Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but these “may be limited by the respect for the freedoms and rights of others, and by the imperative of safeguarding public order, national dignity, and state security.” The government sometimes restricted these rights. The communication code includes a number of provisions limiting freedom of speech and expression. The code also grants broad powers to the government to deny media licenses to political opponents, seize equipment, and impose fines.
The government arrested journalists and activists who had publicly denounced the misbehavior of public authorities. The government often used unrelated charges to prosecute them.
Freedom of Expression: In accordance with the constitution, the law restricts individuals’ ability to criticize the government publicly.
In May the Court of Appeals of Fianarantsoa confirmed a two-year suspended prison sentence for human rights activist Raleva, accused of impersonating the district chief of Mananjary. Raleva publicly questioned the legality of the gold mining permit of a Chinese company operating in Mananjary, on the southeast coast, and denounced the negative impact of the company’s activities on the environment and the health of the local population. In October 2017, after a month’s detention, the court of Mananjary convicted him of identity fraud against the district chief, for having demanded during a public meeting to see the legal document authorizing the Chinese company to operate on the site. Civil society members and local and international NGOs condemned the court decision and characterized it as an effort to silence human rights activists.
During the year, the CNIDH and local NGOs issued several communiques denouncing the continuing harassment, including arrest and intimidation, of human rights activists. Most of the affected activists had denounced illegal aspects of the evictions of local communities in several parts of the country to the benefit of foreign investors.
Press and Media Freedom: The communications code contains several articles limiting press and media freedoms. For example, Article 85 requires the owner of a media company to be the chief publisher. This article may permit the harassment of potential opposition presidential candidates, many of whom were also media owners.
Although defamation is not a criminal offense in the communications code, a separate cyber criminality law allows for the charge of criminal defamation for anything published online. It is unclear whether the cyber criminality law, which includes prison sentences for online defamation, has precedence over the 2015 communications code, as all newspapers are also published online. The fines allowed for offenses under the communications code are many times higher than the average journalist’s annual salary.
The communications code gives the communications ministry far-reaching powers to suspend media licenses and seize property of media outlets if one of their journalists commits two infractions of the code. Finally, the code allows only state owned radio and television stations the right to broadcast nationally, although this limitation was not always enforced.
The country had numerous independent newspapers. More than 300 radio and television stations operated in the country, although many shifted to live call-in shows in recent years to distance themselves from editorial responsibility for content. Many of them continued to have a national audience, in spite of the code’s limitations. Nevertheless, access by nonstate actors, especially the opposition, to public media, was limited.
In August newspapers reported that the minister of communication had ordered staff of the national television station not to broadcast Andry Rajoelina’s announcement of his candidacy for president. Although former president and opposition figure Marc Ravalomanana’s radio station MBS was allowed to resume broadcasting after years of suspension, its management alleged the government was deliberately jamming its broadcasts.
On August 8, after a meeting related to the coverage of the presidential election, managers of the state owned media announced their intent to ensure neutrality vis-a-vis the presidential candidates before, during, and after the elections.
Violence and Harassment: There were several reports of journalists being suspended or harassed for coverage of opposition figures. An online media outlet, Gasy Patriot, reported in May that a journalist for the public radio station had been suspended and others moved following accusations by their supervisors that they were too close to opposition members of Parliament who were demonstrating against the government at the time.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists practiced self-censorship, and authors generally published books of a political nature abroad.
In February the prefect of Mahajanga, Lahiniaina Ravelomahay, banned any interaction with the press about an ongoing conflict within the local university, and required the University of Mahajanga, its student association, and students’ parents to obtain official authorization from his office before talking to journalists. The announcement also required journalists to check whether their interviewees had the prefect’s written authorization to speak to journalists prior to conducting any interview.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were several reports of government authorities using libel, slander, or defamation laws to restrict public discussion.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
A cybercrime law prohibits insulting or defaming a government official online. According to Reporters without Borders, “the law’s failure to define what is meant by ‘insult’ or ‘defamation’ leaves room for very broad interpretation and major abuses.” The law provides for punishment of two to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of two million to 100 million ariary ($560 to $28,000) for defamation. Following criticism from the media and international community, the government promised to revise the law, but did not do so.
Public access to the internet was limited mainly to urban areas. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 9.8 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
Political groups, parties, and activists used the internet extensively to advance their agendas, share news, and criticize other parties. Observers generally considered the internet (exclusive of social media) among the more reliable sources of information.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but authorities often restricted this right. The government required all public demonstrations to have official authorization from the municipalities and police prefectures, but these rarely gave authorization to opposition parties. Security forces regularly impeded opposition gatherings throughout the country and used excessive force to disperse demonstrators.
Several times during the year, security forces used tear gas to disperse demonstrations by university students, supporters of political opponents, and other groups. Students generally retaliated by throwing stones at security forces or set up roadblocks, which often resulted in injuries and arrests.
During the year, the government systematically hindered political opponents’ ability to meet with their supporters in public places. On January 6 and 22, for example, the joint security unit Emmo-Reg prevented former president Marc Ravalomanana from meeting with supporters by blocking supporters’ entry and destroying audio equipment in private venues.
Government political restrictions on public political demonstrations peaked in April when a group of parliamentarians demonstrated against the proposed electoral code. On April 21, in Antananarivo, elements from the Emmo-Reg blocked the entry to City Hall where opposition parliamentarians had planned to meet voters and report on the adoption of the electoral laws that they judged controversial and in violation of democratic principles. Security forces threw tear gas and fired blanks to prevent access to the compound. Later the same day, security forces that reportedly left the area because they were out of supplies allegedly shot at demonstrators who tried to pursue them. Casualty reports after the confrontations differed, with estimates of between two and five dead and 17 injured.
After April 21, security forces issued a statement that they would no longer intervene in demonstrations unless lives or property were endangered. Opposition members were allowed to demonstrate unhindered, which eventually led to the establishment of a consensus government, and the freedom of all parties to hold political rallies and events without interference for the remainder of the year.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for the right of association, but the government did not always respect this right.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. There were no reports that the government pressured or threatened refugees to return to the country from which they had fled.
A 2013 decree prohibits citizens from leaving the country to work abroad in countries deemed “risky, as a measure to reduce trafficking in persons. Because destination countries are not specifically identified in the decree, Malagasy persons may be prevented from leaving the country to work abroad at the discretion of border agents.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
More than 70,000 persons were displaced in January and March by Tropical Cyclones Ava and Eliakim and were temporarily housed in common shelters in several regions of the country. Through the National Office in Charge of Risk and Disaster Management (BNGRC), the government, coordinated with private and international donors to provide humanitarian assistance and to assist the majority of them to return home.
According to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration in 10 cities, more than 18,000 persons migrated from the deep south of the country between 2009 and 2017, most citing drought conditions. A new survey conducted in 20 other cities in the same region concluded that approximately 5,699 persons were displaced between 2009 and August, 986 of whom were displaced between January and August alone. Among the persons displaced, 42 percent were displaced by drought, 11 percent for economic reasons, and 9 percent due to insecurity. A portion of these IDPs had returned to their homes when climate conditions improved; others decided to resettle elsewhere. The BNGRC also coordinated with private partners and international donors to assist the displaced persons.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
As of March, approximately 55 persons had official refugee or asylum seeker status in the country.
Access to Asylum: The law does not include provisions for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting the small number of refugees in the country.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees and asylum seekers reported that police frequently detained some of them and sometimes did not honor UNHCR-issued documents certifying their status or tore them up, rendering them vulnerable to arrest or expulsion.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers did not have access to employment, because without a resident visa they were unable to get a work permit.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers received no support from the government, but the government did not interfere with support provided by UNHCR via a local NGO. Refugees and asylum seekers complained that the amount of support they receive is insufficient because they may not work and receive no government support. Hospitals and service providers charged refugees higher rates as foreigners, making basic medical care unaffordable to refugees.
The nationality code promulgated by the president in 2017 gave men and women equal rights to pass their nationality to their children and more protection to women and children against the loss of their nationality. The code’s main reform grants Malagasy women the right to transmit nationality to their children regardless of a woman’s marital status. The loss of Malagasy citizenship for any reason mentioned in the law does not affect the spouse and the children of the deprived person.
The provisions of the old code of nationality resulted in a large number of stateless persons in the minority Muslim community, many belonging to families that lived in the country for generations. Muslim leaders estimated the laws affected as much as 5 percent of the approximately two million Muslims in the country. Members of the wider Muslim community suggested a Muslim sounding name alone could delay one’s citizenship application indefinitely.
According to a July media report, Focus Development, a local NGO working on statelessness, reported an increase in nationality certificate requests since the adoption of the new nationality code. She reported that the court of Antananarivo alone had delivered more than 1,500 certificates since the 2017 legal reform. Even after the adoption of the new code, statelessness remained an issue for those who remained ineligible for nationality.
Some members of the South Asian community–who failed to register for Indian, Malagasy, or French citizenship following India’s independence in 1947 and Madagascar’s independence in 1960–were no longer eligible for any of the three citizenships; this circumstance applied to their descendants as well.
All stateless persons may apply for a foreign resident card, which precludes the right to vote, own property, or apply for a passport, thus limiting international travel. Stateless women may obtain nationality by marrying a Malagasy citizen and may request citizenship before the wedding date, but Malagasy women cannot confer citizenship on a stateless husband. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing education and health care, could not get jobs or buy land, and lived in fear of arrest.