed Sanaullah, a war veteran and 2017 army retiree, and put him in Goalpara detention center for illegal immigrants after declaring him a foreigner following Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise. The Gauhati High Court released him on June 8.
In July a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam’s Jorhat District declared Indian Border Security Force officer Muzibur Rahman and his wife Jargin Begum as foreigners.
On December 12, the Citizenship Amendment Act received assent from the president. The act provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims. The act does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few reported instances.
Authorities located IDP settlements throughout the country, including those containing groups displaced by internal armed conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir, Maoist-affected areas, the northeastern states (see section 1.g.), and Gujarat. Estimates from January to June suggested that conflicts and violence displaced 6,800 persons, while natural disasters displaced 2.17 million persons.
Estimating precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence was difficult, because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).
National policy or legislation did not address the issue of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs, but it had access to NGOs and human rights organizations, although neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
On July 2, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs assured the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes that the tribal persons displaced from Chhattisgarh due to Maoist violence would be provided land in other states, but the land would be provided only after the ministry completed a comprehensive survey and verified identification of all IDPs. According to the Raipur-based NGO CGNet Swara Foundation, approximately 30,000 tribal persons were displaced from Chhattisgarh and were living mainly in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees like any other foreigners. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to forced returns and abuse. The country has historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations, such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
NGOs observed an increase in antirefugee (specifically anti-Rohingya) rhetoric throughout the year in advance of state and national elections, which reportedly led to an increased sense of insecurity in refugee communities. In October 2018 the Supreme Court rejected a plea to stop the deportation of seven Rohingya immigrants from Assam. The court noted the individuals, held in an Assam jail since 2012, were arrested by Indian authorities as illegal immigrants and that Burma was ready to accept them as their nationals. According to media reports, the nationality of the immigrants was confirmed after the Burmese government verified their addresses in Rakhine State. Rights groups said the government’s decision to deport them placed them at risk of oppression and abuse. According to HRW, the government deported the seven ethnic Rohingya Muslims to Burma where “they are at grave risk of oppression and abuse.” HRW further noted, “The Indian government has disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders.”
Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues. Police in Mizoram rescued a dozen Rohingya refugees from a suspected trafficking operation in May.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least 17 Rohingya were returned since September 2018, according to UNHCR. At least 26 non-Rohingya refugees have been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.
The identity card issued by UNHCR is the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.
In July 2018 the MHA instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The MHA directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.
In August the government finalized the NRC in Assam. The NRC is a Supreme Court-ordered citizenship list containing names of Indian citizens in an effort to identify foreign nationals living in the state. The NRC found nearly two million persons ineligible for citizenship in Assam. The government has established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions in individual cases. News reports indicated the government was in the process of constructing 10 centers to detain illegal immigrants. On December 23, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation of the government’s intention to do so.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited. Nonetheless, the government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but it did permit asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingyas detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.
The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state. The central government approved the extension of funding to run the camps until 2020.
Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized national identity (Aadhaar) card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. The government allowed UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers to apply for long-term visas that would provide work authorization and access to higher education, although the rate of renewal for long-term visas slowed significantly. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
The government began issuing long-term visas to refugees from other countries in 2014, but UNHCR reported that the government did not regularly issue long-term visas during the year.
According to UNHCR and an NGO working with Rohingya in Hyderabad, government of Telangana authorities provided food supplies through public distribution system, postnatal care for mothers, periodic immunization, and a bridge school for children along with three meals a day. Further, the Telangana Open School Society waived the Aadhaar card requirement for Rohingya students to appear for high school examination.
The government did not fully comply with a 2012 MHA directive to issue long-term visas to Rohingya. It has reportedly slowed renewals for those with long-term visas significantly, limiting access to formal employment in addition to education, health services, and bank accounts.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times, such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained Indian citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was an Indian citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at an Indian consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities can also confer citizenship through registration under specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years. Tibetans reportedly sometimes faced difficulty acquiring citizenship despite meeting the legal requirements.
On August 20, the MHA announced that “noninclusion of a person’s name in the NRC does not by itself amount to him or her being declared as a foreigner” and that it would allow 120 days for individuals to appeal against their exclusion from the list. The MHA assured that those excluded from the NRC would be given adequate opportunity to present their case before foreigners’ tribunals in Assam with legal assistance from the state government. In addition to 100 existing tribunals, the Assam government planned to establish 200 foreigners’ tribunals immediately to deal with cases of individuals who would be excluded. Addressing concerns regarding the four million residents excluded from the draft NRC, the Assam government on August 1 claimed that the rate of exclusion in the districts bordering Bangladesh was lower than the state average. The government’s earlier request for fresh verification of a segment of the population included in the NRC was rejected by the court on July 23. In August the office published the final version of the list excluding about 1.9 million persons.
According to UNHCR and NGOs, the country had a large population of stateless persons, but there were no reliable estimates. Stateless populations included Chakmas and Hajongs, who entered the country in the early 1960s from present-day Bangladesh and groups affected by the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. In September 2017 the central government stated it would appeal to the Supreme Court to review its 2015 order to consider citizenship for approximately 70,000 Chakma and Hajong refugees. Media outlets quoted then minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju as saying the Supreme Court order was “unimplementable.”
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received Indian birth certificates. While these certificates alone do not entitle refugees to Indian citizenship, refugees may present Indian birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship.
UNHCR and refugee advocacy groups estimated that between 25,000 and 28,000 of the approximately 95,230 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu were “hill country” Tamils. While Sri Lankan law allows “hill country” refugees to present affidavits to secure Sri Lankan citizenship, UNHCR believed that until the Sri Lankan government processes the paperwork, such refugees were at risk of becoming stateless.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although journalists, NGOs, and political activists said the government restricted media freedom by threatening journalists and news organizations that criticized the government. Journalists and NGOs said the criminal and civil codes and Privacy Act criminalize normal media activity, such as reporting on public figures, and triggered a significant increase in self-censorship by the media. Human rights lawyers and some journalists stated that both the constitution and civil code enable the government to restrict freedom of speech and press in ways they considered vague and open to abuse. For example, the constitution lists several circumstances under which laws curtailing freedom of speech and press may be formulated. These include acts that “jeopardize harmonious relations between federal units” and acts that assist a foreign state or organization to jeopardize national security. The constitution prohibits any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.”
Freedom of Expression: Citizens generally believed they could voice their opinions freely and often expressed critical opinions in print and electronic media without restriction. In February a popular folk singer released a satirical song criticizing government corruption; the singer removed his song from YouTube after allegedly receiving threats from the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s youth organization. In July the government attempted to limit freedom of expression for the members of Kathmandu’s Tibetan community by initially rejecting requests from the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday publicly. When Tibetan Buddhists held private events in the largest settlement in Kathmandu, police intervened to stop the celebration. On December 12, the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office was allowed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in Dhagkar Monastery, Swoyambhu following discussions with the Swoyambhu police officials.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with some exceptions. Several editors and journalists reported they faced intimidation by police and government officials and that vague provisions in laws and regulations prompted an increase in self-censorship by journalists.
Violence and Harassment: According to the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), the government did not make sufficient efforts to preserve the safety and independence of the media and rarely prosecuted individuals who attacked journalists.
Journalists stated that they continued to receive vague threats from officials in response to their investigative reporting on corruption. In June a ward chair in Birgunj attacked campaigner Piraj Yadav for requesting road construction costs under right to information provisions.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits prior censorship of material for printing, publication or broadcasting, including electronically. The constitution also provides that the government cannot revoke media licenses, close media houses, or seize material based on the content of what is printed, published, or broadcast. The constitution, however, also provides for “reasonable restrictions” of these rights for acts or incitement that “may undermine the sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality of Nepal, or harmonious relations between the federal units or harmonious relations between the various castes, tribes, religions, or communities.” Speech amounting to treason, defamation, or contempt of court is also prohibited.
Media professionals expressed concern regarding an additional provision in the constitution that allows the government to formulate laws to regulate media. The criminal code, for example, extends the scope of limitation on freedom of expression compared to the language in the constitution for national security and for maintaining public order, and defines defamation as a criminal offense. The FNJ argued that such laws could be used to close media houses or cancel their registration. The constitution also includes publication and dissemination of false materials as grounds for imposing legal restrictions on press freedom. Media experts reported, however, that these provisions were not enforced against any media houses.
Although by law all media outlets, including government-owned stations, operate independently from direct government control, indirect political influence sometimes led to self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: In June authorities jailed a satirist for defamation under the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) after he lampooned a Nepali film on social media. Widespread public protests ensued, and authorities released him after nine days; he was acquitted of all charges in court.
There were several incidents in which authorities took action under the ETA in response to material posted on social media. The ETA prohibits publication in electronic form of material that may be “contrary to the public morality or decent behavior,” may “spread hate or jealousy,” or may “jeopardize harmonious relations.” In 2017 the government issued an amended online media operation directive, which requires all domestically based online news and opinion websites to be registered. The directive gives the government the authority to block websites based on content if it lacks an “authoritative source,” creates “a misconception,” or negatively affects international relationships. The government also has the authority to block content that threatens the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, or harmonious relations. Online sedition, defamation, contempt of court, or indecent and immoral content may also be blocked. The new version makes the registration, license renewal, and content production provisions for online platforms more complicated, including by requiring a copy of a site’s value added tax or permanent account number registration certificate. Renewals now require online platforms to provide updated human resource and payroll records annually. The FNJ expressed concern that the directive’s vague language gives the government power to censor online content. Human rights and press freedom NGO Freedom Forum reported more than 100 cases filed in court, mostly related to the ETA.
In April online reporter Arjun Giri was briefly jailed for writing about a businessman’s alleged financial fraud; he was officially absolved of wrongdoing in August.
The law provides for the freedom to hold cultural events. There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, with the exception of events in the Tibetan community, which faced restrictions (see section 2.b.).
The law provides for the freedoms of assembly and association; however, the government sometimes restricted freedom of assembly.
Freedom of assembly generally was respected for citizens and legal residents, but there were some restrictions. Government permits are required to hold large public events. The government continued its attempts to stop Tibetans from celebrating culturally important events, such as Tibetan New Year and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The law authorizes chief district officers to impose curfews when there is a possibility that demonstrations or riots could disturb the peace.
In June large protests erupted in Kathmandu against a bill, since withdrawn, to nationalize the administration of Guthis, community-run land ownership organizations. The gathering was the largest since the antimonarchy movement during 2006-2007. Police exhibited restraint and there were no reports of violence.
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. NGOs, however, stated the existing legal framework does not adequately recognize the independence of civil society and opens the door to the exercise of excessive discretion by the government. They added that the registration process for civil society organizations (CSOs) is restrictive and cumbersome, the government has wide discretion to deny registration, and requirements vary among various registration authorities, with some entities requiring documents not mentioned in existing laws on an ad hoc basis. Additionally, the Association Registration Act empowers the government to give directions to associations and to terminate associations if they refuse to follow directions. To receive foreign or government resources, CSOs must seek separate and additional approval from the Social Welfare Council (SWC), the government entity responsible for overseeing CSOs. The SWC requires that CSOs allocate at least 80 percent of their budgets for hardware or tangible development outputs, which places undue restrictions on CSOs that focus on advocacy issues.
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, except for most refugees, whose freedom of movement within the country is limited by law. Constraints on refugee movements were enforced unevenly. 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 and asylum seekers except as noted below.
In-country Movement: The government has not issued personal identification documents to Tibetan refugees in more than 20 years, leaving the majority of this refugee population without recourse to present required documents at police checkpoints or during police stops. Some refugees reported being harassed or turned back by police at checkpoints.
Foreign Travel: In an attempt to protect women from being exploited in trafficking or otherwise abused in overseas employment, the government maintained a minimum age of 24 for women traveling overseas for domestic employment. NGOs and human rights activists viewed the age ban as discriminatory and counterproductive because it impelled some women to migrate through informal channels across the Indian border rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation.
The 2015 earthquake and its aftershocks displaced millions of individuals. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, natural disasters in 2018 led to 12,000 displacements.
Many earthquake-affected IDPs remained in camps or informal settlements because they did not hold a title to land and were occupying it illegally when the earthquake occurred. Others stayed because their homes remained vulnerable to or were destroyed by subsequent landslides. The government promoted their safe, voluntary return and had policies in place to help them.
Although the government and the Maoists agreed to support the voluntary, safe, and dignified return of conflict-displaced IDPs to their homes following the 10-year civil war, the agreement has not been fully implemented. The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction estimated that 78,700 persons were displaced from 1996 to 2006, but an estimated 50,000 remained unwilling or unable to return home. The reasons included unresolved land and property issues, lack of citizenship or ownership documentation, and security concerns since the land taken from IDPs by Maoists during the conflict was often sold or given to landless or tenant farmers.
The government provided relief packages for the rehabilitation and voluntary return of conflict-era IDPs. Many of those still displaced preferred to integrate locally and live in urban areas, mostly as illegal occupants of government land along riversides or together with the landless population. The absence of public services and lack of livelihood assistance also impeded the return of IDPs.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the determination of individual refugee or asylum claims or a comprehensive legal framework for refugee protection. The government recognized large numbers of Tibetans as refugees and supported resettlement to foreign countries of certain Bhutanese refugees. The government does not recognize Tibetans who arrived in the country after 1990 as refugees. Most Tibetans who arrived since then transited to India, although an unknown number remained in the country. The government has not issued refugee cards to Tibetan refugees since 1995. UNHCR estimated three-quarters of the approximately 12,000 resident Tibetan refugees remained undocumented, including all of whom were younger than the age of 16 in 1995 or had been born since. UNHCR reported 639 refugees and 49 asylum seekers from other countries, including Pakistan, Burma, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Somalia, Iran, Iraq, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, lived in the country. The government continued to deny these groups recognition as refugees, even when recognized as such by UNHCR.
Freedom of Movement: The government officially restricted freedom of movement and work for the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship residing in the two remaining refugee camps in the eastern part of the country, but those restrictions were largely unenforced for this population. After China heightened security in 2008 along its border and increased restrictions on internal freedom of movement for ethnic Tibetans, the number of Tibetans who transited through the country dropped significantly. UNHCR reported that 53 Tibetans transited the country in 2017, 45 in 2018, and 10 as of September. The government previously issued UNHCR-facilitated exit permits for recent arrivals from Tibet who were transiting while traveling to India but ceased doing so. While Nepal-based Tibetans with refugee certificates were eligible to apply for travel documents to leave the country, the legal process was often arduous, expensive, and opaque and travel documents were typically valid for one year and a single trip. A 2016 government directive authorized chief district officers to skip the verification step, which required witnesses and a police letter, for Tibetans who had previously been issued a travel document. For individuals whom the government did not recognize as refugees, even when recognized by UNHCR, the government levied fines of $5 per day out of status and a discretionary penalty of up to $500 to obtain an exit permit. The government maintained its policy enabling Nepali government-registered refugees destined for resettlement or repatriation to obtain exit permits without paying these fines.
Access to Basic Services: Most Tibetan refugees who lived in the country, particularly those who arrived after 1990 or turned 16 after 1995, did not have documentation, nor did their locally born children. Even those with acknowledged refugee status had no legal rights beyond the ability to remain in the country. The Nepal-born children of Tibetans with legal status often lacked documentation. The government allowed NGOs to provide primary- and secondary-level schooling to Tibetans living in the country. Tibetan refugees had no entitlement to higher education in public or private institutions and were denied the right to work officially. They were unable legally to obtain business licenses, driver’s licenses, bank accounts, or to own property. NGOs reported an improvement in refugees’ ability to obtain civil registration documents, although some refugees continued to experience difficulties documenting births, marriages, and deaths. Some in the Tibetan community resorted to bribery to obtain these services.
The government allowed UNHCR to provide some education, health, and livelihood services to these urban refugees, but refugees lacked legal access to public education and the right to work.
Durable Solutions: The government does not provide for local integration as a durable solution. The government officially does not allow the approximately 6,500 refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship to work or have access to public education or public health clinics, but it previously allowed UNHCR to provide parallel free education and health services to refugees in the camps. During the year new local authorities were allowing Bhutanese children access to public schools on an ad hoc basis. Since 2007 the government permitted third-country resettlement for more than 113,000 Bhutanese refugees.
An estimated six million individuals lacked citizenship documentation, although the majority of these would be eligible for citizenship under local law. Citizenship documents, which are issued at age 16, are required to register to vote, register marriages or births, buy or sell land, appear for professional exams, open bank accounts, or gain access to credit and receive state social benefits.
Constitutional provisions, laws, and regulations governing citizenship discriminated by the gender of the registering parent, which contributed to statelessness.
Stateless persons experienced discrimination in employment, education, housing, health services, marriage, birth registration, identity documentation, access to courts and judicial procedures, migration opportunities, land and property ownership, and access to earthquake relief and reconstruction programs.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the regime severely restricted this right, often terrorizing, abusing, or killing those who attempted to exercise this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law contains a number of speech offenses that limit the freedom of expression, including provisions criminalizing expression that, for example, “weakens the national sentiment” in times of war or defames the president, courts, military, or public authorities. The regime routinely characterized expression as illegal, and individuals could not criticize the regime publicly or privately without fear of reprisal. The regime also stifled criticism by invoking provisions of law prohibiting acts or speech inciting sectarianism. It monitored political meetings and relied on informer networks.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Although the law provides for the “right to access information about public affairs” and bans “the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists,” press and media restrictions outweighed freedoms. The law contains many restrictions on freedom of expression for the press, including provisions criminalizing, for example, the dissemination of false or exaggerated news that “weakens the spirit of the Nation” or the broadcasting abroad of false or exaggerated news that “tarnishes” the country’s reputation. The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The law further forbids publication of any information about the armed forces.
The regime continued to exercise extensive control over local print and broadcast media, and the law imposes strict punishment for reporters who do not reveal their sources in response to regime requests. Freedom House reported that only a few dozen print publications remained in circulation, reduced from several hundred prior to the conflict. A number of quasi-independent periodicals, usually owned and produced by individuals with regime connections, published during the year. Books critical of the regime were illegal.
The regime owned some radio stations and most local television companies, and the Ministry of Information closely monitored all radio and television news broadcasts and entertainment programs for adherence to regime policies. Despite restrictions on ownership and use, citizens widely used satellite dishes, although the regime jammed some Arab networks.
Violence and Harassment: Regime forces reportedly detained, arrested, and harassed journalists and other writers for works deemed critical of the state as well as journalists associated with networks favorable to the regime. Harassment included intimidation, banning individuals from the country, dismissing journalists from their positions, and ignoring requests for continued accreditation. According to reliable NGO reports, the regime routinely arrested journalists who were either associated with or writing in favor of the opposition and instigated attacks against foreign press outlets throughout the country. The SNHR reported that authorities in February arrested Ahmad Orabi, who worked as a news correspondent for al Ayyam newspaper and Ana Press, despite having previously signed a reconciliation agreement with the regime. In January a U.S. federal court found the regime had perpetrated targeted murder to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent, and found it liable for the 2012 death of American journalist Marie Colvin. The court ordered the regime to pay $302 million in punitive damages, which it has not paid.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported that 26 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants remained imprisoned, although it did not specify by whom, and the CPJ reported that at least five journalists remained missing or held hostage as of November. The reason for arrests was often unclear. RSF reported that at least 25 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants died in regime detention between 2011 and October. For example, in July the CPJ reported that a prison official informed the family of Alaa Nayef al-Khader al-Khalidi in July that the photojournalist died due to torture while in regime custody at Sedayna Prison.
The regime and ISIS routinely targeted and killed both local and foreign journalists, according to the COI, the CPJ, and RSF. The CPJ estimated that 129 journalists were killed since 2011, while RSF estimated more than 260 journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants were killed during the same period. The CPJ attributed more than half of journalist deaths between 2011 and 2017 to regime and proregime forces.
During the year the CPJ, RSF, and the SNHR documented the deaths of six journalists, citizen journalists, and media assistants. Anas Al-Dyab was killed in a Russian airstrike while documenting the bombardment of Khan Sheikhoun; Amjad Hassan Bakir was killed when a missile struck the Free Idlib Army vehicle in which he was riding as an embedded journalist covering the regime’s offensive in Idlib Governorate; Mohammad Jomaa was killed by a mine in Deir Ezzour in an area that had recently been retaken by the SDF; and Omar Al-Dimashqi was killed by the explosion of an IED placed under his car by an unidentified attacker.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The regime continued to strictly control the dissemination of information, including on developments regarding fighting between the regime and the armed opposition, and prohibited most criticism of the regime and discussion of sectarian problems, including religious and ethnic minority rights. The Ministries of Information and Culture censored domestic and foreign publications prior to circulation or importation, including through the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, and prevented circulation of content determined critical or sensitive. The regime prohibited publication or distribution of any material security officials deemed threatening or embarrassing to the regime. Censorship was usually more stringent for materials in Arabic.
Local journalists reported they engaged in extensive self-censorship on subjects such as criticism of the president and his family, the security services, or Alawite religious groups.
RSF reported journalists fled the advance of regime troops, fearing imprisonment as soon as the regime controlled the entire province they were in. RSF assessed that the regime’s persecution of journalists for more than eight years justified their fears, especially as many of them covered the uprising since the outset, helped to document the regime’s human rights violations, and risked severe reprisals if identified with the opposition.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel, slander, insult, defamation, and blasphemy, and the regime continued to use such provisions to restrict public discussion and to detain, arrest, and imprison journalists perceived to have opposed the regime.
National Security: The regime regularly cited laws protecting national security to restrict media criticism of regime policies or public officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: According to Freedom House, media freedom varied in territory held by armed opposition groups, but local outlets were typically under heavy pressure to support the dominant militant faction. The CPJ and RSF reported that extremist opposition groups, such as the HTS, detained and tortured journalists (see section 1.g.) and posed a serious threat to press and media freedoms. The CPJ reported that four members of the HTS abducted Syrian reporter Ahmed Rahal, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights news website Al-Dorar al-Sahmia, after raiding his home in September. The SNHR reported that the family of Samer Saleh al Salloum, an activist responsible for the printing and distribution of al Gherbal political magazine and Zawrak children’s magazine, was informed in August that he had reportedly been executed in detention by the HTS in April.
In July the CPJ reported that the HTS arbitrarily detained Jumaa Haj Hamdou, a reporter for the Syrian pro-civil rights opposition news website Zaman al-Wasl, at his home in western Aleppo. He was not charged and was released after six days. Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud, the editor in chief of Zaman al-Wasl, told the CPJ he believed Hamdou was detained because of his reporting.
The regime controlled and restricted access to the internet and monitored email and social media accounts. In Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net Report, the country remained a dangerous and repressive environment for internet users. Individuals and groups could not express views via the internet, including by email, without prospect of reprisal. The regime applied the law to regulate internet use and prosecute users. The anticybercrime law (also referred to as Law No. 9) increases penalties for cybercrimes, including those affecting the freedom of expression, remained in place. It also mandates the creation of specialized courts and delegates specialized jurists for the prosecution of cybercrimes in every governorate. RSF asserted the law served as a tool for the regime to threaten online freedom. As of late in the year, at least 14 citizen journalists remained imprisoned by the regime, many on charges related to their digital activism. Hackers linked to Iran continued cyberattacks against Syrian opposition groups to disrupt reporting on human rights violations.
The regime interfered with and blocked internet service, text messages, and two-step verification messages for password recovery or account activation. The regime employed sophisticated technologies and hundreds of computer specialists for filtering and surveillance purposes, such as monitoring email and social media accounts of detainees, activists, and others. The regime did not attempt to restrict the security branches’ monitoring and censoring of the internet. The security branches were largely responsible for restricting internet freedom and access; internet blackouts often coincided with security force attacks. The regime censored websites related to the opposition, including the websites of local coordination committees as well as media outlets.
The regime also restricted or prohibited internet access in areas under siege. Regime officials obstructed connectivity through their control of key infrastructure, at times shutting the internet and mobile telephone networks entirely or at particular sites of unrest. There was generally little access to state-run internet service in besieged areas unless users could capture signals clandestinely from rooftops near regime-controlled areas. Some towns in opposition-held areas had limited internet access via satellite connections. Some activists reportedly gained access independently to satellite internet or through second- and third-generation (2G and 3G) cellular telephone network coverage.
The regime expanded its efforts to use social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, to spread proregime propaganda and manipulate online content. Regime authorities routinely tortured and beat journalists to extract passwords for social media sites, and the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a group of proregime computer hackers, frequently launched cyberattacks on websites to disable them and post proregime material. In addition to promoting hacking and conducting surveillance, the regime and groups it supported, such as the SEA, reportedly planted malware to target human rights activists, opposition members, and journalists. Local human rights groups blamed regime personnel for instances in which malware infected activists’ computers. Arbitrary arrests raised fears that authorities could arrest internet users at any time for online activities perceived to threaten the regime’s control, such as posting on a blog, tweeting, commenting on Facebook, sharing a photograph, or uploading a video.
Observers also accused the SEA of slowing internet access to force self-censorship on regime critics and diverting email traffic to regime servers for surveillance.
The regime restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Authorities generally did not permit academic personnel to express ideas contrary to regime policy. Authorities reportedly dismissed or imprisoned university professors in regime-held areas for expressing dissent and killed some for supporting regime opponents. Combatants on all sides of the war attacked or commandeered schools. The Ministry of Culture restricted and banned the screening of certain films.
During the conflict students, particularly those residing in opposition-held areas, continued to face challenges in taking nationwide exams. For example, school districts in Dar’a were affected by the influx of new pupils to the governorate due to hostilities, forcing many schools to hire unqualified staff and begin operating in shifts to accommodate all the pupils. The COI reported that thousands of students had to repeat classes and retake examinations as a result. Areas liberated by the SDF from ISIS reopened local schools. In Raqqa city and the surrounding rural regions, more than 130,000 students returned to classes in 322 refurbished buildings and schools previously used or destroyed by ISIS. Many school buildings required extensive repairs, sometimes including clearance of explosive remnants of the war, and administrators required assistance to obtain basic supplies for learning.
The SDF also reportedly imposed penalties for SDF and school administration staff members who enrolled their children in schools that did not use their curriculum.
The regime limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but the law grants the government broad powers to restrict this freedom.
The Ministry of Interior requires permission for demonstrations or any public gathering of more than three persons. As a rule the ministry authorized only demonstrations by the regime, affiliated groups, or the Baath Party, orchestrating them on numerous occasions.
According to allegations by Kurdish activists and press reporting, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG sometimes suppressed freedom of assembly in areas under their control. Throughout the year inhabitants in Deir Ezzor protested against alleged corruption by SDF officials, lack of access to basic services, reports of forced conscription of youths into the SDF, and lack of information on the status of men and boys detained by the SDF due to suspected affiliations to ISIS following the coalition offensive to liberate Baghuz from ISIS control. Protests generally occurred throughout northeast Syria on a variety of issues without interference from local authorities.
During the year multiple media outlets reported that the HTS increased its repression of civil society activity in August due to widespread protests held in opposition to the group. The SNHR reported that the HTS arrested approximately 182 persons as of August, among them political and media activists, 45 of whom reportedly died in detention.
The constitution provides for the freedom of association, but the law grants the regime latitude to restrict this freedom. The regime required prior registration and approval for private associations and restricted the activities of associations and their members. The executive boards of professional associations were not independent of the regime.
The regime often denied requests for registration or failed to act on them, reportedly on political grounds. None of the local human rights organizations operated with a license, but many functioned under organizations that had requisite government registration. The regime continued to block the multiyear effort by journalists to register a countrywide media association. Despite regime efforts, journalists in exile founded the Syrian Journalist Association as an independent democratic professional association in 2012 to empower the role of freedom of the press and expression.
The regime selectively enforced the 2011 decree allowing the establishment of independent political parties, permitting only proregime groups to form official parties (see section 3). According to local human rights groups, opposition activists declined to organize parties, fearing the regime would use party lists to target opposition members.
Under laws that criminalize membership and activity in illegal organizations as determined by the regime, security forces detained hundreds of persons linked to local human rights groups and prodemocracy student groups. The death notices released by the regime shed light on this practice. For example, HRW described the forcible disappearance by the regime during the year of many young protest organizers, civil society leaders, and local coordination committee members. This included Sahar, a community leader and head of the Women’s Affairs Bureau in Daraa, who was detained without cause at a local checkpoint. In several cases documented by HRW, intelligence branches either arrested or repeatedly harassed relatives of civil society activists and people who fled the country to gain information about their wanted family members or force them to return.
The HTS restricted the activities of organizations it deemed incompatible with its interpretation of Islam. HTS forces detained Munawir Hamdeen, a relief worker at the Big Heart organization in Idlib, after severely beating him at his home in 2016. After five months of detention, Hamdeen pleaded guilty to the charge of adultery and was held in detention until August, when his body was found outside the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) center in Idlib.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the regime, ISIS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Regime sieges in Idlib Governorate restricted freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while forced evacuations following sieges resulted in mass displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
In-country Movement: In regime-besieged cities throughout the country, regime forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The regime expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Regime forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The regime also barred foreign diplomats from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.
In areas they still controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups, such as the HTS, also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). The COI reported in September it had received accounts of harassment, including of women, arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, and demands for bribes at checkpoints administered by the HTS and other armed actors.
While the Syrian Democratic Council and the SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW reported that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was restricting the movement of more than 11,000 foreign women and children suspected to be affiliated with ISIS in a separate section of the al-Hol IDP Camp. The UN secretary-general also released a report on children and armed conflict stating that 1,248 children of 46 nationalities were deprived of their liberty to move freely by the SDF due to their actual or alleged association with ISIS.
Until the territorial defeat of ISIS in March, ISIS restricted the movement in areas under its control of regime supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. The Free Yezidi Foundation further reported that Yezidis were held against their will by ISIS. ISIS reportedly did not permit female passengers to traverse territory it controlled unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the regime denied passports and other vital documents, based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The regime also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. Additionally, the regime often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The regime reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The regime comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks at airports and border crossings.
The regime also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to several media outlets, Richard Kouyoumjian, Lebanon’s minister of social affairs, stated in March that the regime accepted less than 20 percent of the refugees who attempted to return to the country from Lebanon.
Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The regime allowed Syrians living outside of the country whose passports had expired to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the regime against which they may have protested or feared the regime could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Women older than 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country.
During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to regime and Russian aerial attacks. Regime and proregime evacuations of besieged areas, often overseen by Russian forces, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. Years of conflict and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, and each displacement depleted family assets. In September the United Nations estimated there were more than 6.2 million IDPs in the country, including 2.5 million children and five million individuals in need of acute assistance. This number included 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. In May UNOCHA recorded 27,969 spontaneous IDP returnees in several areas across the country. The greatest number of these returns were recorded in Homs with 8,290 returnees, approximately 45 percent of whom were displaced within the governorate. Deir Ezzor received the second-largest number of IDP returnees with 5,373 spontaneous returns, while 4,349 returns were recorded in rural Damascus. The fourth largest number of returnees was recorded in Aleppo, with 3,592 returnees, followed by Daraa with 3,098 recorded spontaneous returns. UN humanitarian officials reported that most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps. The humanitarian response to the country was coordinated through a complex bureaucratic structure. The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level 3 response–the global humanitarian system’s classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.
The regime generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The regime forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The regime did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in many cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home (see section 1.e., Property Restitution).
According to HRW, the regime confiscated more than 70 residential households with all internal contents in the Eastern Ghouta Region. The regime restricted access to many of the neighborhoods and converted several properties into military headquarters. In November the Middle East Institute reported that regime security and intelligence forces had seized a number of homes and other properties belonging to local residents using several different methods. Those with a backlog of service bills or back taxes who were unable to pay their debt to the regime were given a brief window to leave their property, while some former opposition members had their homes and businesses summarily seized by intelligence forces. The regime routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.).
The SARC functioned as the main partner for international humanitarian organizations working inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance in regime- and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced regime bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to regime offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the regime increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. The UN and its humanitarian partners continued to provide cross-border assistance from Turkey and Iraq during the year. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey placed restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the regime continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the regime secured control over many of these areas during the year. Humanitarian actors noted that access remained a pressing concern for service delivery in areas controlled by the regime and nongovernmental actors. The United Nations reported that only seven humanitarian assistance convoys accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year.
In September the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to 15,000 individuals and facilitated the voluntary return of nearly 400 individuals at Rukban Camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 45,000 persons in need and provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. Humanitarian conditions in Rukban remained dire due to inconsistent access to the area. The regime frequently took months to approve aid convoy requests, and Jordan declined requests to deliver aid from its side of the border, although it allowed a small, exceptional delivery by an NGO from Jordan during Ramadan. The United Nations reported that, since February, approximately half of the camp’s estimated population, or 18,000 individuals, left the camp through the regime-established transit point, primarily towards collective shelters in Homs, where the United Nations and SARC provided services, before moving onwards.
Armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as the HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors reported that the HTS impeded the delivery of aid and services in areas of the northeast, making it difficult to effectively respond to displacement near Idlib. For example, in March the United Nations criticized Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups, including the FSA, for providing inconsistent, restricted access to IDPs in Afrin. In October the United Kingdom temporarily suspended the delivery of aid to Idlib Province due to the HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib. NGOs continued to report bureaucratic challenges in working with the HTS Salvation Government, which impeded delivery of services in the camps.
The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Deir Ezzour and Raqqa.
f. Protection of Refugees
UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to the country in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to the country during the year. Throughout the year, however, the regime and Russia maintained a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the regime adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to its suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The regime inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The regime provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
Both regime and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the regime has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.
Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the regime rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The regime also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 45,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. The COI reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork became “foreign” from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in Hasakah who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an approximate increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries hosting refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.