Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.
Freedom of Speech: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature was more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms, although the monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law, which provides for public access to government information, remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated government sources shared information with only a few media outlets. Human Rights Watch criticized the arrest of a government employee who was alleged by First Vice President Amrullah Saleh to have spread false information about the October 21 attack on a school and mosque in Takhar that resulted in civilian deaths.
Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. The Afghanistan Journalists’ Council said that during the year journalists’ social media accounts were hacked and journalists were threatened by the Office of the National Security Council.
On May 30, a journalist and a driver from Khurshid TV were killed when their vehicle, carrying 15 employees of the station, was hit by a roadside bomb in Kabul. Four other employees of the station were wounded. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.
On November 12, an explosive in Lashkargah city killed Radio Azadi reporter Ilias Daee, as well as his brother. Journalist Malala Maiwand was killed by gunmen on December 10 in Jalalabad, and journalist Rahmatullah Nekzad was killed in Ghazni on December 21. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks. Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, business owners, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.
Vida Saghari, a female journalist, faced a series of online harassments, including hate speech and death threats, following her criticism of a cleric’s Ramadan rallies in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions, according to RSF.
Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media was also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks.
Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and daily newspapers openly criticized the government. Nevertheless, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. A greater percentage of the population, including those in rural areas, had easier access to radio than other forms of media. According to The Asia Foundation, rural inhabitants primarily received news and information from family and friends, followed by television and radio.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats and violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. According to RSF, NDS officials arrested Radio Bayan journalist Mahboboalah Hakimi on July 1. Two days after Hakimi’s arrest, the NDS released a video of Hakimi confessing to posting a video critical of the president, an action he had previously denied, and apologizing to the president. Following Hakimi’s release, he alleged the NDS tortured him and forced him to record his confession.
RSF also reported that authorities had harassed Pajhwok Afghan News agency, including through NDS interrogations of its director, following its June 22 reporting that ventilators intended to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak had been stolen and illegally sold to a neighboring country.
At least six journalists were killed during the year, and another died under suspicious circumstances. According to the Afghanistan Journalists’ Council, as of September, three journalists were kidnapped, 12 were injured, and more than 30 were beaten or otherwise threatened.
The Taliban continued to threaten journalists, and civil society alleged the Taliban continued to attack media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.”
Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. A radio reporter was killed in police crossfire during a demonstration in Ghor Province on May 9. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals.
The law provides guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The guidelines created a joint national committee in Kabul, chaired by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported the committee met regularly during the year, referred cases to the Attorney General’s Office, and pushed for the resolution of cases, but it did not increase protection for journalists. A journalist advocacy organization reported that due to these pressures and the fact that many journalists were not paid for months at a time, many outlets closed during the year.
Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the Center for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists, there were no female journalists in five of the country’s 34 provinces: Kunar, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, and Uruzgan.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Ajmal Ahmady, Afghanistan Bank governor and economic advisor to the president, blocked journalists on his Twitter feed, reportedly for being publicly critical of him. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified. Many journalists asserted that First Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s statement that he would hold those who shared “disinformation” on the victims of the October 21 incident in Takhar criminally responsible was a restriction on freedom of speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe prison sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.
Women in some areas of the country said their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high data prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.
There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment. In June, Human Rights Watch reported that in many Taliban-controlled areas, Taliban authorities limited usage of or otherwise banned smartphones, which generally restricted access to information.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
Academic freedom is largely exercised in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there was growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Both government security forces and the Taliban took over schools to use as military posts.
The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies; others provided only religious education. The Taliban continued to limit education for girls, especially for those past puberty. A Taliban commander told Human Rights Watch in Helmand Province, “Women’s education is to be banned [while] our country is occupied.”
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.
The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests and rallies were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. Islamic State actors fired upon a political rally in Kabul on March 6, killing 32 and wounding at least 58, according to government estimates. Islamic State actors claimed to have detonated explosions during presidential inauguration ceremonies in Kabul on March 9, although no casualties were reported.
The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without a male family member’s consent or a male relative chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. Media reported the Taliban had blocked the highway between Kandahar and Uruzgan and on August 23 had notified private transportation companies operating in the area that the companies would be responsible for civilian deaths should they choose to travel on the road.
Internal population movements continued during the year because of armed conflict and natural disasters, including avalanches, flooding, and landslides. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported more than 172,490 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January to September 20. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. Thirty of the country’s 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.
Limited humanitarian access because of the poor security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived at constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP sites reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors. Severe flooding and landslides on August 26 in Parwan Province killed 190 individuals and destroyed nearly 4,000 houses. Media reported that on August 27, the Taliban killed four civilian internally displaced survivors of the floods during clashes with the ANDSF.
Intense fighting in Helmand Province in October resulted in the displacement of thousands of families over a period of just two weeks, reported the AIHRC. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated 35,000 individuals were displaced but had only been able to confirm an estimated 14,000 IDPs because deteriorating security conditions interrupted phone service and prevented access.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.
The IOM reported undocumented Afghan returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 449,213 from January 1 to August 15, with 447,206 from Iran and 2,007 from Pakistan. Registered Afghan refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 551 returns as of August 25, in part because UNHCR suspended assisted returns between March 17 and August 10 due to COVID-19 and border closures impeded travel.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Nonetheless, UNHCR registered and provided protection for approximately 170 refugees and 250 asylum seekers in urban areas throughout the country. UNHCR also provided protection for 72,000 persons of concern who fled Pakistan in 2014 and resided in the provinces of Khost and Paktika.
NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children in the country as a significant problem and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. On June 10, a local human rights organization said authorities did not investigate police reports it filed after several attacks against its director between October and December 2019 that resulted in bodily injury to the director and theft of his car. On June 27, eight human rights organizations condemned a media attack against the director after he published a report on conditions in Gamassa Prison.
On February 16, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation issued executive regulations for the media law ratified in 2018. Among the regulations, newspapers are required to print their issues in Egypt at licensed printing houses registered with the council; news websites must host their servers in Egypt; newspapers must submit 20 copies of each printed issue to the council; and news websites and television outlets must keep copies all of published or broadcast material online for one year and submit a copy of their published or broadcast material to the council every month. The regulations also prohibit any recording, filming, or interviews in public places with the intention of broadcasting them on a media outlet without a permit issued by the council.
Freedom of Speech: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals.
Between March and July, authorities arrested at least seven doctors and charged them with membership in a banned group, spreading false news, and misuse of social media after they criticized the government’s response to COVID-19. Between October and December, three doctors were released pending investigation. The Doctors’ Syndicate protested the arrests and called for release of all the doctors. On October 1, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of prominent lawyer Tarek Jamil Saeed pending investigations of disturbing the peace, spreading rumors, and misusing social media after he criticized candidates for parliament. Saeed was released on bail on October 11.
On December 27, a criminal court ordered the release of housing-rights researcher Ibrahim Ezzedine with probationary measures. Ezzedine remained in detention until the end of the year. According to a local human rights organization, he was held without notice beginning in June 2019 after criticizing the government’s urban slums policies and appeared in November 2019 before the State Security Prosecution accused of joining a banned group and spreading false news.
A criminal court on September 13 renewed the 45-day pretrial detention of Mohamed Ramadan, who was arrested in 2018 for “inciting social unrest” after he posted a photograph of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France. After a court ordered Ramadan’s release on bail on December 2, the State Security Prosecution ordered him remanded into custody on December 8 on additional charges of joining a banned group based upon letters he sent while in detention.
The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities used the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.
Between January and September, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 96 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. In June 2019 several political figures were arrested, including El-Aleimy and journalist Hossam Moanes, after they met to form the political Alliance of Hope to run in parliamentary elections. They remained in pretrial detention. On March 11, a misdemeanor court sentenced El-Aleimy to one year in prison for spreading false news and disturbing public peace as a result of a BBC interview in 2017. On April 18, a terrorism court added 13 defendants from the “Hope” case to the terrorism list, including former member of parliament and Social Democratic Party leader Ziyad El-Aleimy and activist Ramy Shaath, for alleged collaboration with the banned Muslim Brotherhood. On June 16, the Cairo Criminal Court turned down a challenge filed by Moanes against an August 2019 ruling to seize his money. On August 4, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (No. 930/2019). On October 10, a criminal court ordered the release of four Alliance of Hope defendants, including activist Ahmed Tammam. On November 14, an administrative court heard the lawsuit filed by El-Aleimy to allow him to receive telephone calls and correspondence. Amnesty International reported he was being denied adequate health care by Tora Prison authorities even though his underlying medical conditions put him at particular risk if exposed to COVID-19.
On March 19, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 political figures in pretrial detention, including political science professor Hassan Nafaa and former president Sisi campaigner Hazem Abdel Azim. Nafaa was arrested in September 2019 with Hazem Hosni, spokesperson for Sami Anan’s 2018 presidential campaign, and journalist Khaled Dawoud. On December 27, a criminal court renewed Hosni’s and Dawoud’s pretrial detention for 45 days pending investigations of joining a banned group and spreading false news and ordered Hosni’s release. The State Security Prosecution ordered Hosni’s continued detention in a new case on November 4. On July 5, a criminal court overturned the public prosecutor’s 2019 decision to freeze Nafaa’s fixed assets and stayed the public prosecutor’s decision to seize his assets until the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of Article 47 of the Antiterrorism Law.
On August 5, the writer and prominent leftist Sinai activist, Ashraf Ayoub, and his son Sherif, were detained in Arish city, North Sinai, and taken to an unknown location. According to a labor leader, Ayoub advocated for detainees. After 20 days, Ayoub appeared before the State Security Prosecution, which ordered his pretrial detention on charges of joining a terrorism group and spreading false news. According to local media, Ayoub’s son was released without charges in mid-August.
In May security forces arrested sports critic Awny Nafae while he was under government-imposed COVID-19 quarantine after returning from Saudi Arabia, according to local media. The arrest came after Nafae criticized the Ministry of Emigration for its handling of thousands of Egyptian nationals stranded abroad amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He was held in pretrial detention on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and participating in a terrorist group, but he was released in October.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. The constitution, penal code, and the media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.
More than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.
The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of EGP 50,000 ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (Supreme Council) broad discretion to block their content.
According to media reports, on April 21, the Supreme Council fined the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm for an op-ed written by its founder Salah Diab under a pseudonym. The article suggested that Sinai should have one governor with expanded powers to better govern the entire peninsula. The Supreme Council ordered the newspaper to remove the op-ed, issue an apology, and suspend Diab’s opinion pieces for one month. On May 12, the Supreme Council ordered media not to publish or broadcast any material under pseudonyms without the approval of the Supreme Council.
On April 12, authorities arrested Mustafa Saqr, owner of the Business News company, and the State Security Prosecution detained him for 15 days pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist, spreading false news, and misusing social media. His arrest came after he published an article that discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.
As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 27 journalists were imprisoned in the country.
During the year the government raided several newspapers, arrested employees, and released them shortly thereafter. On June 24, the security services arrested Noura Younis, editor in chief of the independent news website Al-Manassa and a former Washington Post correspondent. On June 26, authorities released Younis on bail pending trial on charges of creating a network account with the intent to commit a crime, possessing software without a license from the National Telecom Regulatory Authority, copyright infringement, and wrongfully profiting through the internet or telecommunication services.
On May 11, authorities arrested Al-Masry Al-Youm journalist Haitham Mahgoub, days after he published an article relating to the country’s response to COVID-19, according to media. Media reported that Mahgoub and his attorneys were not allowed to attend the June 7 hearing where the State Security Prosecution ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigations of joining a banned group, financing a banned group, and spreading false news. Mahgoub was released on November 19 pending further investigation. On May 22, television stations broadcast confessions of four of 11 journalists and media workers whom the Interior Ministry claimed were part of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to produce false reports for al-Jazeera. Human rights lawyers challenged the confessions and their pretrial publication as illegal.
Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.
On March 17, the State Information Service revoked the accreditation of a correspondent for the London-based Guardian newspaper, after it published a report addressing the spread of the COVID-19 in the country. On March 26, the Guardian reported that authorities forced the correspondent to leave the country.
On March 30, authorities ordered the detention of Mohamad Al-Eter, the Ultra Sawt website correspondent, for 15 days pending investigations. He was accused of joining a terrorist group, publishing false news, and misusing the online social networks. A court granted Al-Eter bail in May, and he was released on June 1 pending investigation.
According to Freedom House, multiple prominent digital activists and online journalists remained in prison. In many cases the individuals faced charges unrelated to their online activities, although their supporters argued they were arrested to prevent them from expressing their views. Spreading false news, affiliation with a terrorist or banned group, insulting the state, and inciting demonstrations were the prevailing allegations used to justify the arrest of human rights activists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The state of emergency empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses. The emergency law allows the president to censor information during a state of emergency.
In June the Supreme Council for Media Regulation stated that all media in any form had to use official sources to publish or broadcast any information about Libya, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the war against terrorism in Sinai, or COVID-19.
In June a media rights organization said that the government blocked thousands of websites, including 127 media websites.
The rising number of arrests for social media posts had a chilling effect on online speech. Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, due to the overall anti-Muslim Brotherhood and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine. On August 15, the National Translation Center published its translation guidelines, including conditions that books it translates do not “oppose religion, social values, morals and customs.” According to media, professional writers and translators denounced the rules as a form of censorship. Online journalists were also reluctant to discuss sensitive topics such as sectarian tensions, sexuality, political detainees, military operations in the Sinai, and the military’s outsized role in the national economy.
Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims. On June 21, the Alexandria Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court upheld the February 27 three-year sentence against activist and blogger Anas Hassan for “insulting religion and misusing social media.” According to a local human rights organization, security forces arrested Hassan in August 2019 for his Facebook page “The Egyptian Atheists” that a police report stated contained atheistic ideas and criticism of the “divinely revealed religions.”
National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.
The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.
On March 10, the prime minister instructed relevant authorities to take all necessary, legal measures against anyone who broadcasts false news, statements, or rumors regarding COVID-19. On March 28, the Public Prosecution affirmed in a statement that it would address such “fake news” stories according to the law.
On March 18, security forces arrested Atef Hasballah, editor in chief of Alkarar Press website, at his home in Aswan following a critical post on his Facebook page questioning official statistics on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the country. He appeared before the State Security Prosecution on April 14, which ordered his 15-day pretrial detention pending investigation.
A local independent human rights organization reported that journalist Basma Mostafa was detained for nine hours while covering a crowd of citizens waiting for a COVID-19 test at the Ministry of Health’s Central Laboratories in downtown Cairo. Media reported Mostafa was arrested on October 3 while covering the death of Luxor Governorate citizen Ewais al-Rawy (see section 1.a.) and ensuing protests; Mostafa was released on October 6.
On February 12, local media reported that the Supreme Council for Media Regulations sent a warning letter to 16 news websites and social network accounts concerning posting “false news” regarding a reported COVID-19 infection case in Tanta City. It also included a directive to ban publishing any information other than the Ministry of Health’s official data.
Judges may issue restraining orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.
On March 11, authorities released, with probationary measures, blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers. He had been held in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.
The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.
Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.
On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.
The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cybercrime law states, “The relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.
On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.
There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.
The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.
The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.
There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).
On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.
In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were reports of government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. The removal of references to the country’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions from high school history class curricula continued after a 2017 decree from the Ministry of Education and Technical Education. According to media and local rights groups, a degree of self-censorship, like that reported by nonacademic commentators, existed when academics publicly commented on sensitive political and socioeconomic issues. University faculty members and Ministry of Education employees (including teachers) needed security agency approval to travel abroad for academic or professional purposes. Faculty and officials at public universities and research centers also must obtain Ministry of Foreign Affairs permission to travel abroad for any reason. Some public universities restricted campus visits of foreign speakers or delegations or required a faculty chaperone for delegations of university students traveling to the United States.
On May 8, authorities at the Cairo International Airport confiscated the passport of Walid Salem, a University of Washington doctoral student, preventing him from traveling. Authorities arrested Salem in May 2018 while he was conducting political science dissertation research on the Egyptian judiciary and released him in December 2018 with a travel ban and probationary measures pending trial. On February 22, the State Security Prosecution canceled the probationary measures and released him under guarantee of his place of residence.
There was censorship of cultural events. A prime ministerial decree issued in 2018 declares it unlawful to hold a special event or festival without “prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” This requirement added to existing regulations, under which organizations must obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture’s Censorship Board, as well as permits from the Interior Ministry and the relevant artists’ union for concerts, performances, and other cultural events. The Ministry of Culture must approve all scripts and final productions of plays and films. The ministry censored foreign films to be shown in theaters but did not censor the same films sold as DVDs.
On February 16, the Musicians Syndicate banned Mahraganat music, a popular street-music genre, in public and prohibited any dealings with Mahraganat singers without the syndicate’s permission. This decision came two days after a Cairo concert where Mahraganat singers used what the syndicate considered inappropriate words. A few hours after the decision, the Tourism Police prevented Omar Kamal from holding a concert in a Cairo hotel. The syndicate and the Department of Censorship of Artistic Works filed police reports against a number of Mahraganat singers.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly “according to notification regulated by law.” The demonstrations law includes an expansive list of prohibited activities, giving a judge the authority to prohibit or curtail planned demonstrations after submitting an official memorandum. Domestic and international human rights organizations asserted the law did not meet international standards regarding freedom of assembly. On January 18, an administrative court dismissed a lawsuit filed by a local human rights organization in 2017 challenging the law. A government-imposed exclusion zone prohibits protests within 2,600 feet (790 meters) of vital governmental institutions.
On March 22, President Sisi ratified amendments to the Prison Regulation Law, preventing the conditional release of those convicted of assembly crimes, among other crimes.
There were protests throughout the year, mostly small, and some occurred without government interference. In most cases the government rigorously enforced the law restricting demonstrations, in some instances using force, including in cases of small groups of protesters demonstrating peacefully.
On February 7, authorities detained Patrick George Zaki, a student at the University of Bologna, at the Cairo International Airport. Media reported he was beaten and subjected to electric shocks. On February 8, Zaki appeared before the prosecutor, who ordered his pretrial detention on charges of inciting individuals to protest in September 2019, spreading false news, promoting terrorism, and harming national security. A criminal court renewed his pretrial detention for 45 days on December 6.
On April 22, a local NGO reported that authorities released 3,633 of the 3,717 protesters detained after street demonstrations in September 2019. According to the report, approximately 1,680 defendants were released in 2019, approximately 1,983 were released in the first quarter of 2020, and an estimated 54 remained in detention. On February 5, the Al-Mokattam Emergency Misdemeanor Court ordered the acquittal of 102 individuals of charges of attacking the Mokattam police station in protest against the death in custody of Mohamed Abdel Hakim. Government investigators reported that Hakim had died from beatings by two police employees following his arrest in 2018.
On July 1, the Cassation Court reduced the prison sentence of a Central Security Forces officer, Yaseen Hatem, from 10 years to seven years for the death of activist Shaimaa el-Sabbagh. Hatem was convicted of wounding that led to the death and deliberately wounding other protesters during a 2015 protest marking the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
According to a local human rights organization, thousands of persons whom authorities arrested during 2013 and 2014 due to their participation in demonstrations (some of which were peaceful) remained imprisoned; however, authorities released others who had completed their sentences. Authorities reportedly held such individuals under charges of attending an unauthorized protest, incitement to violence, or “blocking roads.” Human rights groups claimed authorities inflated or used these charges solely to target individuals suspected of being members of groups in opposition to the government or those who sought to exercise the rights to free assembly or association.
On April 12, the State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 35 detainees on bail whom authorities had accused of spreading false news about COVID-19, some of whom had participated in a street march in Alexandria on March 23 after curfew, despite government restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic. On April 25, authorities released 20 detainees on bail who had participated in an April 23 street march after curfew in Alexandria to celebrate Ramadan and protest COVID-19.
On June 17, a local human rights organization filed an official complaint with the prosecutor general to release activist Mohamed Adel as he reached the two-year legal limit for pretrial detention since his June 2018 arrest on charges of violating the protest law. On December 21, State Security Prosecution ordered Adel’s detention for 15 days pending investigation in a new case on charges of joining and funding a terrorist group, meeting terrorist leaders in prison, and spreading false news. Reports indicated that in September more than 2,000 persons, including at least 70 younger than 18, were arrested in response to small demonstrations marking the first anniversary of the anticorruption protests of September 2019. On September 27, the Public Prosecution ordered the release of 68 of the 70 minors who had been arrested. In early November more than 400 persons arrested during the demonstrations were released from prison, and in early December approximately 67 additional individuals were also released.
The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law governing associations, however, significantly restricts this right.
A 2019 law governing NGOs eliminated prison sentences as penalties and removed formal oversight roles for security and intelligence authorities. It also required the government to issue executive regulations to clarify that NGOs will have exclusive access to and control of NGO funds as well as procedural protections, such as impartial administrative and judicial appeal mechanisms. On November 25, the cabinet approved the executive regulations. As of December 31, however, they had not been published in the official gazette.
The penal code criminalizes the request for or acceptance of foreign funds, materiel, weapons, ammunition, or “other things” from states or NGOs “with the intent to harm the national interest.” Those convicted may be sentenced to life in prison (or the death penalty in the case of public officials) for crimes committed during times of war or with “terrorist purpose.”
As of year’s end, lawyer Amr Emam remained in detention pending investigations on charges of colluding with a terrorist organization, publishing false news, and misusing social media to spread false information. Emam was arrested in October 2019 after he began a hunger strike and sit-in to protest the arrests, alleged abuse, and continued detention of journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah, activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and lawyer Mohamed Elbakr. In late August Emam, along with Esraa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Elbakr, was added to a new case on similar charges.
On September 6, after a criminal court ordered his release on August 26, the State Security Prosecution ordered the 15-day pretrial detention of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy on new charges. This was the third case against Hegazy, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, since his 2017 arrest at the Cairo International Airport while traveling to Geneva to participate in the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, and its NGO remained illegal, and the Muslim Brotherhood was listed as a designated terrorist organization.
Authorities continued investigations of local NGOs that received foreign funding under a case originally brought in 2011. On July 18, the Cairo Criminal Court denied a motion to lift the travel bans imposed on 14 defendants in the case, including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan and others, accused of receiving foreign funding to harm national security in connection with her NGO. On December 5, an investigative judge dismissed criminal charges, including receiving foreign funding to harm the national interests, and lifted the travel bans and asset freezes against 20 domestic NGOs involved in the 2011 case.
A court case brought by el-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (also registered under the name el-Nadeem for Psychological Rehabilitation) challenging a 2016 closure order remained pending an expert report ordered by the court. The organization asserted the closure was politically motivated, targeting el-Nadeem because of its work investigating torture, deaths in detention, and impunity for these crimes. The organization continued to operate in a limited capacity.
In November Mohamed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and executive director Gasser Abdel Razek of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were arrested on charges of “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news.” On December 3, authorities released the three pending investigation. On December 6, the Third Terrorism Circuit Court ordered a temporary freeze on the personal assets of the three employees.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers.
In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai on safety grounds.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.” Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.
Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.
The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. A 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”
Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country because of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).
Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.
On June 6, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have to renew the passport of Ayman Nour, the president of the opposition New Ghad Party who was living abroad. Nour filed the lawsuit when the ministry refused to renew his passport at the Egyptian consulates in Turkey and Lebanon.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.
According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.
Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.
On January 8, the Supreme Administrative Court made a final ruling that the government could not extradite to Libya six former Libyan officials who were part of the government of former president Muammar Gaddafi. The court stated that according to domestic and international law, they were entitled to protection in Egypt.
UNHCR protested the government’s November 2019 deportation of a Yemeni asylee to Yemen. According to UNHCR, the asylee was arrested in August 2019 in Egypt for his alleged conversion from Islam to Christianity and subsequent proselytizing activities.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.
According to UNHCR as of March, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.
In 2013 the government began applying a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria, since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.
Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean, remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following enactment and enforcement of a law dramatically increasing patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.
UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed most detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently not detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Authorities often held detained migrants as unregistered asylum seekers in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent some to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.
The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases that were either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.
Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools or private schools, or they were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care.
Of the eight stateless persons known to UNHCR, most were Armenians displaced for more than 50 years. According to a local civil society organization, the number of stateless persons in the country was likely higher than the number recorded by UNHCR. The government and UNHCR lacked a mechanism for identifying stateless persons, including those of disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese nationality and those of disputed Ethiopian/Eritrean nationality. A majority of the approximately 70,000 Palestinian refugees were stateless.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to compel ordinary citizens to comply with the government’s moral code. The government’s failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
Freedom of Speech: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted continued government efforts to “suppress” freedom of expression in the country.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In March, Mehdi Hajati, a former member of the Shiraz City Council, was arrested for criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 on Twitter.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in July authorities arrested Farangis Mazloom, the mother of imprisoned photojournalist Soheil Arabi, and in October sentenced her to 18 months in prison on charges of “meeting and plotting against the national security” and antigovernment propaganda, presumably as a result of activism on behalf of her son. Arabi has been imprisoned since 2013 on blasphemy and other expression-related charges. According to Mazloom, in October Evin Prison authorities moved her son to solitary confinement.
Several activists, including Zahra Jamali and Mohammad Nourizad, who signed letters calling on the supreme leader to step down in June and August 2019 remained in prison during the year on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limited their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.”
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines. Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
RSF reported citizen journalist and writer Payman Farhangian was sentenced to 38 years in prison on charges of antigovernment publicity and “creating a group of more than two persons on ([the messaging service) Signal in order to endanger national security,” related to posts supportive of the labor movement. His lawyer said he appealed the sentence.
In April, Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), were arrested following the alleged posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Heydari was released on bail while Haghjoo was detained pending investigation into the case; there were no updates as of year’s end.
In August, Mostafa Moheb Kia, a journalist with the monthly political magazine Iran Farda, was sentenced to six months in prison for “antigovernment propaganda” and “meeting and plotting against national security.” His sentence came three weeks after a revolutionary court in Tehran confirmed the three-year jail sentence of Iran Farda’s 72-year-old editor Kayvan Samimi Behbahani. On December 15, Samimi was reportedly jailed.
On August 18, Nader Fatourehchi, a freelance journalist who reported on high-level corruption in the government, self-reported on Twitter that he was sentenced to one year in prison and a suspended sentence for three years, on a charge of “stirring up public opinion against government institutions, officials and organizations.”
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 78 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of November, a significant increase from 2019.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations in an attempt to censor coverage of protests and intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. As of November 13, Shargh journalist Marzieh Amiri was reportedly released from detention after being sentenced in December 2019 on national security charges to five years in prison (reduced from an original sentence of 10 years and 148 lashes) for covering labor protests.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship through arrests and imprisonments. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
According to Freedom House, during the November 2019 protests and subsequent internet shutdown, journalists and media were issued official guidelines from the Ministry of Intelligence and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance on how to cover the protests. The ministries threatened journalists with criminal prosecution if they strayed from official guidance, which instructed that the protests not be made into “headline news” and should be portrayed as civil protests while minimizing the extent of violence.
As the outbreak of COVID-19 escalated, the head of the Cyber Police (known as FATA), Commander Vahid Majid, announced the establishment of a working group for “combatting online rumors” relating to the spread of the virus. In April a military spokesman said authorities had arrested 3,600 individuals for spreading COVID-19 “rumors” online, with no clear guidance on what authorities considered a “rumor.”
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel and slander laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter but not overthrow the government, are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in February a Tehran court found guilty editors-in-chief of three news sites on “defamation” charges filed by a state-owned gas company.
National Security: As noted above, authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials.
On September 2, a revolutionary court in Tehran reportedly sentenced journalist Mohammad Mosaed to more than four years in prison, a two-year ban on journalistic activities, and a two-year ban on using any communications devices, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prosecutors charged Mosaed with “colluding against national security” for activities in 2019 including posting on the internet during a government-implemented internet shutdown.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems and maintain monopoly control over internet traffic flowing in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the global internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November 2019. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, approximately 40 days after the protests began, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to memorial ceremonies for the victims. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology denied reports of an internet shutdown in December.
Authorities blocked access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms deemed critical of the state, and continued to monitor private online communications and censor online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that can effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private internet service providers (ISPs) were forced to either use the bandwidth provided by the government or route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to Freedom House, a number of domestically hosted websites such as national online banking services, domestic messaging apps, and hospital networks were able to remain online using the NIN infrastructure while global traffic was disconnected during the November 2019 protests.
Authorities restricted access to tens of thousands of websites, particularly those of international news and information services, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations. They continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations. According to Freedom House, websites are blocked if they contradict state doctrine regarding Islam, as well as government narratives on domestic or international politics. News stories that cover friction among political institutions are also frequently censored.
In October 2019 a letter signed by Javad Javidnia, the former deputy prosecutor general responsible for cyberspace, and secretary to the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), was sent to ISPs asking them to block the official Android app store and the Google Play store “as soon as possible.” The letter stated that the CDICC made the decision “in accordance with Article 749 of the Islamic Penal Code relating to computer crimes.” Article 749 requires all ISPs to filter any content determined by the CDICC as criminal content. Resistance in complying with this article results in the termination of the ISP or in some cases a financial penalty.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
According to Freedom House, significant internet disruptions were observed as protests broke out in the aftermath of the military’s January 8 accidental shooting down of airliner Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. Access to the messaging app WhatsApp was also disrupted during this time.
In February extensive network disruptions impacted the country, which the Ministry of Information claimed to be due to a DDoS attack originating from outside the country, although they did not provide information to verify this claim.
In early March as the country was battling outbreaks of COVID-19, reports confirmed that access to Persian Wikipedia had been blocked using the same method used for blocking Telegram and Facebook, although officials did not comment on the incident.
In July further network disruptions were reported following protests against the government’s foreign policy and the continuing economic crisis in Khuzestan Province. The same month, network disruptions were reported for three hours as online users used hashtags on social media to speak out against death sentences handed down to three men who participated in the 2019 protests.
In September the Tehran Province chief justice issued a directive establishing specialized court branches to handle cases against cyberspace businesses, according to a November report by Iran-based technology news website Peyvast. The directive instructed courts to prosecute the users of “user-centric software” for illegal content, rather than the owners of the technology platforms on which the content was published.
Contrary to the directive, in late October, Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Tehran Revolutionary Court Branch 28 sentenced Aparat CEO Mohammad Javad Shakouri-Moghadam to a total of 12 years in prison for “encouraging corruption,” “publishing vulgar content,” and “propaganda against the regime,” for a 2019 video posted on the platform in which a reporter asked children in Tehran if they knew how they were born. Shakouri-Moghadam appealed the ruling and was freed on bail.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April popular Instagram couple Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, a former world kickboxing champion, and his wife Shabnam Shahrokhi reported they were sentenced in absentia for charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “spreading obscene and vulgar content” related to posts on social media.
In May police confirmed the arrest of parkour athlete Alireza Japalaghy and an unnamed woman for “advocating vice,” after Japalaghy posted photos of them embracing that went viral on social media. Japalaghy was later released and reportedly fled the country. The woman’s whereabouts were unknown.
The government uses an extensive digital propaganda apparatus, backing numerous initiatives to promote blogging among its supporters. Following the January death of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, a number of Twitter accounts claiming to be located in Iran began tweeting using hashtags such as #hardrevenge and images of Soleimani.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education.
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas concerning women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In March media and NGOs reported authorities summoned filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to prison to serve a one-year sentence, although his lawyer advised him not to turn himself in due to the coronavirus outbreak. In July 2019 CHRI reported that a court sentenced Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s repression of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In August authorities reportedly arrested musician Mehdi Rajabian on “immorality” charges related to the release of an album and publication of a video on which he worked with female musicians and dancers. Rajabian was arrested on at least two previous occasions for his work.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.
According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests and protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws. In a July report, UNSR Rehman stated he was “gravely concerned at the unprecedented use of excessive force” against peaceful protesters in the country and noted a “trend…of suppressing the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and assembly.”
The United Nations expressed particular concern regarding the government’s excessive use of force in January against protesters in several cities who had gathered to express discontent with how the government handled an investigation into the shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by military forces. According to the UN’s investigation, “eyewitness testimonies and footage indicated that, on January 11 and 12, security forces had again used excessive force against protesters by firing pointed pellets, rubber bullets and teargas, causing injuries. Security forces also used pepper spray and batons and fired tear gas into an enclosed Tehran metro station. Injured protesters either chose not to go to hospitals or were turned away due to fear of their arrest. Security forces reportedly maintained a strong presence in hospitals and tried to transfer some protesters to military hospitals. Student protesters at several universities were also reportedly arrested and assaulted.” The government undertook no credible investigations of these allegations.
In July local security forces used tear gas to disperse economic protests in the southwestern cities of Behbahan and Shiraz, which also were related to news that a court upheld death sentences against three men who participated in separate protests earlier in the year. Police warned they would deal “decisively” with further demonstrations.
The government did not investigate the killing of at least 304 protesters by security forces in November 2019 (see section 1.a.).
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (see section 1.d.).
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government recognized 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services, facilitate the issuance of work permits, and serve as a safeguard against arrest and deportation. Amayesh cardholders must obtain permission for any travel outside their province of registration. In late July the Amayesh re-registration exercise started and expanded the eligibility criteria for Amayesh card renewal to include those who missed the four previous rounds. Undocumented spouses and family members of Amayesh cardholders are reportedly also able to enroll. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards, which are valid only for one year, were increasingly difficult to renew and prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to increased annual renewal fees. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to two million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
On May 1, Iranian border guards reportedly forced a group of 57 Afghan migrant workers they had detained entering the country into a fast-flowing river near Zulfiqar at gunpoint. According to a Reuters report sourced to Afghan lawmakers investigating the incident, at least 45 of the men drowned. There was no information regarding the status of a joint investigation into the incident by the Iranian and Afghan governments.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to October 24, Iran deported 249,807 Afghans to Afghanistan and an additional 416,450 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with some claiming they were pressured to leave or left due to abuse by police or state authorities.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government blocked many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with UNHCR as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They could apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move among those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees may enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population may enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, including 130,000 undocumented children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Persons without birth registration, identity documents, or refugee identification were at a heightened risk of statelessness. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities did not issue formal government support or travel documents to stateless persons.
In June a law passed in October 2019 entered into force granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men (see section 6, Children). Previously, female citizens married to foreign men were not able to transmit citizenship to their children, unlike male citizens, whose children and spouses receive citizenship automatically. As a result of this disparity, between 400,000 and one million children of the more than 150,000 Iranian women married to foreign men lacked Iranian nationality, according to media reporting. These dependents could only apply for citizenship after they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. Under the law, the children of Iranian women and foreign men qualify for citizenship, although it is not automatic; the mother must submit an application for them. Children who turn 18 may apply for nationality themselves, even if their mother is deceased. Foreign men married to Iranian women may receive legal residency.
Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for the right of free expression, including for the press if such does not violate public order and morality, express support for the banned Baath Party, or advocate altering the country’s borders through violent means. Despite this provision, media and social activists faced various forms of pressure and intimidation from authorities, making the primary limitation on freedom of expression self-censorship due to a credible fear of reprisals by the government, political parties, ethnic and sectarian forces, militias, terrorist and extremist groups, or criminal gangs. A media environment in which press outlets were closely affiliated with specific political parties and ethnic factions, an opaque judiciary, and a developing democratic political system combined to place considerable restrictions on freedom of expression, including the press.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals were able to criticize the government publicly or privately but not without fear of reprisal. Impunity in cases of violence against the press and a lack of a truly independent judiciary and press regulation body diminished the effectiveness of journalists.
Central government and KRG forces arrested and detained protesters and activists critical of the central government and of the KRG, respectively, according to statements by government officials, NGO representatives, and press reports.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Despite the constitutional protection for freedom of expression, central government and KRG oversight and censorship sometimes interfered with media operations, at times resulting in the closure of media outlets, restrictions on reporting, denying access to public information, and interference with internet service.
Local media was active and expressed a variety of views, largely reflecting owners’ political viewpoints. Media also self-censored to comply with government restrictions against “violating public order” and because of a fear of reprisal by political figures and parties, militias, terrorist groups, criminal organizations, government officials, and private individuals. Political parties strongly influenced, or controlled outright, most of the several hundred daily and weekly print publications, as well as dozens of radio and television stations.
The KRG’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) prioritized access to the outlets they owned. In KDP strongholds Kurdistan Television, Rudaw, and K24 had access to all public places and information, while in PUK-dominated Sulaymaniya Province, Kurdsat News, and GK Television enjoyed the same privilege. Conversely, outlets belonging to opposition parties or lacking party affiliation had limited access to public information in the IKR.
The IKR press law does not give the KRG the authority to close media outlets, but in August the KRG closed the Kurdish Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) offices in Erbil and Duhok over the television station’s coverage of protests. On September 9, KRG coordinator for international advocacy Dindar Zebari defended the move stating that NRT violated Article 2 of Law 12 of 2010, which bars encouraging a public disturbance or harming social harmony in accordance with IKR law.
Government forces sometimes prevented journalists from reporting, citing security reasons. Some media organizations reported arrests and harassment of journalists, as well as government efforts to prevent them from covering politically sensitive topics, including security issues, corruption, and government failure to provide adequate services.
Violence and Harassment: Several journalists were killed throughout the year during the course of their work, some reportedly by militia or security forces. On February 11, unknown gunmen assassinated journalist and general supervisor of al-Rasheed Satellite TV, Nizar Thanoun, while he was traveling in his car in the al-Jama neighborhood of western Baghdad.
In addition to those killed, others in media reported threats, intimidation, and attacks. Istiaq Adel, a reporter for al-Sumaria satellite TV, reported she survived an attack on January 30 after receiving several threatening text messages.
HRW released a report in June that cited numerous violations of press freedom and freedom of expression amid widespread protests and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Media workers reported that politicians, government officials, security services, tribal elements, and business leaders pressured them not to publish articles critical of them. Journalists reported accounts of government or partisan violence, intimidation, death threats, and harassment.
Amnesty International continued to receive reports of activists and journalists threatened by security forces. These forces warned them that if they continued to speak out against human rights abuses committed against protesters, they would be added to a blacklist compiled by intelligence services.
Throughout the IKR there were reports of beatings, detentions, and death threats against media workers. In some cases the aggressors wore KRG military or police uniforms. In particular journalists working for NRT were frequently arrested. On August 14, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Kurdish security forces in Erbil briefly detained an NRT crew covering protests in the city and seized their equipment. Rebwar Kakay, head of NRT’s office in Erbil, told the CPJ that authorities held the journalists without charge for eight hours at Erbil’s Azadi police station, and that the team’s cameras, live streaming devices, press badges, and cell phones were seized.
Certain KRG courts applied the more stringent Iraqi criminal code in lawsuits involving journalists instead of the IKR’s own Press Law, which provides greater protection for freedom of expression and forbids the detention of journalists. KRG officials increased their use of lawsuits against journalists critical of the KRG, including applying laws such as the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices instead of the IKR press law. In the first nine months of the year, KRG officials from various government offices filed eight independent lawsuits against freelance journalist Hemn Mamand after he posted content on Facebook critical of the KRG’s COVID-19 response. Mamand was arrested twice, in March and again in April, and spent 34 days in detention on charges levied under the Law of Misuse of Electronic Devices.
Reporting from areas liberated from ISIS control remained dangerous and difficult. Journalists covering armed clashes involving government forces, militias, and ISIS remnants faced serious threats to their safety. Military officials, citing safety considerations, sometimes restricted journalists’ access to areas of active fighting.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits producing, importing, publishing, or possessing written material, drawings, photographs, or films that violate public integrity or decency. The penalties for conviction include fines and imprisonment. Fear of violent retaliation for publishing facts or opinions critical of political factions inhibited free expression. The Ministry of Culture must approve all books published in or imported into the country, thereby subjecting authors to censorship.
The Press Freedom Advocacy Association in Iraq (PFAA) released a report in July that detailed restrictions imposed by the Communication and Media Commission (CMC) on media outlets over the past 10 years, which included 128 closures of media outlets, suspension of operating licenses, fines, and forced job termination of selected employees. Since October 2019 the CMC ordered the closure of 19 local and Arab media outlets, most of which participated in the coverage of the October 2019 demonstrations.
HRW reported in April that the CMC suspended Reuters’ license for three months and fined it for an article it published on April 2 alleging that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country was much higher than the official statistics. Authorities lifted the suspension on April 19 amid international pressure.
Libel/Slander Laws: Militias and government officials used arrest warrants in defamation cases to intimidate, silence, and in some instances apparently “flush out” activists and journalists from hiding. An Iranian-backed militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, targeted Middle East Eye correspondent Suadad al-Salihi with a defamation complaint over her reporting on their activities, which resulted in Baghdad’s Karrada Investigative Court issuing an arrest warrant against her on October 22. On November 5, the Ninewa Federal Court of Appeals issued arrest warrants against four media bloggers over their critical reporting on the province’s COVID-19 response. One blogger claimed to have been directly threatened by Ninewa’s provincial health services director. In similar developments in the IKR, on September 22, police detained journalist Bahroz Jaafar in Sulaymaniya following a lawsuit filed by President Barham Salih over defamation charges.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental and quasi-governmental actors, including militias outside of state control, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, threatened journalists with violence for reporting on sensitive subjects. On July 17, dozens of journalists expressed concerns regarding a potential escalation of violence against them by outlaw militias, particularly in the wake of the Hisham al-Hashemi killing. The PFAA reported in July it had documented specific threats by unknown militias against at least 30 journalists during the year. The PFAA also said that it had become common practice to accuse journalists responsible for antimilitia reporting of being agents of foreign governments and encourage violence against them.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content, and there were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Government restrictions on access to the internet were overt, but the government denied that it monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Despite restrictions, political figures and activists used the internet to criticize politicians, organize demonstrations, and campaign for candidates through social media platforms.
The government acknowledged it interfered with internet access in some areas of the country, reportedly due to the security situation and ISIS’ disruptive use of social media platforms. While Wi-Fi and 3G access was largely restored, connectivity remained weak, making social media and streaming difficult. Slow speeds, or the “throttling back” of internet access, greatly limited the ability of users to upload video and photographic content.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. Social, religious, and political pressures significantly restricted the exercise of freedom of choice in academic and cultural matters. In all regions, various groups sought to control the pursuit of formal education and the granting of academic positions. Academic freedoms remained restricted in areas of active conflict with ISIS.
NGOs in the IKR reported that university president, dean, and senior professorship positions were easier to obtain for those with links to the traditional KDP and PUK ruling parties. Privilege was also given to those affiliated with political parties in the pursuit of higher degrees.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration “regulated by law.” The government sometimes limited freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Regulations require protest organizers to request permission seven days in advance of a demonstration and submit detailed information regarding the applicants, the reason for the protest, and participants. The regulations prohibit all “slogans, signs, printed materials, or drawings” involving “sectarianism, racism, or segregation” of citizens. The regulations also prohibit anything that would violate the constitution or law; encourage violence, hatred, or killing; or prove insulting to Islam, “honor, morals, religion, holy groups, or Iraqi entities in general.” Authorities generally issued permits in accordance with the regulations. As demonstrations escalated starting in October 2019, authorities consistently failed to protect demonstrators from violence (see section 1.e.).
In February armed militias attacked protest squares in Najaf and Karbala using live bullets, batons, and knives against peaceful protesters and also burned their tents. The security forces watched the attacks unfold without intervening to protect the demonstrators or stopping the militants. In May security forces in Diwaniyah Province opened fire on protesters who had gathered to demand the release of four activists arrested earlier that day.
From October 2019 to August, the al-Nama Center for Human Rights documented 39 killings targeting protesters, 31 attempted killings, 20 cases of harassment and intimidation, seven enforced disappearances, 36 kidnappings, and 35 arbitrary detentions throughout the country. Most of these attacks were carried out by unknown gunmen who observers believed were likely linked to Iranian- or Sadrist-backed militias.
The constitution provides for the right to form and join associations and political parties, with some exceptions. The government generally respected this right, except for the legal prohibitions against groups expressing support for the Baath Party or “Zionist principles.”
The government reported it took approximately one month to process NGO registration applications. NGOs must register and periodically reregister in Baghdad. According to the NGO Directorate at the Council of Ministers Secretariat, there were 4,600 registered NGOs as of September, including 168 branches of foreign organizations. There were also 900 women-focused or -chaired NGOs registered as of September. The directorate also sanctioned 700 NGOs for committing violations, such as providing cover for political parties or suspicious operations against the NGO code.
NGOs registered in Baghdad could operate in the IKR; however, NGOs registered solely in the IKR could not operate in the rest of the country. As a result some NGOs registered only in the IKR could not operate outside the IKR and KRG-controlled disputed territories.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution and law provide for the freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not consistently respect these rights. Law and custom generally do not respect freedom of movement for women. For example, the law prevents a woman from applying for a passport without the consent of her male guardian or a legal representative. Women could not obtain the Civil Status Identification Document, required for access to public services, food assistance, health care, employment, education, and housing, without the consent of a male relative.
In some instances authorities restricted movements of displaced persons, and authorities did not allow some IDP camp residents to depart without specific permission, thereby limiting access to livelihoods, education, and services. Many parts of the country liberated from ISIS control suffered from movement restrictions due to checkpoints of PMF units and other government forces. In other instances local authorities did not always recognize security permits of returnees or comply with the central government’s orders to facilitate, but not force, returns.
Despite improving security conditions in some areas, many returnees grappled with the destruction of homes, lack of services and livelihoods, and continued concerns for security due to the prevalence of PMF groups and, in Sinjar, militias aligned with the PKK. In some cases this led to secondary displacement or a return to IDP camps.
Security considerations, unexploded ordnance, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19 curfews, and travel restrictions, as well as official and unofficial access restrictions, limited humanitarian access to IDP communities. Insecurity caused by the presence of ISIS, the PKK, and PMF groups hindered the movement of local and international staff of humanitarian organizations, restricting their ability to monitor and implement some programs for a portion of the year.
UNAMI also reported that more than 2,460 humanitarian missions had been canceled or prevented from reaching their destinations since the beginning of December 2019. An estimated 2.4 million persons in need were affected by the restrictions imposed on humanitarian movements. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in September alone more than 287,700 individuals in need were affected by these restrictions.
Humanitarian and other organizations reported improved field access beginning in September following action by the NGO Directorate to begin processing access letter requests. According to OCHA, in October the number of individuals affected by access related restrictions fell to 37,000. Humanitarian organizations reported smoother movement in the central provinces of Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala. Access challenges continued, however, in some areas in western Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces.
In July humanitarian partners reported 77 restrictions of access incidents across 22 districts, with Ninewa Province reporting the highest number. Across all provinces, approximately 95 percent of the incidents reported constituted administrative restrictions on humanitarian activities and movements. It was estimated that more than 231,000 persons in need were affected by access-related incidents that took place in Ninewa (71 percent), Kirkuk (27 percent), Anbar (1 percent), and Baghdad (1 percent). Most incidents reported by humanitarian organizations indicated difficulties related to lack of national-level access letter authorizations.
In-country Movement: The law permits security forces to restrict in-country movement and take other necessary security and military measures in response to security threats and attacks. There were numerous reports that government forces, including the ISF, Peshmerga, and PMF, selectively enforced regulations, including for ethnosectarian reasons, as well as criminal extortion, requiring residency permits to limit entry of persons into areas under their control.
Multiple international NGOs reported that PMF units and the Peshmerga prevented civilians, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic and religious minorities, from returning to their homes after government forces ousted ISIS (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that local armed groups barred returns to certain areas of Baiji, Salah al-Din Province. Similarly, Christian CSOs reported that certain PMF groups, including the 30th and 50th PMF Brigades, prevented Christian IDP returns and harassed Christian returnees in several towns in the Ninewa Plain, including Bartalla and Qaraqosh. Members of the 30th Brigade also refused to implement a decision from the prime minister to remove checkpoints, and their continued obstruction led to forced demographic change in traditionally Christian areas of the Ninewa Plain.
The KRG restricted movement across the areas it administered for nonresidents. Authorities required nonresidents to register with the local Asayish office to obtain a residence permit. These permits were generally renewable. Citizens of all ethnosectarian backgrounds, including Kurds, crossing into the IKR from central or southern regions were obligated to cross through checkpoints and undergo personal and vehicle inspection. The government imposed similar restrictions on IDPs from Ninewa Province and the disputed territories.
KRG authorities applied restrictions more stringently in some areas than in others. The United Nations and international humanitarian organizations stated that entry limitations for IDPs and refugees seeking to return to their areas of origin depended upon the ethnosectarian background of the displaced individuals and the area to which they intended to return. There were also reports that authorities sometimes closed checkpoints into the region for extended periods, leaving some returnees separated from their families and agricultural land on the other side of the line of control. Closed checkpoints forced many IDPs to wait, often resulting in secondary displacement. In other instances the closure of checkpoints forced returnees to take circuitous and dangerous routes to reach their areas of origin. KRG officials also prevented individuals whom they deemed security threats from entering the region. KRG officials generally admitted minority IDPs into the IKR, although security checks reportedly were lengthy on occasion. Entry was often more difficult for men, particularly Arab men traveling without family.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for citizens leaving the country, but the requirement was not routinely enforced.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Displacement Tracking Matrix, an estimated 1.3 million persons remained internally displaced, with more than 250,000 residing in camps and an additional 44,000 in informal settlements, predominantly in Erbil, Duhok, and Ninewa provinces. According to IOM, more than 100,000 IDPs lived in critical shelters, including unsafe and abandoned buildings, religious buildings, and schools. Nearly five million persons returned to areas of origin across the country since liberation from ISIS.
The constitution and national policy on displacement address IDP rights, but few laws specifically do so. The government and international organizations, including UN agencies and local and international NGOs, provided protection and other assistance to IDPs. Humanitarian actors continued to provide support for formal IDP camps and implemented community-based services for IDPs residing outside of camps to limit strain on host community resources.
In some areas violence, insecurity, and long-standing political, tribal, and ethnosectarian tensions hampered progress on national reconciliation and political reform, complicating the protection environment for IDPs. Thousands of families faced secondary displacement due to economic and security concerns. Forced displacements strained the capacity of local authorities in areas with higher concentrations of IDPs. Families returning to their place of origin faced a lack of shelter, access to services, and livelihood opportunities. Displaced families, especially those with perceived ties to ISIS, were often unable to obtain or replace vital civil status documents, without which they were not able to work, go to school, or move about freely.
Government assistance focused on financial grants to returnees, but payments were sporadic and there was a large backlog in responding to applications. Faced with large movements of IDPs across the country, the government provided food, water, and financial assistance to some but not all IDPs, including in the IKR. Many IDPs lived in informal settlements without access to adequate water, sanitation, or other essential services.
All citizens were eligible to receive food under the Public Distribution System (PDS), but authorities implemented the PDS sporadically and irregularly, with limited access in areas that were among the last to be liberated. Authorities did not distribute all commodities each month, and not all IDPs could access the PDS in each province. Low oil prices reduced government revenues and further limited funds available for the PDS. There were reports of IDPs losing access and entitlement to PDS distributions and other services due to requirements that citizens could redeem PDS rations or other services only at their registered place of residence.
Local authorities often determined whether IDPs would have access to local services. KRG officials asserted that all IDPs and refugees in the Kurdistan Region benefited from access to public services and infrastructure (such as drinking water, electricity, education, health care, roads, and irrigation system) on an equal basis with the local population, which they stated was a reflection of the KRG’s commitment to safeguard fundamental human rights and human dignity under pressing circumstances.
To support humanitarian standards and serve displaced populations, KRG officials reported they had allocated land for construction of camps; contributed to the construction of camps and connecting camps to power grids and local infrastructure; introduced civil administration in the camps and provided security services; reinforced technical and legal services to combat sexual and gender-based violence in and outside the camps; opened additional shifts at local schools to make schooling in Arabic available to displaced children (58 percent of refugees’ children and 91 percent of IDPs children were enrolled in formal and informal education); facilitated reunification of children with their families; granted access for all IDPs and refugees to public health services, including mobilizing emergency mobile clinics and medical teams; introduced simplified procedures for free movement of humanitarian personnel; introduced exemption from customs duty and mechanisms to fast-track customs clearance for humanitarian supplies; and publicly called on local communities and all sections of society to welcome and assist IDPs as their guests.
The KRG was host to almost two million IDPs, including a large percentage of Christian, Yezidi, Shabak, Kaka’i, and other ethnic and religious groups from the Ninewa Plain. Despite the dire economic situation and security difficulties that occurred in the region, KRG officials reported they focused on preserving the rights of these minorities as a top priority.
Households with perceived ties to ISIS faced stigma and were at increased risk of being deprived of their basic rights. Government officials frequently denied security clearances for displaced households with perceived ISIS affiliation to return to areas of origin. Because of this perceived affiliation, these households faced problems obtaining civil documentation and had limited freedom of movement, including the ability to seek medical treatment, due to the risk of arrest or inability to reenter the camps where they resided. Humanitarian organizations reported that women heads of household in multiple IDP camps struggled to obtain permission to move and were subject to verbal and physical harassment, including rape, sexual assault, and exploitation, by government forces and camp residents.
IKR-based NGOs documented numerous cases of women, who, forced to marry ISIS fighters, subsequently became widows with children but lacked marriage and birth certificates required to obtain legal documentation for these children. These women and children were stigmatized because of their association with ISIS, leaving them at heightened risk of suicide, retaliation, and sexual exploitation. Although some communities issued edicts and took steps to absolve women of perceived guilt associated with their sexual exploitation by ISIS fighters, honor killings remained a risk. Communities generally did not accept children born to ISIS fighters. NGO partners reported that some Yezidi community representatives pressured women to abandon their children or place them in orphanages as a condition for being accepted back into the Yezidi community.
In October the minister of displacement and migration announced a new three-phase plan to close all of the country’s IDP camps and immediately launched a series of sudden camp closures in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, and Ninewa provinces, affecting more than a thousand families. By late November the ministry had closed 11 displacement sites–eight formal IDP camps and three informal sites–across federal Iraq, affecting more than 25,000 IDPs. These closures were not coordinated with relevant local authorities or with humanitarian actors, not all IDPs were able or willing to return to their place of origin, and there were reports that up to 50 percent of IDPs could end up in secondary displacement as a consequence. IDP camp managers and NGOs reported government officials did not always give IDPs at closed camps the choice of where to proceed, resulting in involuntary, unsafe, and undignified returns and movements.
There were numerous reports that IDPs, particularly those suspected of ISIS affiliation, faced hostility from local government officials and populations, as well as expulsion when they attempted to return to areas of origin. In liberated areas of Anbar, Duhok, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, humanitarian agencies reported movement restrictions for families with relatives suspected of ISIS affiliation. An Interior Ministry official estimated the number of those with perceived ISIS affiliation at 250,000. Tribal leaders and humanitarian actors reported that fabricated accusations of ISIS affiliation led to the stigmatization of IDPs, particularly those living in camps, who were being isolated and whose movements in and out of camps were increasingly restricted. Following IDP camp closures starting in October, many IDPs with perceived ISIS affiliation reported being rejected by local communities in areas of return, forcing them either to return to their former camps or to proceed elsewhere. Tribal pacts called for punishing false accusations of ISIS affiliation, but they also prohibited legal defense for those affiliated with ISIS. IDPs were also often the targets of stigmatization or discrimination because of familial rivalries or economic reasons, rather than affiliation with ISIS.
Many Christian IDPs refused to return to the town of Tal Kayf, citing fear of the PMF 50th Brigade that occupied it and the presence of the Tesferat detention center and court, which the International Committee of the Red Cross reported could hold women and minors suspected of being ISIS family members. Prior to 2002, there were between 800,000 and 1.4 million Christians in the region, but that figure had reportedly fallen to below 150,000. Only a very small number of the country’s population of 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis had returned to their homes. Many chose to stay in camps, saying a lack of a reconstruction plans or public services, as well as insecurity, had discouraged them from returning home. In June, however, Yezidis began returning to the Sinjar district in Ninewa Province for a variety of reasons, including fear of COVID-19 in camp settings, and as of late October more than 30,000 had returned.
In October the Iraqi government and the KRG signed a comprehensive agreement that called for a new mayor and administrative committees to oversee Sinjar district, a local security force consisting of Yezidis, removal of PKK and PMF militias, and expanded reconstruction efforts to support voluntary returns of Yezidis still displaced in the IKR and abroad.
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government did not have effective systems to assist all of these individuals, largely due to funding shortfalls and lack of capacity.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Humanitarian protection experts assessed that conditions in IDP camps were highly susceptible to sexual exploitation and abuse of residents, further exacerbated by COVID-19-related movement restrictions. Refugees and IDPs reported frequent sexual harassment, both in camps and cities in the IKR. Local NGOs reported cases in which camp management and detention employees subjected IDPs and refugees to various forms of abuse and intimidation.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Syrians made up the vast majority of the refugee population, and almost all refugees resided in the IKR. The KRG generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees in the country.
According to the KRG Ministry of Interior, 259,496 refugees resided in the IKR as of September. More than one-half of these refugees lived outside of camps. The KRG cooperated with UNHCR in allowing these individuals to seek refuge in camps and receive basic assistance. The KRG allowed Syrian refugees with family in the IKR to live outside of camps.
Freedom of Movement: Syrian refugees continued to face restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR. KRG authorities noted IDPs and refugees had freedom of movement within the IKR. There are provisions to allow family visits to Syria. The KHRW confirmed the restrictions on residence and movement outside the IKR.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to work in the private sector. The central government does not recognize the refugee status of Palestinians. In the KRG Palestinians are allowed to work in the private sector but are required to renew their refugee status annually. Syrian refugees were able to obtain and renew residency and work permits both in refugee camps and in the IKR, although not in the rest of the country. Central government authorities arrested refugees with IKR residence permits who sought work outside the region and returned them to the IKR. A UNHCR survey of Syrian refugees in the IKR between April and June showed that 89 percent of the refugee families had at least one family member regularly employed in some form of livelihood activity.
UNHCR estimated there were more than 47,000 stateless individuals in the country as of August. An estimated 45,000 displaced children in camps were missing civil documentation and faced exclusion from local society, including being barred from attending school, lacking access to health care, and being deprived of basic rights. Many of these children, born under ISIS rule, were issued birth certificates that were considered invalid by the Iraqi government. They faced extreme difficulties in obtaining civil documentation due to perceived ISIS affiliation.
Absent a countrywide, consistent plan to document children of Iraqi mothers and ISIS fathers, those children were at risk of statelessness. The Yezidi community more willingly welcomed back Yezidi women who survived ISIS captivity but not children fathered through rape by ISIS fighters. The Yezidi community frequently forced women to give up such babies and minor children to orphanages under threat of expulsion from the community.
International NGOs provided shelter referrals to some Yezidi women and, in some cases, assisted mothers in finding homes for forcibly abandoned children. Those children that did not receive assistance were without parents, identification, clear country of birth, or settled nationality.
As of 2006, the latest year for which data was available, an estimated 54,500 Bidoon (stateless) individuals, living as nomads in the desert in or near the southern provinces of Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Qadisiyah, remained undocumented and stateless descendants of individuals who never received Iraqi citizenship upon the state’s founding. Prolonged drought in the south of the country forced many individuals from these communities to migrate to city centers, where most obtained identification documents and gained access to food rations and other social benefits. Other communities similarly at risk of statelessness included the country’s Romani (Dom) population; the Ahwazi, who are Shia Arabs of Iranian descent; the Baha’i religious minority; inhabitants of the southern marshlands; members of the Goyan and Omariya Turkish Kurdish tribes near Mosul; and nationals of South Sudan.
A UNHCR-funded legal initiative secured nationality for hundreds of formerly stateless families, giving them access to basic rights and services. Since 2017 lawyers worked to help Bidoons and other stateless persons acquire nationality, assisting an average of 500 individuals per year.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law generally provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
The law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in Israel or areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the law. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits.
The law bars entry to the country of visitors who called for boycotts, and in 2018 the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry. According to September 30 media reports, the Ministry of Interior permitted former Israeli citizen Dror Feiler, who participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla and was banned from the country since 2010, entry to the country only upon deposit of a 100,000 shekel ($30,600) bond.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender. In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.
Conviction of desecrating the Israeli flag carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison and a monetary fine.
The law prohibits individuals or organizations that initiate political or legal action abroad against IDF soldiers or the state of Israel from holding activities in schools, but the Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law as of year’s end. Both supporters and opponents of the law stated it was intended to target the NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS), a group of military veterans whose goal is to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. BTS criticized the law as a violation of freedom of political expression.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.
Police regulations grant broad authorities to prevent journalists’ access to violent incidents (i.e., riots, demonstrations, protests) if there exists a concern that the entry of journalists would lead to “special circumstances,” such as risking the journalist’s life, furthering violence, disrupting investigative procedures, violating privacy, or violating a closure order. Police must also consider alternatives to minimize the violation of press freedom, for instance by escorting journalists in and out of dangerous situations.
In April the Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas due to the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. In June the Journalists’ Support Committee, a nonprofit journalist advocacy organization, stated security forces committed more than 50 human rights violations against Palestinian journalists working in Jerusalem in the first half of the year, including arrests and expulsions from the city. In May the then public security minister Gilad Erdan extended for six months the closure order against Palestine TV’s East Jerusalem office, according to media reports. In November 2019, Erdan first ordered the closure when police raided the office.
On June 10, Likud officials published a video using the party’s official Twitter account calling for the imprisonment of Channel 13 News journalist Raviv Drucker for his coverage of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s trial. Likud officials accused Drucker of extorting witnesses, broadcasting criminal leaks, and obstructing justice. On July 25, the prime minister took to Facebook to characterize Channel 12 as a propaganda tool against him and his government.
Following a March 15 COVID-19 emergency regulation allowing the Shin Bet to track civilian cell phones for contact tracing purposes, the Union of Journalists in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court to have its members excluded in order to preserve press freedom and protect journalist sources. On April 26, the Supreme Court ruled that a journalist identified as a COVID-19 patient could refuse being tracked by the Shin Bet and instead undergo a manual epidemiological investigation, whereby the journalist would not reveal their sources but commit to notifying health officials regarding their infection.
Police detained, used violence against, and confiscated equipment of journalists during demonstrations throughout the country. On June 8, police officers hit, shoved to the floor, and then detained Haaretz photojournalist Tomer Appelbaum at the end of a demonstration against the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Witnesses indicated that Appelbaum was clearly identified as a journalist; however, police stated they did not notice his press credentials until after the incident. On September 5, police detained two photojournalists, according to the Israeli NGO Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), after the journalists recorded protesters moving police barriers during a demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence. Police stated they confiscated the equipment because the cameras contained evidence of an alleged crime committed by the protesters. The photographers and the association of journalists argued the material was privileged. On November 11, a magistrate court rejected the police request to use the footage as evidence, stating that in this case, the public interest of a free, effective, and objective press surpasses the public interest in the criminal investigation.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment.
News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations, and required foreign correspondents and local media to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces through a Freedom of Information Act request by +972 Magazine, in 2019 the censor acted on 1,973 articles out of 8,127 articles submitted to it, and banned 202 articles.
According to the Seventh Eye media watchdog group, police automatically requested gag orders during investigations of certain crimes and complex cases, and only on rare occasions did police request rescinding of such orders before the completion of its work in a case. This policy, according to the Seventh Eye, began in 2015, when a former deputy head of Shin Bet began serving as police commissioner. The policy was continued by his successors.
While the government retained the authority to censor publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Editors and journalists from those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: According to HRDF, individuals and right-wing NGOs used defamation lawsuits to discourage public criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For example, on July 13, the Samaria Regional Council sued head of the Zulat Institute Zehava Galon and former member of the Knesset for libel after she criticized on Twitter its granting of a certificate of honor to two settlers who in 2019 allegedly shot and killed a Palestinian attacker. According to B’Tselem, the settlers continued to shoot the Palestinian after he no longer posed a threat. In June an additional libel lawsuit against the Galon and B’Tselem NGOs and three individuals who tweeted on the incident was filed by Yehusha Sherman, who shot the attacker. The lawsuits continued at year’s end.
National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” The law authorizes restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.”
In 2017 the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on an ISA practice of summoning Israeli political activists suspected of “subversive” activity unrelated to terror or espionage for questioning under caution, indicating they might be charged with a crime. Such summoning may be carried out only after consultation with the legal advisor of the ISA. Police and the ISA must clarify that questioning is voluntary and the person summoned is not required to appear; and the ISA must clarify during questioning that the suspect’s statements may not be used in court for other proceedings.
The government monitored electronic communications for security purposes, and censored online content suspected as illegal according to domestic law. The law authorizes district court judges to restrict access to internet sites to prevent the commission of crimes. The Cyber Unit of the State Attorney’s Office further requested that content intermediary companies remove or restrict access to, on a voluntary basis, content and accounts suspected of violating domestic law. The Cyber Unit’s data showed the number of requests for content removal in 2019 increased by 37 percent from 2018. In approximately 90 percent of the 19,606 requests submitted, content intermediaries voluntarily removed content from their platforms. According to the Cyber Unit’s data, 76 percent of the requests were due to offenses related to a terror organization, and 22 percent were due to incitement offenses. A petition by ACRI and Adalah to the Supreme Court against the voluntary track program, arguing that the program violates freedom of expression and the right to due process, was pending as of the year’s end.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were few government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
In January the Rishon LeTzion municipality removed a civics teacher from his position, following complaints he had expressed “radical left-wing positions” in the classroom and on social media, although the latter was not addressed in his termination hearing. ACRI stated that such incidents could lead to self-censorship by teachers, which stands in contradiction to the mission of educators.
On August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in the bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), following a protest from nationalist Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, ACRI demanded that the attorney general instruct the minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.
Authorities continued to provide an edited version of the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum that deleted certain information on Palestinian history and culture for schools in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Authorities sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of the Israeli curriculum (see the West Bank and Gaza report for concerns regarding incitement and anti-Semitism in PA textbooks). Some Palestinians expressed concern at what they perceived as Israeli efforts to impose Israeli views on these students. Others welcomed the Israeli curriculum, and the additional resources associated with it, as better preparing students in Jerusalem to work in the Israeli workforce, compared to lower-paying employment in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank or in manual labor and low-wage sectors in Israel.
The government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) office. The government renewed a closure order for these and other institutions under a 1994 law which requires the PA to obtain Israeli permission to open a representative office or hold a meeting in areas Israel recognizes as under its sovereignty. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem that the government stated had PA participation or support, incited violence against Israel, or had anti-Israel or other objectionable content. Israeli authorities stated they would also detain and ban PA-affiliated officials in Jerusalem from conducting PA-related activities. According to Haaretz, the Ministry of Public Security approved dozens of such orders during the year. PA officials publicly point to the 1993 letter sent by then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart Johan Holst as proof of an agreement to allow Palestinian institutions and activities in East Jerusalem.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
A law passed in April and the subsequent COVID-19 emergency regulations permitted the continuation of demonstrations during the COVID-19 crisis with the stipulation that participants maintain social distancing, but in several instances police placed additional limitations on the ability of individuals to assemble for peaceful protest. On September 29, the Knesset passed an amendment to the law, which led to the limiting of the right to demonstrate to within one-half mile of one’s home, in groups of 20 persons or fewer, for a period of 14 days. On October 12, following a petition against the law filed on September 30 at the Supreme Court, the government announced it would not extend the regulation limiting the ability to protest further than one-half mile from one’s home beyond October 13. The government did not cancel the amendment, allowing it to reinstate the measure. The petition was pending at year’s end.
Police issued fines for alleged violations of COVID-19 regulations during demonstrations against the prime minister. On April 14, police fined two demonstrators in Kfar Saba for illegally gathering. Protesters argued they remained seven feet apart during the protest and viewed the fines as police efforts to deter protected political activity. On July 26, media published a recording in which Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Yadid told Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana, in response to Ohana’s request for police intervention to quell political protests, that police fined 160 individuals for not wearing a mask during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence.
On November 24, the prosecution filed two indictments against antigovernment protesters. Authorities filed an indictment against Gonen Ben Yitzhak, one of the leaders of the Crime Minister protest group, on charges of illegal assembly and disrupting the activities of a police officer by lying under a water cannon to prevent it from being used against protesters during a July demonstration.
There were reports that police used excessive force in response to protests. For example, on August 22, during a demonstration near the prime minister’s residence, Chief Superintendent Niso Guetta physically attacked protesters, including hitting a protester and dragging him on the ground, and hitting a photographer. Police arrested two protesters for allegedly attacking Guetta, but video footage showed Guetta’s attack was unprovoked; the detained protesters were subsequently released. On November 29, the prosecution indicted Guetta for assault. Prosecutors dismissed additional complaints against Guetta due to lack of evidence.
Police used water cannons and “skunk water” to disperse demonstrations. Video footage from a July 24 demonstration outside of the prime minister’s residence showed a water cannon spraying a protester in the face, despite police regulations that forbid this action. The Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee subsequently held hearings on police tactics during demonstrations and demanded the publication of a reformed police procedure regarding the use of water cannons. A protest group petition against the use of water cannons at demonstrations was deleted on September 9, given the Knesset committee’s discussions. The police procedure published in September relaxed previous restrictions on the use of water cannons, according to Haaretz. Authorities used skunk water to disperse groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrating against military draft requirements. A 2018 petition against the use of skunk water in dense urban areas was deleted by the Supreme Court on August 19, following a change in police procedures limiting the use of the method. On December 23, an ultra-Orthodox activist petitioned for selective police use of skunk water.
In October, ACRI sent letters to the attorney general demanding the government halt police practices during demonstrations which limit the freedom of peaceful assembly, including crowd control during protest marches by restricting demonstrators to small areas, requesting protesters to show their identification cards and registering them, using private cell phones to video record demonstrations, and using undercover police officers to arrest demonstrators.
The law provides for this right, and the government generally respected it.
The law prohibits registration of an association or a party if its goals include denial of the existence of the State of Israel or of the democratic character of the state.
The law requires NGOs receiving more than one-half of their funding from foreign governments to state this fact in their official publications, applications to attend Knesset meetings, websites, public campaigns, and any communication with the public. The law allows a monetary fine for NGOs that violate these rules. The government had not taken legal action against any NGO for failing to comply with the law by the year’s end.
Local NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights problems and critical of the government, asserted the government sought to intimidate them and prevent them from receiving foreign government funding (see section 5).
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights for citizens.
The government imposed restrictions on freedom of movement in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 through emergency regulations.
In-country Movement: The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted internal movement in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons and that restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, or public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
According to the NGO Kav LaOved, Ministry of Health COVID-19 guidelines prohibited migrant caregivers from leaving their place of work, which resulted in some caregivers working without any breaks. Following a request by the NGO, since May 8, a government regulation has permitted migrant caregivers to have their weekly day of rest outside of their employers’ residence if they lived in an apartment without roommates, a requirement that these workers could not meet.
Foreign Travel: Citizens generally were free to travel abroad, provided they had no outstanding military obligations and no administrative restrictions. The government may bar citizens from leaving the country based on security considerations, unpaid debts, or unresolved divorce proceedings. Authorities do not permit any citizen to travel to any state officially at war with Israel without government permission. This restriction includes travel to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. The government limited foreign travel due to COVID-19, but it continued to allow the entry of citizens and Jewish visitors intending to study in religious schools known as yeshivas. The government kept the border with Egypt closed despite Egypt opening its crossings to foreign citizens on July 1. On September 23, a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the opening of this border was rejected.
The government requires all citizens to have a special permit to enter “Area A” in the West Bank (the area, according to the Interim Agreement, in which the PA exercises civil and security responsibility), but the government allowed Arab citizens of Israel access to Area A without permits. The government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report that as of October 28 the Israeli government had revoked 17 residency permits in Jerusalem on the grounds of regulation 11A of Israel’s Entry Regulations, regarding individuals who stayed outside of Israel for more than 7 years or have acquired Citizenship/ Permanent Residence Status outside of Israel. Some Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status; however, the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintained an “affinity to Israel” would not be revoked and that former residents who wished to return to Israel could receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Palestinians possessing residency permits issued by the Israeli government, but no PA or Jordanian identity documents, needed special documents to travel abroad.
Citizenship: The law allows administrative courts to approve the minister of interior’s request for revocation of citizenship of a person on grounds of “breach of trust to the State of Israel” or following a conviction for an act of terror. The law grants the minister the authority to revoke permanent residency based on similar grounds. Legal appeals by Adalah and ACRI against the revocation of citizenships of two individuals convicted for an act of terror, which also questioned the constitutionality of the law itself, were pending as of the year’s end.
The government cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, except as noted below. The government did not allow UNHCR access to monitor regularly the detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Communities with large concentrations of African migrants were occasionally targets of violence. Additionally, government policies on the legality of work forced many refugees to work in “unofficial” positions, making them more susceptible to poor treatment and questionable work practices by their employers. The Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA), unlike police or the IPS, did not have an external body to which migrants could file complaints if subjected to violence, according to HRM.
On July 20, a district court acquitted IPS officer Ronen Cohen and IDF soldier Yaakov Shamba of charges of aggravated battery against Eritrean asylum seeker Haptom Zerhom in 2015. A security guard at the Beer Sheva central bus station shot Zerhom, mistaking him for a terrorist attacker following a terrorist attack moments earlier. Following the shooting, a group of onlookers beat Zerhom, who later died at the hospital. The security guard was not charged, and two additional individuals received reduced sentences following plea deals in 2018.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, and stated its commitment to the principle of nonrefoulement.
As of September 30, there were 31,012 irregular migrants and asylum seekers in the country, of whom 28,175 were from Eritrea or Sudan, according to PIBA.
The government offered incentives to irregular migrants to leave the country and go to Uganda, including a paid ticket and a stipend. The government claimed the third-country government provided for full rights under secret agreements with Israel, but NGOs and UNHCR confirmed that migrants who arrived at the destination did not receive residency or employment rights. From January 1 to September 30, a total of 663 irregular migrants departed the country under pressure, compared with 2,024 in 2019. NGOs claimed many of those who departed to other countries faced abuses in those countries and that this transfer could amount to refoulement.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it has rarely granted a refugee status. According to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), out of 64,542 asylum requests submitted to PIBA in 2011-19, 39 requests (0.06 percent) were approved, and 121 (0.2 percent) were rejected following a full examination. Another 16,777 (26 percent) were rejected either outright or were in various expedited processes. A total of 34,624 requests (54 percent) are still pending. There were 12,941 requests (20 percent) closed due to departure or lack of cooperation.
The majority of asylum seekers received a “conditional release visa” that requires frequent renewal in only two locations throughout the country. The government provided these individuals with a limited form of group protection regarding freedom of movement, protection against refoulement, and some access to the labor market. Advocacy groups argued that most government policies were geared toward deterring the arrival of future asylum seekers by pressuring those already in the country to depart, either by leaving them with limited or no access to social and medical services or by not examining their asylum requests.
Irregular migrants subject to deportation, including those claiming but unable to prove citizenship of countries included in Israel’s nonrefoulement policy, were subjected to indefinite detention if they refused to depart after receiving a deportation order. At the end of 2018, there were 165 migrants with undetermined or disputed citizenship in detention.
According to HIAS, as of June 6, PIBA examined only 21 asylum requests of Eritrean citizens despite a 2019 government announcement that it would reexamine all requests from Eritrean asylum seekers, including 3,000 that were previously turned down. PIBA recognized seven Eritreans as refugees in the first half of the year, according to UNHCR. The government continued not to examine asylum claims of Sudanese citizens from Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, despite a 2018 PIBA response to the Supreme Court regarding the need to reexamine and request additional information for 1,500 such claims. On August 31, the government informed the Supreme Court that the lack of political clarity regarding Sudan did not allow for the formation of criteria to examine requests and did not allow for a ruling on individual requests of Darfuris.
On October 13, the Supreme Court ruled that 600 Sudanese who were granted special protection status in 2007 would be considered refugees.
Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left persons who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution vulnerable to human trafficking, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) Palestinians were able to obtain from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel without authorization to work or to access social services. A Supreme Court petition by NGOs demanding these rights was pending as of the year’s end. According to UNHCR, prior to the issuance of permits, COGAT requested proof of efforts to resettle in a third country. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis. Following a HIAS administrative petition, on March 1, PIBA launched a program that allowed Palestinians recognized as trafficking victims to work in Israel.
On February 9, the Supreme Court ordered the government to recognize an Ivoirian family as refugees due to its minor daughters’ fear of being subjected to female genital mutilation in Cote d’Ivoire, and placing the burden of proof regarding a residential alternative on the government.
The government did not accept initial asylum claims at airports.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: PIBA applied a fast-track procedure to reject asylum applications from applicants from Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, which the Ministry of the Interior determined were “safe” countries.
Freedom of Movement: The law allows the government to detain asylum seekers from countries to which government policy prohibits deportation for a period of three months. The government may detain, without trial and for an indefinite period, irregular migrants who were “implicated in criminal proceedings” (See section 1.d.).
Authorities prohibited asylum seekers released from detention after arrival in the country from residing in Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Petah Tikva, Netanya, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak–cities that already had a high concentration of asylum seekers.
Employment: Following a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, the government removed text stipulating “this is not a work visa” from the visas of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers. According to HRM, employing asylum seekers remained a felony that is not enforced due to a government commitment to the Supreme Court. According to UNHCR, asylum seekers from countries not listed under Israel’s nonrefoulement policy were restricted from working for three to six months after submitting their requests if they did not have a visa before applying. Asylum seekers are prohibited from working on government contracts, including local government contracts for cleaning and maintenance, which often employed irregular migrants.
On April 23, the Supreme Court struck down a law that required employers to deduct 20 percent of an asylum seeker’s salary as an incentive to encourage their departure from the country. The court deemed the 20 percent deduction as unconstitutional, referring to it as a violation of the right to individual property of a population with little means and low salaries. The court kept in place an additional 16 percent deposit (equal to social benefits) paid solely by employers as an incentive for departure. In addition to halting the practice of salary deductions, the court ordered PIBA to return to asylum seekers the full amount deducted from their salaries within 30 days. The Supreme Court verdict came in response to a 2017 petition by NGOs. As of December, 14,473 asylum seekers received refunds totaling 210.5 million NIS ($63.1 million). 3,445 asylum seekers had not yet applied for their refund by year’s end.
As of February, according to PIBA, a gap of 710 million shekels ($217.6 million) existed between the funds deducted from asylum seekers’ salaries and the funds deposited for them by employers. According to Ministry of Labor information published by Haaretz on August 9, the ministry opened 60 investigation files against employers who deducted but did not deposit funds. Thirty employers received fines, and five criminal proceedings were launched, leading to one indictment.
According to advocacy groups, at least 70 percent of asylum seekers in Israel were left without a job due to COVID-19 and were ineligible for unemployment insurance or other social services.
The law bars migrants from sending money abroad, limits the amount they may take with them when they leave to minimum-wage earnings for the number of months they resided in the country, and defines taking additional money out of the country as a money-laundering crime.
Access to Basic Services: Legally recognized refugees received social services, including access to the national health-care system, but the government for the most part did not provide asylum seekers with public social benefits. Asylum seekers were able to enroll in a health-insurance program only through their employers. Without insurance through employers, or when employers did not arrange a private insurance policy for them as required by law, asylum seekers had access only to emergency care. The Ministry of Health offered medical insurance for minor children of asylum seekers for 120 shekels ($37) per month, but children of undocumented migrants were excluded from this program. On November 30, the Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Health to allow children of undocumented migrants to be covered by a national health-insurance policy, requested in a petition by the PHRI; however, according to the PHRI, the Ministry of Health continued to exclude these children. The government sponsored a mobile clinic and mother and infant health-care stations in south Tel Aviv, which were accessible to migrants and asylum seekers. Hospitals provided emergency care to migrants and treated them for COVID-19 but often denied follow-up treatment to those who failed to pay, according to the PHRI. Due to COVID-19, the sole government-funded provider of mental health services had to limit its services, which resulted in only 250 patients being served. Asylum seekers who were recognized as victims of trafficking were eligible for rehabilitation and care. The same eligibilities did not apply for victims of torture.
According to A.S.S.A.F, several municipalities illegally segregated children of asylum seekers and other children in schools and kindergartens. For example, the Petah Tikva municipality delayed registration of Eritrean children for specific kindergartens in order for its schools to fill up with other students, and thus for the municipality to place all Eritrean children together, separate from Israeli children. A July 7 administrative petition against the municipality by the organization, Haifa University, and ACRI resulted in placing 140 Eritrean children in integrated kindergartens. On November 19, the petitioners reached an agreement with the municipality and the Education Ministry according to which future registration of children would be done in an integrated manner, and registration conditions would be equal for all children.
Durable Solutions: There is no procedure for recognized refugees to naturalize. According to the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic, only under exceptional humanitarian circumstances may a recognized refugee receive permanent residency.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals whom it did not recognize as refugees, or who may not qualify as refugees, primarily Eritrean and Sudanese irregular migrants as described above.
Despite being eligible for Israeli citizenship since 1981, an estimated 23,000 Druze living in territory captured from Syria in 1967 largely refused to accept it, and their status as Syrian citizens was unclear. They held Israeli identification cards, which listed their nationality as “undefined.”
Following cases of Bedouins having their citizenship revoked when arriving to receive services at the Ministry of Interior, on August 11, a PIBA official stated in a Knesset Internal Affairs Committee meeting that many of the 2,624 Bedouins whose citizenship had been erroneously revoked by the Ministry of Interior were unable to participate in national elections. According to the PIBA official, out of 500 Bedouins erroneously registered as Israelis since they were children of permanent residents, 362 were naturalized, 134 did not complete the process, and six were not naturalized for other reasons, including security.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides, “The State shall guarantee freedom of opinion; and every Jordanian shall freely express his opinion by speech, writing, photography, and the other means of expression, provided that he does not go beyond the limits of the law.” Authorities applied regulations to limit freedom of speech and press in practice. Authorities applied articles of the Anti-Terrorism Law, Cybercrimes Law, Press and Publications Law, and penal code to arrest local journalists.
Freedom of Speech: The law permits punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for insulting the king, slandering the government or foreign leaders, offending religious beliefs, or fomenting sectarian strife and sedition. The government restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government by arresting a number of activists for political expression. Authorities used laws against slander of public officials, blackmail, and libel to restrict public discussion, as well as employed official gag orders issued by the public prosecutor.
In April authorities arrested three activists associated with opposition organizations: Oday Abu Rumman, Ahmad Nuwaifi Khawaldeh, and Hisham Saraheen. Saraheen was released the same day as his arrest. Abu Rumman was released in early May. Khawaldeh was charged with slandering the royal family and for offenses under the Cybercrimes Law.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: All publications must obtain licenses from the government to operate. There were many daily newspapers. Observers considered several as independent of the government, including one regarded as close to the Islamic Action Front (the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s legally registered political party). Observers also judged several daily newspapers to be close to the government.
The independent print and broadcast media largely operated with limited restrictions. Media observers reported government pressure, including the threat of large fines and prison sentences, on media to refrain from criticizing the royal family, discussing the GID, covering ongoing security operations, using language deemed offensive to Islam, or slandering government officials. The government influenced news reporting and commentary through political pressure on editors and control over important editorial positions in government-affiliated media. Journalists of government-affiliated and independent media reported that security officials used bribes, threats, and political pressure to force editors to place articles favorable to the government in online and print newspapers.
In August, Human Rights Watch reported certain local and foreign journalists operating in the country said that over the past few years, they experienced increased restrictions on their reporting in the form of gag orders, harassment by security forces, and withholding of permits to report. In July prosecutors questioned JO24 news website editor Basil Okour after his outlet was accused of publishing articles related to the government’s standoff with the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate in defiance of a prosecutor’s gag order.
The law grants authority to the head of the Media Commission to close any unlicensed theater, satellite channel, or radio channel. In 2019, the Media Commission granted broadcasting licenses to companies owned by citizens and foreigners. Those with licenses may not legally broadcast anything that would harm public order, social security, national security, or the country’s relations with a foreign country; incite hatred, terrorism, or violent sedition; or mislead or deceive the public. The cabinet must justify the reasons for rejecting a license and allow the applicant to appeal the decision to the judiciary. There is a fine for broadcasting without a license.
The government has a majority of seats on the board for the leading semiofficial daily newspaper al-Rai and a share of board seats for the ad-Dustour daily newspaper. According to press freedom advocates, the GID’s Media Department must approve editors in chief of progovernment newspapers.
Media observers noted that when covering controversial subjects, the government-owned Jordan Television, Jordan News Agency, and Radio Jordan reported only the government’s position.
The Media Commission ordered the suspension of Amman-based Iraqi Dijlah TV Satellite channel twice for violating licensing provisions of the Jordanian Audio-Visual Law in January and May by illegally broadcasting from Jordan without a permit. The station was suspended in 2019 for covering the protests in Iraq, according to media sources. The station continued during the suspension to operate online via Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
By law, any book can be published and distributed freely. Nonetheless, if the Media Commission deems that passages violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are “insulting” to the king, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book. The Media Commission banned the distribution of selected books for religious and moral reasons.
The Media Commission licenses all public-opinion polls and survey research centers in accordance with the Press and Publications Law.
Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists to harassment and intimidation.
In its report Under the Curfew … The Status of Media Freedom in the Shadow of the Corona Pandemic, the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ), a local NGO, documented 17 specific cases of violations of freedoms against journalists and media organizations between March and June. The CDFJ reported a decline in media freedom this year, attributed primarily to the application of the Defense Law and associated Defense Orders. The CDFJ attributes the decline in specific cases of violations to the government’s denial of access to journalists covering updates and news, as well as self-censorship.
Authorities arrested or temporarily detained some journalists, and government officials or private individuals threatened some journalists.
Police beat two journalists who covered the Teachers Syndicate protests, in violation of the gag order, according to HRW.
In April, Roya TV’s General Manager Fares Sayegh and News Director Mohammad Alkhalidi were arrested following a news report on Roya News’ website and social media pages highlighting workers’ complaints about the economic impact of the COVID-19 curfew. Prosecutors charged Sayegh and Alkhalidi under the Anti-Terrorism Law. Both were released on bail three days later, and at the end of the year the case remained pending.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media and online activists, reducing the variety of information available on the internet. The government’s efforts to influence journalists, including withholding financial support, scholarships for relatives, and special invitations, led to significant control of media content.
The CDFJ report and journalists noted widespread self-censorship among journalists. Fearing arrest and prosecution, journalists avoided reporting on certain issues, including political opposition based abroad and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Editors reportedly received telephone calls from security officials instructing them how to cover events or to refrain from covering certain topics or events, especially criticism of political reform. At times, editors in chief censored articles to prevent lawsuits. According to media reports, at least two journalists were denied publication of their articles. Bribery of journalists took place and undermined independent reporting. In an opinion poll conducted by the CDFJ, 44 percent of journalists said the government limited information to certain sources, and 41 percent said movement restrictions limited their ability to conduct investigative reporting. Journalists cited the weak financial condition of media outlets, the threat of detention and imprisonment for defamation for a variety of offenses, and court-ordered fines of as much as 150,000 Jordanian dinars (JD) ($210,000) as factors influencing media content.
During the year the Media Commission circulated official gag orders restricting discussion in all media, including social media. One gag order involved the closure of the Teachers Syndicate and detention of its leadership, and a second gag order involved the killing of a woman in a domestic violence case. For grand felony cases or cases of domestic violence, the public prosecutor may issue a gag order to protect the victims or witnesses involved. The Media Commission also bans publication of any reports about the armed forces outside of statements made by the armed forces’ spokesperson.
Libel/Slander Laws: The Cybercrimes Law allows public prosecutors to detain individuals suspected of violating libel and slander laws. Internet users face at least three months in jail and a maximum fine of 2,000 dinars ($2,800) if they are found guilty of defamation on social or online media. Government prosecutors relied on privately initiated libel, slander, and defamation lawsuits to suppress criticism of public figures and policies. Dozens of journalists, as well as members of parliament, faced libel and slander accusations filed by private citizens. Amendments to the law place the burden of proof for defamation on the complainant. The law forbids any insult of the royal family, state institutions, national symbols, or foreign states, as well as “any writing or speech that aims at or results in causing sectarian or racial strife.” Defamation is also a criminal offense.
In March journalist Hiba Abu Taha was detained for criticizing the prime minister on Facebook. She was charged with “prolonging the tongue” (insulting), opposing the political system, and broadcasting false news. Abu Taha was released on bail, but at the end of the year the case remained pending. In May police officers arrested Yarmouk University political science professor Mohammed Turki Bani Salamah on charges of slander, after he alleged three prime ministry staffers corruptly obtained their appointments. Bani Salamah was released a couple of weeks after the three staffers dropped the charges.
National Security: The government used laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies and officials.
The government restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law requires the licensing and registration of online news websites, holds editors responsible for readers’ comments on their websites, requires that website owners provide the government with the personal data of its users, and mandates that editors in chief be members of the Jordan Press Association. The law gives authorities explicit power to block and censor websites. The Press and Publications Law allows the media commissioner to ban websites without a court order.
The Telecommunications Law requires that telecommunications providers take appropriate measures to enable the tracking of user communications upon a judicial or administrative order.
The government continues to order internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to messaging apps on days that secondary school students sit for their national exam (Tawjihi) in order to prevent cheating. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services are restricted by some ISPs, such as WhatsApp and Viber, while Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Skype remain accessible.
In February detained activists Bashar al-Rawashdeh and Malek al-Mashagbeh launched hunger strikes while in detention. Rawashdeh was charged with incitement under the Cybercrimes Law for criticizing the U.S. “Vision for Peace” Middle East peace plan on Facebook. He began a hunger strike immediately after his arrest. Mashagbeh was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for “lese-majeste” (the crime of insulting the monarch or monarchy), and launched a hunger strike soon after. Another three activists were released earlier in the year following deterioration of their health as a result of hunger strikes.
Authorities continued to block the website of an online lifestyle magazine with an LGBTI target audience on the grounds that it was an unlicensed publication.
According to the Media Commission, there is no registration fee for a website. News websites must employ editors in chief with at least four years’ membership in the Jordan Press Association. The owner and editor in chief can be fined, in addition to criminal penalties, for website content that “includes humiliation, defamation, or disparagement of individuals in a manner that violates their personal freedoms or spreads false rumors about them.”
According to journalists, security forces demanded that websites remove some posted articles. The government threatened websites and journalists that criticized the government, while it actively supported those that reported favorably on the government. The government monitored electronic correspondence and internet chat sites. Many individuals believed they were unable to express their views fully or freely via the internet, including by personal email.
During the year, according to local and international NGOs, security forces blocked live-streamed videos of protests posted on Facebook.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government placed some limits on academic freedom. Some members of the academic community claimed there was a continuing government intelligence agency presence in academic institutions, including monitoring academic conferences and lectures. The government monitored political meetings, speech on university campuses, and sermons in mosques and churches. Academics reported the GID must clear all university professors before their appointment. Academics also reported university administrators must approve all research papers, forums, reading materials, movies, or seminars. Administrators clear potentially controversial material through the GID. Authorities edited commercial foreign films for objectionable content before screening in commercial theaters.
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly but the government sometimes limited this right. Security forces provided security at demonstrations granted permits by government or local authorities.
The law requires a 48-hour notification to the local governor for any meeting or event hosted by any local or international group. While not required by law, several local and international NGOs reported that hotels, allegedly at the request of security officials, required them to present letters of approval from the governor prior to holding training courses, private meetings, or public conferences. There were some reported cases of the governor denying approval requests without explanation, according to local and international human rights NGOs. Without letters of approval from the government, hotels cancelled the events. In some cases, NGOs relocated the events to private offices or residences, and the activities were held without interruption.
Protests regarding economic policies, corruption, and government ineffectiveness occurred across the country throughout the year. The weekly protests by activists that began in 2018 have not been held since March, following the imposition of public health-related government restrictions on gatherings of more than 20 persons to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
On July 25, hundreds of teachers protested in cities across the country after the government suspended the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate (the syndicate). Crowds were not as large as in the previous year, but large protests occurred across the country including in Karak, Tafileh, Jerash, and Madaba. Demonstrations were generally peaceful, with a significant presence of Jordanian security forces. The deputy head of the syndicate, Nasser al-Nawasreh, was cited in a HRW report describing his arrest on the Irbid-Amman highway, when he was surrounded by three unmarked vehicles, and a hood was placed over his head. On July 29 in Amman, hundreds of teachers and supporters held another protest against the July suspension order. Security services prevented protestors from reaching their intended destination and videos showed police using batons to beat back demonstrators who attempted to push through cordons. Authorities arrested over 600 persons during the protests; all were released within 24 hours.
On July 22, hundreds of demonstrators held a sit-in in front of parliament to protest violence against women and so-called honor killings in the wake of the “Ahlam” case (see section 6). Despite regulations mandating masks, social distancing, and groups of fewer than 20 persons, protesters were allowed to gather without interference from security services.
Security services and protesters generally refrained from violence during demonstrations. Occasional scuffles occurred when protesters attempted to break through security cordons intended to limit demonstrations to particular locations. In such situations police occasionally used tear gas.
Security services detained political activists for shouting slogans critical of authorities during protests. Some activists were arbitrarily arrested and held without charge, others were charged with insulting the king, undermining the political regime, or slander.
The constitution provides for the right of association but the government limited this freedom. The law authorizes the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Supply to approve or reject applications to register organizations and to prohibit organizations from receiving foreign funding for any reason. It prohibits the use of associations for the benefit of any political organization. The law also gives these ministries significant control over the internal management of associations, including the ability to dissolve associations, approve boards of directors, send government representatives to any board meeting, prevent associations from merging their operations, and appoint an auditor to examine an association’s finances for any reason. The law requires associations to inform the Ministry of Social Development of board meetings, submit all board decisions for approval, disclose members’ names, and obtain security clearances from the Interior Ministry for board members. The law includes penalties, including fines, for violation of the regulations. The Ministry of Social Development is legally empowered to intervene in NGO activities and issue warnings for violation of the law. NGOs that receive a warning are given a two-month probationary period to address violations.
In January the Ministry of Social Development instituted a new system for reviewing foreign fund transfers to local NGOs. Local NGOs feedback was mixed; some reported applications were processed in under 30 days as required by the law, while other NGOs claimed officials reviewing the foreign fund transfers applied arbitrary criteria to delay or reject their fund transfer applications. Some NGOs reported that unexplained, months-long delays in the decision process continued and that there was no formal process to appeal untransparent decisions.
Citizens widely suspected that the government infiltrated civil society organizations, political parties, and human rights organizations and their internal meetings.
c. Freedom of Religion
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, although there were some restrictions. Restrictions on freedom of movement due to public health measures designed to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic included the suspending of regular commercial passenger flights from March through September, though a limited number of repatriation flights were permitted; and temporary restrictions on travel between governorates were implemented.
There were continued reports of forced refugee relocations to Azraq refugee camp, including many to Azraq’s restricted Village 5, as an alternative to deportation for offenses by Syrian refugees. Such offenses included “irregular status” (expired registration documents or working without a work permit); criminal activities; and potential security risks, which were not clearly defined.
As of September, Azraq camp hosted more than 40,000 individuals, including more than 9,000 adults and children in the fenced-off Village 5 area. In 2019, NGOs estimated that the government forcibly relocated more than 3,800 refugees to Azraq camp, including more than 2,300 to Village 5 for security reasons. The vast majority of these refugees were not informed of the reasons for their detention and did not receive legal assistance. Residents of Village 5 had access to basic humanitarian assistance inside the village but had limited access to the broader camp facilities, including the camp hospital, which required a security escort.
Although some refugees were permitted to leave Village 5 each month, the process for Village 5 residents to relocate to the larger camp remained irregular and slow; NGOs reported only 1,269 individuals left Village 5 in 2019, leading to a growing resident population which lacked freedom of movement within and outside of the camp. NGOs reported nearly half of Village 5 residents had been there for more than three years.
Civil documents of Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS) and other refugees were held by authorities during their stay in the camp, and residents were required to apply for leave in order to go outside the camp, severely limiting their freedom of movement.
In 2019 the government halted all registrations of new non-Syrian asylum seekers by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), pending a government review of poorly defined registration procedures. As of September, the halt in registrations affected more than 7,000 individuals, primarily from Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, and Yemen. According to UNHCR, there was no backlog of registration for Syrian refugees, and it was possible for Syrians to register with UNHCR at centers in Amman and Irbid. With the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closures of the centers, the government decided that it would accept expired documentation in support of refugee and asylum seeker requests for access to services, including health care, until the end of the year.
A number of PRS and other refugees resided in King Abdullah Park (KAP), an unused fenced public space repurposed since 2016 to house PRS, mixed Syrian-PRS families, and some individuals of other nationalities who arrived from Syria. As of August, 578 individuals were held in KAP, of whom 391 were PRS, 145 Syrians, 20 Jordanians, and 22 of other nationalities. Refugees in KAP were exposed to a wide range of vulnerabilities, including but not limited to overcrowding and a lack of space and privacy while using common facilities such as latrines, drinking water sources, and kitchens.
PRS who lacked legal status in Jordan limited their movements to avoid coming into contact with authorities. In addition, some PRS with legal documentation reported delays of up to four years for renewal of their documentation.
For PRS with Jordanian citizenship, potential revocation of that citizenship remained a concern. The UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) was aware of at least 50 cases of citizenship revocation since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. In most cases, authorities provided no information regarding the reasons for the revocation.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government lacked a formal system of protecting refugees. A 1998 memorandum of understanding between the government and UNHCR, renewed in 2014, contains the definition of a refugee, confirms adherence to the principle of nonrefoulement, and allows recognized refugees a maximum stay of one year, during which period UNHCR must find them a durable solution. The time limit is renewable, and the government generally did not force refugees to return to their country of origin. As of 2014 authorities require all Syrians in the country to register with the Ministry of Interior and obtain a ministry-issued identification card.
The country’s border crossings with Syria remained closed to new refugee arrivals. The Jaber-Nassib border crossing with Syria was partially closed in March for COVID-19 prevention. It remained open for commercial traffic only until August, when it closed completely. The Jaber-Nassib crossing reopened for commercial traffic in September. The Rukban border crossing remained closed. The government determined it would not accept additional Syrian refugees after a 2016 suicide attack along the northeast border with Syria, declaring the surrounding area a “closed military zone.” The government restricted humanitarian access to the area. The government’s 2013 announcement that it would not allow entry of PRS remains in effect.
Employment: Since 2016 the government has issued more than 192,000 work permits to UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees, with 95 percent of these work permits being issued to men. More than 28,000 work permits remained active. Syrian refugees are eligible for work permits in a limited number of sectors and occupations. COVID-19 mitigation measures reduced the number of work permits issued to Syrian refugees from 47,766 in 2019 to 23,258 as of September.
Tens of thousands of refugees continued to work in the informal economy. Very few non-Syrian refugees had access to the formal labor market due to difficulty in obtaining documentation, ineligibility for work permits, and costs involved in seeking work.
The Ministries of Interior and Labor, in coordination with the United Nations, permitted Syrian refugees living in the camps to apply for work permits. The agreement allows camp-based refugees to use their work permits as a 30-day leave pass to work outside the camp. Camp-based refugees receiving work permits must report to the camp at least one day per month.
Some Jordan residents of Palestinian descent, such as those referred to as “Gazans” for short, do not have Jordanian citizenship. To accommodate this population of 158,000 individuals, authorities issued two-year temporary Jordanian passports without national identity numbers to Palestinian refugees originally from Gaza. These functioned as travel documents and provided these refugees with permanent residency in Jordan. Without a national identity number, though, Palestinian refugees from Gaza were unable to access national support programs fully and were excluded from key aspects of health and social service support. Those refugees from Gaza who were not registered with UNRWA also experienced restrictions and hindrances in accessing education, obtaining driving licenses, opening bank accounts, and purchasing property.
Since 2017 the government has gradually introduced Cabinet decisions and associated instructions that have eased some restrictions on “ex-Gazans,” especially those holding an ID and residency card issued by the Ministry of Interior. These new decisions allow the ex-Gazans with IDs to benefit from the “bread cash support” by allowing them to apply for Ministry of Social Development and National Aid Fund support schemes including opening bank accounts, accessing health and education services–although still with higher fees–establishing and registering businesses, and purchasing and registering vehicles and property in their own names.
Access to Basic Services: The government allowed UNHCR-registered refugees to access public health and education facilities. In 2019 the government reduced the fees for Syrian refugees to the same rate as uninsured Jordanians pay for access to primary and secondary medical care, and exempted them from paying fees for maternity and childhood care. During the year, this service was also extended to non-Syrian refugees.
The government continued to provide free primary and secondary education to Syrian refugee children and to permit all school-age Syrian refugees access to education. As of the end of the 2019-20 academic year, however, an estimated 50,900 Syrians remained out of school due to financial challenges, transportation costs, child labor, early marriage, and administrative challenges. Non-Syrian refugees must pay to attend government schools and face documentary requirements as barriers to entry. Public schools were overcrowded, particularly in the north of the country, and 201 schools operated on a double-shift schedule to accommodate Syrian students. Through September more than 136,000 Syrian refugee students were enrolled for the 2019-20 school year, representing a 59 percent gross enrollment rate for the K-12 school-aged population.
For those not eligible to access formal education because they have been out of school for three or more years, the Ministry of Education developed a catch-up program for students between the ages of nine and 12. Children age 13 and older who were not eligible to enroll in formal education could participate in informal education through drop-out programs implemented by NGO partners, in close coordination with the Ministry of Education. In 2019, 3,200 Syrian students were enrolled in the Ministry of Education’s informal education program.
Tens of thousands of refugee children faced barriers to attending public schools, including lack of transportation, lack of documentation, long distances to schools, bullying by fellow students and teachers, or child labor.
Palestinian refugees from Gaza and other non-West Bank areas who entered the country following the 1967 war are not entitled to receive any UNRWA services, including access to public assistance and higher education. Refugees from Gaza who came to Jordan between June 1946 and May 1948 are eligible to receive UNRWA services.
Access to basic civil services–including renewal of identity documents and the registration of marriages, deaths, and births–remained highly complex for PRS. These vulnerabilities put undocumented refugees at additional risk of abuse by third parties such as employers and landlords.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government tolerated the prolonged stay of many Iraqis and other refugees beyond the expiration of the visit permits under which they had entered the country. Iraqi and other non-Syrian refugees accrued fines for overstaying their visit permits. Refugees must pay or settle the fines and penalties prior to receiving an exit visa from Jordan and face a five-year ban from re-entry into Jordan.
Only fathers can transmit citizenship. Women do not have the legal right to transmit citizenship to their children, which can lead to statelessness. Children of female citizens married to noncitizens receive the nationality of the father. Women may not petition for citizenship for noncitizen husbands, who may apply for citizenship only after fulfilling a requirement that they maintain continuous Jordanian residency for 15 years. Once a husband has obtained citizenship, he may apply to transmit citizenship to his children. Such an application could take years, and the government can deny the application.
A large number of Syrian marriages reportedly took place in Jordan without registration due to refugees’ lack of identity documents, which were sometimes lost or destroyed when they fled Syria or confiscated by government authorities when they entered the country. Refugees were sometimes unable to obtain birth certificates for children born in the country if they could not present an official marriage certificate or other nationality documents. The government opened a legal process for such cases to adjust and obtain registration documents. Refugee households headed by women faced difficulty in certifying nationality of offspring in absence of the father, which increased the risk of statelessness among this population. Civil registry departments and sharia courts in the Za’atri and Azraq camps helped Syrian refugees register births.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. Media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.
The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.
Freedom of Speech: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.
The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. On February 27, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, urged the government to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly and review convictions of activists, religious leaders, and journalists.
ALQST reported that authorities arrested Hezam al-Ahmari on February 10 for filming and publishing a video complaining about the opening of a nightclub in his neighborhood in Jeddah. It said he was charged with “inciting public opinion,” under Article 6 of the cybercrimes law.
In March the PPO stated it ordered the arrest of “three people who exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.” The arrestees, including Quran reciter Khaled al-Shahri, preacher Ibrahim al-Duwaish, and health worker Khaled Abdullah, tweeted or appeared in a video claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from Allah (God),” according to Prisoners of Conscience.
On April 8, the PPO announced that the dissemination of misinformation related to COVID-19 would be punishable under the cybercrimes law, adding that the PPO’s Social Media Monitoring Unit would track offensive and illegal social media content and report violations to authorities. Several persons were reportedly arrested and charged for “rumor mongering” and “disrupting order” for comments related to COVID-19. The PPO stated it ordered “the arrest of a person who appeared in a video mocking the COVID-19 crisis and giving misleading information about the current situation.”
On April 1, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested a number of social media personalities, including Rakan al-Assiri, Mohammed al-Fawzan, Majed al-Ghamdi, and Mohammed al-Jedaie, over old tweets and videos expressing personal views, while Ministry of Interior spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Talal al-Shalhoub stated they were arrested for breaking COVID-19 curfew restrictions.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.
Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. A 2011 royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”
The law states that violators can face substantial fines for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.
Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Some privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). NGOs, academics, and the press claimed the government targeted dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances.
On July 19, writer and journalist Saleh al-Shehi died in the hospital two months after his early release from prison due to poor health. Al-Shehi had served more than two years of a five-year sentence for insulting, defaming, and offending the royal court and its staff after accusing the royal court of corruption. Local media reported COVID-19 as the cause of death. According to the GCHR, his health deteriorated while in prison. Reporters without Borders, the GCHR, and ALQST called for an independent international inquiry into al-Shehi’s death.
On July 21, ALQST reported that in late April authorities arrested journalist Aql al-Bahili, writer Abdulaziz al-Dukhail, and activist Sultan al-Ajmi, among other journalists and intellectuals, for tweeting condolences following the death of reformer and rights activist Abdullah al-Hamid (see section 1.a.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material.
All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.
The government censored published online and print material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, offensive, or inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order, as well as criticism of the royal family or its allies among the Gulf Arab states.
On April 6, local media reported that the governor of Asir Province, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ordered the suspension of two episodes of a drama series deemed offensive to the population of Asir.
Online self-censorship was pervasive, as social media users were extremely cautious about what they post, share, or “like” due to the threat of harassment or prosecution under broadly worded antiterrorism and other laws. The government closely monitored and often targeted users who expressed support for liberal ideals, minority rights, or political reform, in addition to those who exposed human rights violations. Questioning religious doctrine was strictly taboo, particularly content related to the Prophet Muhammed. Twitter users were fearful of expressing support for outspoken activists who were detained or received prison sentences. Such pressures reportedly led many users to join social media networks that offer more privacy, such as Snapchat and Path.
In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions.
Libel/Slander Laws: The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.
National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.
The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.
The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order.
Multiple rights groups reported that at least six individuals who had anonymous Twitter accounts critical of the government were arrested subsequent to a breach of Twitter user data.
Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers (ISPs). The government required ISPs to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.
On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through private channels, including official complaint processes.
The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.
The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including sexual content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.
The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by ISPs to block banned sites can result in a substantial fine.
Several voice-over-internet-protocol call services, including WhatsApp, remained blocked and only accessible using a virtual private network.
Authorities blocked websites of some news and advocacy groups deemed critical of the government, including London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the global advocacy organization Avaaz. Authorities also blocked the website of the Islamic Umma Party, which operated underground because political parties are illegal (see section 3).
The government blocked Qatari websites, such as al-Jazeera, since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia. In April the government blocked access to the websites of the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency and the Turkish public broadcaster TRT’s Arabic edition. Writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
On April 14, local media reported that Umm al-Qura University suspended a staff member and a student following their circulation of “deviant ideologies” on Twitter.
In 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Entertainment Authority and the General Authority for Culture with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the General Entertainment Authority sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance; however, programs were scaled down due to COVID-19 restrictions.
On February 20, Mecca regional authorities tweeted that the governor had ordered the arrest of female rapper Ayasel al-Bishi, calling the music video of her song “Bint Mecca” (Girl from Mecca) offensive to the customs and traditions of the holy city. Al-Bishi’s Twitter account was suspended, and the video was removed from YouTube. Local media reported that the PPO questioned al-Bishi over filming without a permit and then released her.
The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.
The law requires a government permit for an organized public assembly of any type. The government categorically forbids participation in political protests or unauthorized public assemblies, and security forces reportedly arrested demonstrators and detained them for brief periods. Security forces at times allowed a small number of unauthorized demonstrations throughout the country.
In May security authorities arrested Egyptian national Hossam Magdy after he allegedly threatened to protest in front of his country’s embassy to demand a seat on a repatriation flight.
The law provided for limited freedom of association, but the government strictly restricted this right. The law provides a comprehensive legal framework to govern the establishment, operation, and supervision of associations and foundations. The government prohibited the establishment of political parties. All associations must be licensed by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development and comply with its regulations. Some groups that advocated changing elements of the social or political order reported their licensing requests went unanswered for years, despite repeated inquiries. The ministry reportedly used arbitrary means, such as requiring unreasonable types and quantities of information, to delay and effectively deny licenses to associations. The government also harassed and detained Saudi-based family members and associates of Saudi citizens living abroad who were outspoken critics of the government (see sections 1.b., Disappearances and 1.f., Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence, for more details).
In September, Abdullah al-Maliki, an Islamic intellectual who defended the banned association ACPRA, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Government-chartered associations limited membership only to citizens.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system no longer requires a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). On July 14, a court ruled in favor of a woman, whose trial lasted three years, after being charged with absenteeism, or taghayyub, under a law that allows guardians to report the unapproved absence of anyone under their guardianship. The court ruled that living independently did not constitute a criminal act subject to “discretionary” punishment (see section 6, Women).
Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card.
Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. Royal Decree 134/M of August 2019 stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission.
The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes.
The Washington Post alleged the government increased the use of travel bans as part of a broader effort to suppress dissent within the royal family and business elite. Media estimated that thousands of Saudis were placed under travel restrictions, including relatives of citizens detained in the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists. The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging. Fitaihi was sentenced December 8 to six years in prison; as of year’s end he was out of prison pending appeal.
Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision. Generally, there is not a codified asylum system for those fleeing persecution, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government permitted refugees recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stay in the country temporarily, pending identification of a durable solution, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is to refuse refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.
On April 4 and July 5, the government announced free three-month extensions of residency permits of all expatriates inside the country as well as the visas of visitors whose visa validity expired during the period of COVID-19-related suspension of flights. On April 6, the General Directorate of Passports announced electronic renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens until May 14 in accordance with royal directives.
In an August report, HRW alleged that “thousands of Ethiopian migrants are now languishing in squalid detention centers in Saudi Arabia or remain stranded at the border” after being pushed out of Yemen by Houthi forces and COVID-19 travel restrictions with their home countries. Multiple media sources claimed the detainees faced overcrowding, abuse, and poor sanitation at immigration detention facilities in Jizan Province, without the ability to legally challenge their detention, according to HRW. On September 15, the International Organization for Migration expressed alarm at reports of the deteriorating situation and called for urgent action.
Media published purported mobile cell phone images received from migrants held inside immigration detention centers in Jizan, showing dozens of emaciated men lying in rows inside small rooms with barred windows. There were claims that one migrant died of heatstroke, a 16-year-old killed himself, and others lacked adequate food and water.
On November 20, HRW reported that two Uyghur men–Hemdullah Abduweli (or Aimidoula Waili on his Chinese passport) and Nurmemet Rozi (or Nuermaimaiti on his Chinese passport)–were arrested and potentially faced deportation to China. Both were residents in Turkey. Abduweli had been in hiding since February. In a November interview with Middle East Eye, Abduweli claimed that the Chinese government wanted him deported back to China.
The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in foreign countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in foreign countries, according to multiple sources.
Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni citizens who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these persons to work. The renewable permits are valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply. In 2017 the General Directorate of Passports allowed Yemeni men to convert their visitor identification card to a residency permit if their Yemeni passport and visitor identification card were valid.
Access to Basic Services: The government provides preferential access to education, health care, public housing, and other social services to citizens and certain legal residents. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment, also following a needs assessment. On March 30, King Salman ordered free coronavirus treatment for all citizens and residents, regardless of residency status, in all government and private health facilities. In November the government announced all citizens and residents would be provided the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost.
The country had a number of habitual residents who were legally stateless, but data on the stateless population were incomplete and scarce.
Citizenship is legally derived only from the father. Children born to an unmarried citizen mother who is not legally affiliated with the citizen father may be considered stateless, even if the father recognized the child as his. If the government did not authorize the marriage of a citizen father and a noncitizen mother prior to birth of the children, they may also be considered stateless. The nationality laws do not allow Saudi women married to foreign citizens to pass their nationality to their children, except in certain circumstances, such as fathers who are unknown, stateless, of unknown nationality, or do not establish filiation. Sons of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers may apply for citizenship once they turn 18 (if not already granted citizenship at birth under certain circumstances); daughters in such cases can obtain citizenship only through marriage to a Saudi man. A child may lose legal identification and accompanying rights if authorities withdraw identification documents from a parent (possible when a naturalized parent denaturalizes voluntarily or loses citizenship through other acts). Since there is no codified personal status law, judges make decisions regarding family matters based on their own interpretations of Islamic law.
Foreign male spouses of female citizens can obtain permanent residency in the country without needing a sponsor, and they can receive free government education and medical benefits, although in general they cannot apply for citizenship on the basis of their marriage and residence. These spouses are also included in the quota of Saudis employed in private companies under the labor quota system, which improves their employment prospects. Female citizens must be between the ages of 30 and 50 to marry a non-Saudi man. Non-Saudi wives of Saudi men receive more rights if they have children resulting from their marriage with a Saudi man. Male citizens must be between the ages of 40 and 65 to marry a non-Saudi woman. The extent to which those strictures were enforced was unclear; there was anecdotal evidence they were not uniformly enforced. Children of Saudi women married to foreign spouses receive permanent residency, but their residency status is revocable in the event of the death of the Saudi mother.
In past years, UNHCR unofficially estimated there were 70,000 stateless persons in the country, almost all of whom were native-born residents known locally as Bidoon (an Arabic word that means “without” [citizenship]). Updated information on stateless persons was not available. Bidoon are persons whose ancestors failed to obtain nationality, such as descendants of nomadic tribes not counted among the native tribes during the reign of the country’s founder, King Abdulaziz; descendants of foreign-born fathers who arrived before there were laws regulating citizenship; and rural migrants whose parents failed to register their births. As noncitizens, Bidoon are unable to obtain passports. The government sometimes denied them employment and educational opportunities, and their marginalized status made them among the poorest residents of the country. In recent years the Ministry of Education encouraged them to attend school. The government issues Bidoon five-year residency permits to facilitate their social integration in government-provided health care and other services, putting them on similar footing with sponsored foreign workers. The General Directorate of Passports issued special identification cards to Bidoon similar to residency permits issued to foreigners in the country, but with features entitling their holders to additional government services similar to those available to citizens.
Baloch, West African, and Rohingya Muslims from Burma resident in Saudi Arabia were stateless. Some Rohingya had expired passports that their home government refused to renew; others had entered the country with fraudulent travel documents. Many of them had been held in detention for years following their entry into the country under fake passports. UNHCR estimated there were 280,000 Rohingya in the country. Some of these individuals benefited from a prior program to correct their residency status; in 2014 the government issued nearly 200,000 four-year residency permits to Rohingya who entered the country prior to 2008. Rohingya who arrived in the country after 2008 were not eligible for residency permits, although NGOs reported that Rohingya, including those without legal residency, were generally not subject to deportation prior to 2018. In January the government granted more than 190,000 free, four-year residency permits to Rohingya who were sponsored by companies, institutions, and members of their community.
There were reports of growing anti-Rohingya sentiment related to the perception that the Burmese community in Mecca was spreading COVID-19. On May 4, the government began demolitions of 114 buildings in al-Nakasah, in the municipality of Mecca–an impoverished area inhabited primarily by Rohingya residents. The decision garnered praise on social media, with some social media users referring to Rohingya as “garbage” and accusing them of spreading COVID-19.
There also were between 300,000 and 400,000 Palestinian residents not registered as refugees.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression within certain limits. The government restricted freedom of expression, including for the press, throughout the year. Multiple articles in the penal code directly restrict press freedom and free speech through provisions that prohibit praising a crime or criminals or inciting the population to enmity, hatred, or denigration, as well as provisions that protect public order and criminalize insulting the state, the president, or government officials. Many involved in journalism reported that the government’s prosecution of journalists representing major opposition and independent newspapers and its jailing of journalists since the 2016 coup attempt hindered freedom of speech. Media professionals reported that self-censorship was widespread amid fear that criticizing the government could prompt reprisals.
The law provides for punishment of up to three years in prison for conviction of “hate speech” or injurious acts related to language, race, nationality, color, gender, disability, political opinion, philosophical belief, religion, or sectarian differences. Human rights groups criticized the law for not including restrictions based on gender identity and noted that the law was sometimes used more to restrict freedom of speech than to protect minorities.
The government convicted and sentenced hundreds of individuals for exercising their freedom of expression. According to a July MetroPOLL company survey, 62 percent of respondents believed media in the country was not free, and 50 percent believed they were not free on social media.
The government frequently responded to expression critical of it by filing criminal charges alleging affiliation with terrorist groups, terrorism, or otherwise endangering the state. In January, Ankara’s chief public prosecutor opened investigations into 50 persons for social media posts related to the 6.8-magnitude Elazig earthquake on January 24, charging that the posts were “creating worry, fear and panic among the public” and “insulting the Turkish people, the Republic of Turkey and public institutions.” At the end of May, the Ministry of Interior announced that in the six weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the country in mid-March, authorities had examined 10,111 social media accounts containing “unfounded and provocative” information regarding COVID-19. Authorities also identified 1,105 individuals, detained more than 500 persons connected to those accounts for questioning, and initiated nearly 600 criminal investigations. Individuals investigated by police included prominent doctors and heads of medical associations. In October the Ministry of Interior announced it investigated 40 social media accounts, detained 10 individuals, and arrested two for social media posts related to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Izmir province on October 30.
During the year the government opened investigations into thousands of individuals, including politicians, journalists, and minors, based on allegations of insulting the president; the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; or state institutions. According to Ministry of Justice statistics, police investigated 36,066 individuals for insulting the president or the state in 2019; 12,298 stood trial and 3,831 were penalized. In contrast from 2014 to 2019, the number of individuals that received prison sentences under insult laws dropped to 2,663. In July police detained 11 persons and arrested one for comments made on social media posts about the president’s daughter and son-in-law, former treasury and finance minister Berat Albayrak, following the birth of their son on charges of “insulting a public official.”
Estimates of the number of imprisoned journalists varied, ranging from at least 37 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists to 79 according to the International Press Institute. The majority faced charges related to antigovernment reporting or alleged ties to the PKK or Gulen movement.
The Media and Law Studies Association in Istanbul attributed the disparity in estimates of the number of incarcerated journalists to the varying definitions of “journalist” or “media worker.” While the government officially recognizes as journalists only persons whom it has issued a yellow press accreditation card–typically limited to reporters, cameramen, and editors–media watchdog groups included distributors, copy editors, layout designers, and other staff of media outlets in their definition. The government often categorized imprisoned journalists from Kurdish-language outlets or alleged pro-Gulen publications as “terrorists,” claiming ties to or support for the PKK and the Gulen movement. Information about and access to the imprisoned staff of some of these outlets was therefore limited, further contributing to disparities in tallies of jailed journalists.
An unknown number of journalists were outside the country and did not return due to fear of arrest, according to the Journalists Association. In June in response to a parliamentary question submitted six months earlier by an HDP MP, Vice President Fuat Oktay stated, the government shut down a total of 119 media outlets under state of emergency decrees following the 2016 failed coup attempt, including a total of 53 newspapers, 20 magazines, 16 television channels, 24 radio stations, and six news agencies. Independent reports estimated the government has closed more than 200 media companies since 2016.
Freedom of Speech: Individuals in many cases could not criticize the state or government publicly without risk of civil or criminal suits or investigation, and the government restricted expression by individuals sympathetic to some religious, political, or cultural viewpoints. At times those who wrote or spoke on sensitive topics or in ways critical of the government risked investigation, fines, criminal charges, job loss, and imprisonment.
On June 23, an Istanbul court upheld the conviction and sentencing of the main opposition CHP Istanbul provincial chair Canan Kaftancioglu on multiple charges related to tweets critical of government policy, including comments related to the 2013 Gezi Park Protests and the 2016 coup attempt, which she made between 2012 and 2017. A lower court had sentenced Kaftancioglu to nearly 10 years’ imprisonment in 2018 for “insulting the republic,” “insulting the president,” and “spreading terrorist propaganda” in tweets. At year’s end she remained free pending her final legal appeal. Kaftancioglu also faced separate charges under a December indictment by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for ordering photographs of alleged illegal construction on land owned by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. The indictment sought up to 10 years’ imprisonment for Kaftancioglu. Authorities scheduled the first hearing of the case for May 2021.
A parliamentary by-law prohibits use of the word “Kurdistan” or other sensitive terms by MPs on the floor of parliament and provides for the possibility of fining violators; however, authorities did not uniformly implement this by-law. Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Ahmet Ozmen continued to face charges filed in 2019 stemming from a statement the Bar Association released in 2017, stating, “We share the unrelieved pain of Armenian people.”
Rights groups and free speech advocates reported intensifying government pressure that in certain cases resulted in their exercising enhanced caution in their public reporting.
In late April the Ankara Bar Association filed a complaint for hate speech against Ali Erbas, president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), following a sermon in which he stated that homosexuality causes illness, including HIV. In response President Erdogan announced that an attack against Erbas was an attack against the state. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office promptly opened a criminal investigation against the bar association, and President Erdogan commented, “All will know their place.”
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Mainstream print media and television stations were largely controlled by progovernment holding companies heavily influenced by the ruling party. Reporters without Borders estimated the government was able to exert power in the administration of 90 percent of the most watched television stations and most read national daily newspapers through the companies’ affiliation with the government. Only a small fraction of the holding companies’ profits came from media revenue, and their other commercial interests impeded media independence, encouraged a climate of self-censorship, and limited the scope of public debate.
Nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees.
Government prosecution of journalists limited media freedom throughout the year. In 2018 authorities convicted 14 persons affiliated with the leading independent newspaper, Cumhuriyet on charges of aiding terrorist organizations, citing their reporting as part of the evidence against the accused, and sentenced to prison terms of between three and seven years. After a lengthy appeal process, the Constitutional Court found no rights violations in cases for 11 of the journalists but ruled in favor of three. On November 10, the ECHR found that Turkey violated the freedom of expression rights of eight of the journalists and ordered them to be compensated 16,000 euro ($19,200) each. On November 24, the ECHR separately found that the country had violated the rights of another defendant, journalist Ahmet Sik.
In July an Istanbul court convicted Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel of “incitement to hatred” and spreading “terrorist propaganda” for articles he wrote on Turkey as a correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt and sentenced him in absentia to two years and nine months in prison. The Constitutional Court had previously reviewed the press articles in the indictment and determined they were protected by freedom of the press. Yucel indicated he would appeal the ruling.
In several cases the government barred journalists from travelling outside the country, including through the use of electronic monitoring. For example, in October an Istanbul court sentenced five of eight Yeni Yasam, Yeni Cag, and OdaTV journalists on trial for allegedly revealing the identity of intelligence officers to more than four years in prison. The court released three of the defendants, Baris Pehlivan, Hulya Kilinc, and Murat Agirel, based on time served but imposed an international travel ban. The court acquitted the two OdaTV journalists.
Violence and Harassment: Government and political leaders and their supporters used a variety of means to intimidate and pressure journalists, including lawsuits, threats, and, in some cases, physical attack.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2019 at least nine journalists were physically attacked, often outside of their place of work. Although in some cases suspects were identified quickly, by year’s end authorities had made no arrests or publicly noted progress in investigations against the perpetrators. Victims publicly expressed a belief that law enforcement agencies were not interested in prosecuting the crimes. On August 19, Saban Onen, a journalist of a Bursa-based local newspaper was attacked in a parking garage in Karacabey. Onen claimed that the attackers were relatives of the ruling AKP mayor of Karacabey and specifically referenced his writing about the mayor during the attack. On August 26, a vehicle belonging to the Nevsehir Journalists Association was set on fire. The chair of the association, Bayram Ekici, stated he believed the attack was a premediated attempt to intimidate journalists.
The government routinely filed terrorism-related charges against individuals or publications in response to reporting on sensitive topics, particularly government efforts against PKK terrorism and the Gulen movement (also see National Security). Human rights groups and journalists asserted the government did this to target and intimidate journalists and the public for speech critical of the state. In September authorities arrested on slander charges the publisher and editor in chief of a daily newspaper in Kocaeli Province after the newspaper ran a story accusing local AKP officials of sexually abusing a minor.
Journalists reported that media outlets fired some individuals for being too controversial or adversarial with the government out of fear of jeopardizing other business interests.
Journalists affiliated or formerly affiliated with pro-Kurdish outlets faced significant government pressure, including incarceration. The government routinely denied press accreditation to Turkish citizens working for international outlets for any association (including volunteer work) with private Kurdish-language outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political leaders maintained direct and indirect censorship of media and books. Authorities subjected some writers and publishers to prosecution on grounds of defamation, denigration, obscenity, separatism, terrorism, subversion, fundamentalism, or insulting religious values. Authorities investigated or continued court cases against a myriad of publications and publishers on these grounds during the year. Human rights organizations voiced strong concern that a law governing social media that went into effect October 1 would result in increasing social media censorship and indiscriminate enforcement of content removal requests imposed by courts or made through individuals’ requests by social media companies (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom for details). Media professionals widely reported practicing self-censorship due to intimidation and risks of criminal and civil charges.
While the law does not prohibit particular books or publications, authorities required publishing houses to submit books and periodicals to prosecutors for screening at the time of publication. The Turkish Publishers Association reported that bookstores did not carry books by some opposition political figures.
The Turkish Publisher’s Association reported that publishers often exercised self-censorship, avoiding works with controversial content (including government criticism, erotic content, or pro-Kurdish content) that might draw legal action. The association reported that publishers faced publication bans and heavy fines if they failed to comply in cases in which a court ordered the correction of offensive content. Authorities also subjected publishers to book promotion restrictions. In some cases prosecutors considered the possession of some Kurdish-language, pro-Kurdish, or Gulen movement books to be credible evidence of membership in a terror organization. In other cases authorities banned books because of objectionable content.
In August an Istanbul court banned access to reporting by major newspapers and broadcast networks that a large tender was awarded to a friend of the president’s son. In September an Istanbul court ordered an additional access ban to news articles regarding the initial access ban.
In October police raided the Van bureau of Mezopotamya Ajansi and the homes of many journalists of the news agency. Police detained four journalists during the raid and confiscated their cameras and technical equipment. One of the journalists, Cemil Ugur, first reported the story of two villagers in Van who were allegedly detained, tortured, and thrown from a helicopter by soldiers in September. The courts granted a confidentiality order requested by the Van Chief Prosecutor’s Office on news reports concerning the incident. On October 1, an Ankara penal judge also ruled to permit the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to block access to Mezopotamya Ajansi’s online content.
Some journalists reported their employers asked them to censor their reporting if it appeared critical of the government or fired them if they failed to comply. These pressures contributed to an atmosphere of self-censorship in which media reporting became increasingly standardized along progovernment lines. For instance, the government continued to pursue a case against Cumhuriyet journalists Alican Uludag and Duygu Guvenc for “publicly degrading the judiciary” and “insulting the Turkish nation” for their coverage of the country’s arrest of Andrew Brunson in 2018. On October 22, the court ruled that Uludag and Guvenc be acquitted as “the act in question is not defined as a crime in the law.”
Radio and television broadcast outlets did not provide equal access to the country’s major political parties. Critics charged that media generally favored the ruling AKP. In December the owner of private media outlet Olay TV announced that he would close the channel after only a month of operation because its editorial line prioritized pro-HDP content. The editor in chief of Olay TV announced during its last broadcast that the government pressured channel executives to close the channel. Other outlet employees told reporters the channel faced government scrutiny because it was too critical of the government and included reports of alleged corruption and human rights violations by government officials.
Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) member Ilhan Tasci, who represented the CHP, reported that as of December, RTUK had fined or suspended independent broadcasters in 54 instances. During that time government-affiliated broadcasters received two warnings and one fine. Independent broadcasters paid 25 times more in fines than government-affiliated ones.
RTUK continued the practice of fining broadcasters whose content it considered “contrary to the national and moral values of society.” Service providers that broadcast online are required to obtain a license or may face having their content removed. RTUK is empowered to reject license requests on the grounds of national security and to subject content to prior censorship. In July, RTUK announced it would suspend pro-opposition television stations Halk TV and TELE1 for five days and that the two outlets could lose their broadcast licenses entirely if they received another penalty. RTUK ruled that TELE1 “incited hatred” during two news programs that criticized the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and President Erdogan. RTUK imposed the suspension on Halk TV for criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy. The NGO Committee to Protect Journalists warned, “the two channels were two remaining pro-opposition broadcast outlets in a media landscape that has become predominantly progovernment” and that “their presence is vital for media plurality” in the country. After the broadcasters lost court appeals, RTUK suspended TELE1 and Halk TV broadcasts for five days in September.
Libel/Slander Laws: Observers reported that government officials used defamation laws to stop political opponents, journalists, and ordinary citizens from voicing criticism (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press). According to press reports, convictions for insulting the president increased 13-fold between 2016 and the end of 2019. The law provides that persons who insult the president of the republic may face a prison term of up to four years. The sentence may be increased by one-sixth if committed publicly and by one-third if committed by media outlets.
Authorities charged citizens, including minors, with insulting the country’s leaders and denigrating “Turkishness.” Free speech advocates pointed out that, while leaders and deputies from opposition political parties regularly faced multiple insult charges, the government did not apply the law equally and that AKP members and government officials were rarely prosecuted. In March, Engin Ozkoc of the opposition CHP insulted the president using the same phrasing that the president used in reference to Ozkoc. Ozkoc’s comments set off a brawl on the floor of the parliament. Erdogan sued Ozkoc for libel and the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation into Ozkoc’s comments.
In September a court sentenced the former cochair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party Sebahat Tuncel to 11 months in prison for insulting the president. Tuncel had called Erdogan a misogynist and “an enemy of women and Kurds.”
In May police arrested former CHP Izmir province vice chair Banu Ozdemir for her social media posts sharing videos of Izmir mosques playing the song “Bella Ciao” from their speakers after a hacking incident. Ozdemir was arrested on charges of “denigrating religious values” and spent one week in pretrial detention. On December 10, an Izmir court acquitted Ozdemir.
National Security: Authorities regularly used the counterterrorism law and the penal code to limit free expression on grounds of national security. Organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House, reported that authorities used the counterterrorism law and criminal code to prosecute journalists, writers, editors, publishers, filmmakers, translators, rights activists, lawyers, elected officials, and students accused of supporting a terrorist organization–generally either the PKK or the Gulen movement.
In March an Istanbul court ordered the arrest of seven journalists and editors for their news organizations’ reports on the funeral of an alleged MIT official who died in Libya in February. Authorities charged the journalists with exposing the identities of MIT agents and their families. In September an Istanbul court found five of the journalists guilty and issued sentences from three to more than four years imprisonment. The court acquitted two of the journalists.
The trial of prominent columnist Ahmet Altan continued, and he remained in prison at year’s end. Altan was convicted in 2018 for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” relating to allegations he had a role in the 2016 attempted coup; Altan received an aggravated life sentence. In 2019 after the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the life imprisonment sentence, Altan was convicted for “aiding a terrorist organization” and released on time served. Within days of the release, he was rearrested following the prosecutor’s objection. In December the Constitutional Court rejected Altan’s application for review of his re-arrest. Rights groups claimed that Altan faced charges in reprisal for his work as a journalists and author.
Authorities also targeted foreign journalists. For example, in March authorities detained a group of journalists, including five foreign journalists along the Turkey-Greece border, for allegedly violating the border zone. All were later released.
Nongovernmental Impact: The PKK used intimidation to limit freedom of speech and other constitutional rights in the southeast. Some journalists, political party representatives, and residents of the southeast reported pressure, intimidation, and threats if they spoke out against the PKK or praised government security forces.
The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.
The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.
In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.
The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.
The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.
In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”
According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
During the year the government continued to limit academic freedom, restrict freedom of speech in academic institutions, and censor cultural events.
The president appointed rectors to state and foundation-run universities, leading critics to assert that the appointments compromised the academic and political independence of the institutions. Some academics faced charges due to public statements critical of government policy. Academics and others criticized the situation in public universities, asserting that the dismissals of more than 7,000 academics during the 2016-18 state of emergency had depleted many departments and institutions of qualified professional staff to the detriment of students and the quality of education.
In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that the prosecution of nearly 2,000 academics, known as the “Academics for Peace,” was a violation of freedom of expression. The academics had signed a 2016 petition condemning state violence in the southeast and been prosecuted on terrorist propaganda charges. As of September, 622 of the 822 Academics for Peace cases ended in acquittal. Most of the academics acquitted in 2019 had been fired from their positions and had not been reinstated at year’s end.
In April the parliament amended the Higher Education Law. The amendment included specification of grounds for censure and dismissal of academics, including engaging in and supporting “activities that qualify as terror” and insulting a superior. The University Faculty Members Association released a statement that expressed concern the amendment threatens academic freedom.
Some academics and event organizers stated their employers monitored their work and that they faced censure from their employers if they spoke or wrote on topics not acceptable to academic management or the government. Many reported practicing self-censorship. Human rights organizations and student groups criticized court- and Higher Education Board-imposed constraints that limited university autonomy in staffing, teaching, and research policies. In December 2019 the Council of Higher Education temporarily suspended the operating license of Istanbul Sehir University, established by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In January the council seized the assets of the Science and Art Foundation that managed the university and appointed trustees to its management, citing financial mismanagement and inadequate funds as the reason for the intervention. Academic freedom activists claimed that the actions were in retaliation for Davutoglu’s establishment of a new opposition party.
Antiterror measures also affected arts and culture. The government banned more than 200 Turkish and Kurdish songs on the grounds their content encouraged persons to smoke or drink or conveyed “terrorist propaganda.” Police arrested members of Grup Yorum, a popular folk band collective, in 2016 on terror charges alleging the group’s links to terrorist group Revolutionary Peoples Liberation Party-Front and banned them from performing. In April and May, two members of the group, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokcek died as a result of hunger strikes in protest of the group’s treatment. Two additional members remained in prison. In August police detained at least 10 persons for attending an unauthorized concert in Istanbul by the group. Authorities arrested at least two persons for attending the unauthorized concert.
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of assembly, the law provides several grounds for the government to limit that right. The law stipulates penalties for protesters convicted of carrying items that might be construed as weapons, prohibits the use of symbols linked to illegal organizations (including chanting slogans), and criminalizes covering one’s face while protesting. The law permits police to use tinted water in water cannons, potentially to tag protesters for later identification and prosecution. The law also allows police to take persons into “protective custody” without a prosecutor’s authorization if there is reasonable suspicion that they are a threat to themselves or to public order. The antiterror law gives governorates enhanced authority to ban protests and public gatherings, a ban some governorates enacted broadly during the year.
The government regarded many demonstrations as security threats to the state, deploying large numbers of riot police to control crowds, frequently using excessive force and resulting in injuries, detentions, and arrests. At times the government used its authority to detain persons before protests were held on the premise they might cause civil disruption. The government generally supported security forces’ actions. The HRFT reported that in the first eight months of the year, police intervened in at least 637 demonstrations. As many as 1,364 persons claimed they were beaten and received other inhuman treatment during these police interventions. Neither the government nor human rights groups released statistics regarding the number of demonstrations that proceeded without government intervention. Year-end figures for those injured in clashes with authorities during demonstrations were not available. Human rights NGOs asserted the government’s failure to delineate clearly in the law the circumstances that justify the use of force contributed to disproportionate use of force during protests.
In July dozens of leaders and members of 29 bar associations participated in a march to Ankara to protest anticipated legal changes to regulations governing bar associations. Police forcibly disrupted the march as they entered the city of Ankara and prevented bar association chairs from participating in a sit-in in front of the parliament. Video footage showed police pushing and jostling the bar association heads.
On March 8, police clashed with demonstrators intending to mark International Women’s Day by marching through Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue. Prior to the scheduled march, the governor of Istanbul announced the areas would be closed for demonstrations and assembly and deployed an extensive police presence to prevent access to the main thoroughfares. Despite the announcement, groups proceeded with the planned march and attempted to enter the area. Police blocked the entrances and dispersed the group using tear gas and riot shields. According to media reports, police detained 32 women during the confrontations. Police did not disperse commemorations and marches hosted by women’s groups in the city’s Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Throughout the year during court hearings of jailed former HDP cochair Demirtas, the Ankara governorate or court security personnel banned gatherings, marches, and sit-in protests outside the court. Authorities generally prohibited domestic and international observers from observing the hearings.
The government continued selectively to ban demonstrations outright if they were critical of the government and selectively applied COVID-19 restrictive measures to demonstrations. For instance, the Tekirdag Governor’s Office closed entrance to the province citing COVID-19 precautions ahead of the HDP March for Democracy from Edirne to Ankara, scheduled in June to take place during three days. Sit-ins outside HDP buildings in Diyarbakir to demand the return of children allegedly forcibly recruited by the PKK continued for the second year. Pro-Kurdish demonstrations of many kinds faced violent police responses throughout the year.
Istanbul police continued to prevent the vigil of the Saturday Mothers from taking place on Istiklal Street, in July detaining three group members during the commemoration of the vigil’s 800th week. Since the 1990s, the Saturday Mothers gathered to commemorate the disappearances of relatives following their detention by security forces in the 1980s and 1990s and to call for accountability.
In January police prevented Melek Cetinkaya, the mother of one of 259 military cadets jailed and sentenced to aggravated life in prison in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup, from launching a march for justice from Ankara to Istanbul. Police detained Cetinkaya and 66 family members of other imprisoned cadets who were to join the march. The group planned to walk from Ankara to Silivri Prison in Istanbul, where the cadets are jailed. Police teams took heightened security measures in the city center of Ankara before the group gathered and began detaining marchers as they entered the area. Authorities later released all of the detained protesters. Cetinkaya accused police of excessive force.
Throughout the year the governors of Van, Tunceli, Mus, Hakkari, and several other provinces banned public protests, demonstrations, gatherings of any kind, and the distribution of brochures. The longstanding bans in the southeast of the country have remained in place during the year.
In contrast with previous years, labor unions, labor organizations, and opposition political parties called on citizens to honor Labor Day on May 1 while respecting social distance measures. In particular these groups encouraged supporters to sing songs from balconies, share messages via social media, and explore other activities that respect social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis. Social media showed that many celebrations occurred in isolation across the country. In Istanbul and Ankara, police detained and later released at least 45 persons for attempting to march despite a mandatory three-day COVID-related lockdown. Among others, police detained the chair of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK), Arzu Cerkezoglu, as well as 25 other DISK members as they attempted to march to Taksim Square in Istanbul. Prior to the event, DISK claimed to have contacted and informed the Istanbul Governor’s Office regarding its plans to organize a march. The office stated that DISK received Istanbul approval to travel by vehicles, not by foot, and blamed DISK for violating social distancing measures and initiating brawls with law enforcement officials.
While the law provides for freedom of association, the government continued to restrict this right. The government used provisions of the antiterror law to prevent associations and foundations it had previously closed due to alleged threats to national security from reopening. In its 2019 end-of-year report, the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures reported that 208 of the 1,727 associations and foundations closed following the 2016 coup attempt have been allowed to reopen. Observers widely reported the appeals process for institutions seeking redress through the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures remained opaque and ineffective (see section 1.e.).
By law persons organizing an association do not need to notify authorities beforehand, but an association must provide notification before interacting with international organizations or receiving financial support from abroad and must provide detailed documents on such activities. Representatives of associations stated this requirement placed an undue burden on their operations. Human rights and civil society organizations, groups promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights, and women’s groups in particular stated the government used regular and detailed audits to create administrative burdens and to intimidate them through the threat of large fines. For instance, the HRA reported that continued investigations and audits during the last four years have created immense pressure on the organization. In February the government launched a three-week audit of the HRA.
The case against former Amnesty International honorary chair Taner Kilic and 10 other human rights defenders continued in appeals court. Authorities charged the defendants with “membership in a terrorist organization” or “aiding a terrorist organization without being a member,” largely stemming from attendance at a 2017 workshop, “Protecting Human Rights Advocates–Digital Security,” held on Istanbul’s Buyukada Island. On July 3, an Istanbul court convicted four of the human rights activists on terrorism-related charges. Nearly three years after his arrest, Kilic received a prison sentence of six years and three months for membership in a terrorist organization. The court sentenced former Amnesty International Turkey director Idil Eser, and fellow human rights defenders Gunal Kursun and Ozlem Dalkiran to two years and one month for assisting a terrorist organization. The court acquitted seven other human rights activists including German citizen Peter Steudtner and Swedish citizen Ali Gharavi. The four convicted human rights activists remained free pending appeal; the ban on Kilic’s foreign travel, imposed in 2018, remained in place.
On December 27, the parliament adopted new counterterrorist financing legislation entitled “Preventing Financing of Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” granting the Ministry of Interior powers to audit, suspend staff and governing board members, and temporarily shut down operations of NGOs. The legislation prompted strong concern among civil society groups. Nearly 700 civil society organizations signed a petition opposing the new law, noting it would expand Ministry of Interior “political tutelage,” severely restrict fundraising, and allow for rapid closure of civil society groups without judicial review.
On July 11, parliament approved a law changing the regulations governing bar associations. The law allows lawyers in provinces with more than 5,000 bar association members to establish new associations after collecting a minimum of 2,000 member signatures. Whereas previous regulations only permitted one bar association per province, the new regulations allow for multiple bar associations in large provinces, paving the way for provincial associations to splinter into many groups, which could dilute the voices of existing organizations. The law also changed delegate representation within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations (UTBA), a governing body of bar associations, reducing the influence of large bar associations from major metropolitan areas. All 80 Turkish bar associations, as well as human rights groups, publicly criticized the law, predicting it would undermine judicial independence, divide bar associations along political lines, and diminish the voices of bar associations critical of the government’s actions. To date, bar associations in major metropolitan areas have wielded significant political power and influence, particularly in matters of human rights and rule of law. In September a group of Istanbul Bar Association lawyers gathered enough signatures to establish a new association in the city and filed a registration petition with UTBA.
On October 2, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular postponing bar association elections scheduled by law from October to December. The circular cited anti-COVID-19 precautions banning all in-person events held by professional organizations and NGOs. Major bar associations protested the move, alleging the postponement decision was political since a later election timeline would allow newly established bar associations to participate. On October 5, a total of 76 of 80 bar associations issued a statement alleging that the circular violates Turkish law and filed civil suits. Courts dismissed Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir associations’ suits. In December the minister of interior postponed the elections further to March 2021.
Bar association and other civil society organization representatives reported that police sometimes attended organizational meetings and recorded them, which the representatives interpreted as a means of intimidation.
In March the country enacted amendments to the Law on Associations introducing requirements that associations notify local administrative authorities of any changes in membership within 30 days or face penalties. The Council of Europe issued a statement calling the amendments “problematic on both procedural and substantive accounts” and noted they failed to meet requirements under the ECHR.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/ .
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited these rights. The government continued to restrict foreign travel for some citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed 2016 coup attempt. In June authorities lifted passport restrictions for 28,075 individuals, in addition to the 57,000 lifted in 2019, although it remained unclear how many more remained unable to travel. Curfews imposed by local authorities in response to counter-PKK operations and the country’s military operation in northern Syria also restricted freedom of movement, as did restrictions on interprovincial travel due to COVID-19 precautions.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides that only a judge may limit citizens’ freedom to travel and only in connection with a criminal investigation or prosecution. Antiterror laws allow severe restrictions to be imposed on freedom of movement, such as granting governors the power to limit movement on individuals, including entering or leaving provinces, for up to 15 days.
Freedom of movement remained a problem in parts of the east and southeast, where countering PKK activity led authorities to block roads and set up checkpoints, temporarily restricting movement at times. The government instituted special security zones, restricting the access of civilians, and established curfews in parts of several provinces in response to PKK terrorist attacks or activity (see section 1.g., Abuses in Internal Conflict).
The minister of interior and governorates also restricted interprovincial travel between March and May followed by limited restrictions on movement to and from metropolitan municipalities as measures to contain COVID-19. Some governorates, particularly in the northwest and southeast, instituted subsequent bans on movement as anti-COVID-19 measures throughout the year.
Conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection also experienced restrictions on their freedom of movement (see section 2.f., Protection of Refugees).
Foreign Travel: The government placed restrictions on foreign travel for tens of thousands of citizens accused of links to the Gulen movement or the failed coup attempt, as well as on their extended family members. Authorities also restricted some foreign citizens with dual Turkish citizenship from leaving the country due to alleged terrorism concerns. The government maintained the travel restrictions were necessary to preserve security. Some persons whom the government barred from travel chose to leave the country illegally.
Syrians under temporary protection risked the loss of temporary protection status and a possible bar on re-entry into the country if they chose to travel to a third country or return temporarily to Syria. The government issued individual exit permissions for Syrians under temporary protection departing the country for family reunification, health treatment, or permanent resettlement, and required an individual exception for all other reasons. The government sometimes denied exit permission to Syrians under temporary protection for reasons that were unclear.
In October 2019 the country’s Peace Spring military operation displaced more than 215,000 residents of villages along the country’s border with Syria in areas of Syria affected by the operation. At the time the president announced the country’s intention to create a safe zone for the return and resettlement of one to two million Syrian refugees from Turkey. In October the government announced that 414,000 individuals had voluntarily returned to Syria. Approximately one-half of those displaced inside Syria as a result of the operation have returned. More than 100,000 persons remained displaced, however, including tens of thousands of women and children. Turkish officials publicly committed to safe and voluntary refugee returns.
The law allows persons who suffered material losses due to terrorist acts, including those by the PKK or by security forces in response to terrorist acts, to apply to the government’s damage determination commissions for compensation.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to conditional refugees, returning refugees, stateless persons, and temporary and international protection status holders.
The government took steps during the year to continue services provided to the approximately four million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the country, nearly 3.7 million of whom were Syrians. The Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM) reported that the government apprehended 454,662 “irregular migrants” in 2019. The DGMM reported 201,437 of these apprehensions were Afghan nationals. The government did not provide official data on the number of “irregular migrants” deported to their countries of origin. Due to border closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government paused deportations until June 1, and deportations continued at a much lower rate throughout the year. In the first six months of the year, an estimated 34 migrants died due to drowning, traffic accidents, or exposure to the elements.
A 2016 agreement between the government and the EU continued to limit irregular migration from Turkey to Europe. In February, however, the government announced that the borders the country shares with the EU were “open,” prompting more than 50,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants to move to the border areas. Some local officials provided free buses to aid refugees’ mass movement to the border, according to humanitarian organizations and rights groups. Because the borders remained closed on the Greek side, many individuals were stuck in difficult conditions, particularly on the land border with Greece near Pazarkule. Press reports asserted some Turkish border guards aided refugees in charging and dismantling border fences. Unable to cross into Greece and unable to return to their homes in Turkey, hundreds of refugees remained at the border for weeks in an unofficial encampment. On March 1, Istanbul Bar Association representatives visited Pazarkule and reported that a group of approximately 1,000 individuals, including women, children, and elderly, were in the region and experienced poor hygienic conditions, lack of medical services, and basic goods, including, food, clothes, and blankets. The bar association delegation reported that many individuals were injured by tear gas capsules.
After weeks of living in open-air temporary shelters, on March 26, Turkish authorities disbanded the encampment due to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. The government reported it transported migrants to dormitories in nearby cities to safely quarantine. On March 4, a man was shot and killed while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece amid violent clashes at the Evros border. Some NGOs reported he was shot by Greek security forces, likely by accident. On May 12, more than 100 members of the European Parliament addressed a letter to the head of the European Commission, calling for a formal investigation into the death. At least five migrants also drowned in the river near this border area.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Due to strict border control measures as well as intercity travel bans during much of the year due to COVID-19, migration into and through the country was significantly lower than in prior years; however, stricter controls increased the danger for migrants and refugees attempting to travel. For example, an estimated 50-60 migrants died after their boat sank on Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Police arrested the captain of the boat and detained eight others in relation to investigation into the deaths.
The country’s borders with Syria and Iraq remained strictly managed, with admissions only for medical, humanitarian, and family reunification cases from the border with Syria since late 2015. Of the 20 border crossing points between Syria and Turkey, five were open for limited humanitarian, commercial, and individual crossings. Since 2017 some provinces along the border with Syria limited registration of asylum seekers to certain exceptional cases only, limiting refugees’ ability to obtain access to social services, including education and medical care in these areas, unless they relocate to a city where they are able to register. Large cities such as Istanbul also limited registration.
Incidents of societal violence directed against refugees and persons in refugee-like conditions increased during the year. Following the deaths of several Turkish soldiers in Syria in February, in early March increased societal violence against refugee communities was reported throughout the country, including some beatings and attacks on businesses. In July, in the western province of Bursa, four Turkish men beat to death a 17-year-old Syrian refugee in a market. Police arrested the four, who awaited trial at year’s end. Workplace exploitation, child labor, and forced early marriage also remained significant problems among refugees. Human rights groups alleged conditions in detention and removal centers sometimes limited migrants’ rights to communication with and access to family members, interpreters, and lawyers.
UNHCR reported there were LGBTI asylum seekers and conditional refugees in the country, most coming from Iran. According to human rights groups, these refugees faced discrimination and hostility from both authorities and the local population due to their status as members of the LGBTI community. Commercial sexual exploitation also remained a significant problem in the LGBTI refugee community, particularly for transgender individuals.
Refoulement: Authorities generally offered protection against refoulement to all non-European asylum seekers who met the definition of a refugee in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, although there were some confirmed cases of refoulement, and tens of thousands of deportations took place during the year. The government continued efforts to deport those it claimed entered the country illegally, before they were granted status-determination interviews by Turkish migration authorities, particularly non-Syrians. Istanbul, along with 14 other provinces, stopped registering asylum seekers in 2018, with the exception of those in a few categories such as newborn children, some specialized medical cases, and family reunification instances. Many asylum seekers reported that in order to find work or be with their families, they either did not register or moved from the city where they had registered, neither of which is allowed under the country’s regulations. In May, Amnesty International reported the apparent forcible deportation of six Syrian men to northern Syria, where their lives and freedoms would be at serious risk.
As of November 30, UNHCR intervened in incidents of detention of 1,395 persons of various nationalities that had been brought to its attention. The majority were Syrian nationals (831 persons), Afghans (228 persons) and Iranians (173 persons). Of those known incidents of detention in which UNHCR intervened, three persons reportedly returned, against their will, to their country of origin.
In the incidents of administrative detention, of which UNHCR was made aware, the reasons for detention related to violations of provisions of the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (including but not limited to irregular stay, lack of foreigners’ identity card due to not completing the registration procedure, being in another city without authorization, working without a permit, entry ban, and rejection of request for temporary protection) or criminal acts. Authorities continued to apply the legal framework and the procedural safeguards in place for persons seeking or in need of international protection.
UNHCR typically intervened in incidents of detention when there were concerns detained individuals were unaware of or unable to access the appropriate administrative processes to raise potential protection concerns. For incidents in which UNHCR intervened where the persons were no longer in the country, it was difficult for UNHCR to reach the individual to confirm or deny claims.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for standard treatment of asylum seekers countrywide and establishes a system of protection, but it limits rights granted in the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe and establishes restrictions on movement for conditional refugees. While non-European asylum seekers were not considered refugees by law, the government granted temporary protection status to nearly four million Syrians while maintaining conditional or subsidiary refugee status and providing international protection for other asylum seekers. Individuals recognized by the government for temporary protection (Syrians) or conditional or subsidiary refugee status (all other non-Europeans, for example, Iraqis, Iranians, and Somalis) were permitted to reside in the country temporarily until they could obtain third-country resettlement.
The law provides regulatory guidelines for foreigners’ entry into, stay in, and exit from the country, and for protection of asylum seekers. The law does not impose a strict time limit to apply for asylum, requiring only that asylum seekers do so “within a reasonable time” after arrival. The law also does not require asylum seekers to present a valid identity document to apply for status.
UNHCR reported it had intermittent and unpredictable access to detention and removal centers where non-Syrians were detained. UNHCR reported its visits to removal centers where apprehended foreigners were detained indicated the need for improvement in some areas, including access to information and legal aid by detainees as well as improved interpretation services. A 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey allows some migrants arriving in Greece to be returned to Turkey in particular circumstances. Some observers expressed doubts that all these readmitted persons had access to the asylum procedure and echoed UNHCR’s concerns.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities assigned Syrians to one of 62 “satellite cities,” where they are expected to receive services from local authorities under the responsibility of provincial governorates. These refugees were required to check in with local authorities on either a weekly or biweekly basis and needed permission from local authorities to travel to cities other than their assigned city, including for meetings with UNHCR or resettlement-country representatives, which the government generally provided. Syrians under temporary protection were also restricted from traveling outside of provinces listed on their registration cards without permission. Syrians and non-Syrians could request permission to travel or to transfer their registration through the DGMM. Certain provinces did not accept travel permission requests or transfer of registration from Syrians under temporary protection. Syrians living in camps required permission from camp authorities to leave the camps.
Employment: The law allows both Syrians under temporary protection and non-Syrian conditional refugees the right to work, provided they were registered in the province they wish to work in for six months. Most refugees, however, did not have access to regular or skilled work, partly as a result of high unemployment rates for both refugees and Turkish nationals, which increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition applying for a work permit was the responsibility of the employer, and the procedure was sufficiently burdensome and expensive that relatively few employers pursued legally hiring refugees. As a consequence the vast majority of both conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection remained without legal employment options, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, including illegally low wages, withholding of wages, and exposure to unsafe work conditions. As of late 2019, only an estimated 132,000 Syrians in the country had formal work permits.
Access to Basic Services: During the year, due to changes to the Law on Foreigners under International Protection, refugees registered under international protection status (approximately 330,000 individuals) for more than one year no longer had access to subsidized medical care (other than emergency care). Individuals meeting certain conditions, such as documented chronic conditions or those older than a specific age, could apply for an exemption to be placed back under subsidized care coverage. Previously, the government provided free access to the public medical system to non-Syrian refugees registered until they began receiving international protection. Syrians registered for temporary protection (3.6 million) continued to receive free access to the public health system. The government also expanded access to education for school-age Syrian children, many of whom encountered challenges overcoming the language barrier, meeting transportation or other costs, or both.
As of September the Ministry of National Education reported that 684,919 of the school-age refugee children in the country were in school, a significant increase from prior years. An estimated 400,000 remained out of school. According to UNICEF, since 2017 more than 628,000 refugee children received monthly cash assistance for education through a joint program with UNICEF funded by international donors.
Provincial governments, working with local NGOs, were responsible for meeting the basic needs of refugees and other asylum seekers assigned to satellite cities in their jurisdictions, as well as of the Syrians present in their districts. Basic services were dependent on local officials’ interpretation of the law and their resources. Governors had significant discretion in working with asylum seekers and NGOs, and the assistance provided by local officials to refugees and persons in situations similar to those of refugees varied widely. NGO staff members reported seeing refugees asked for bribes to receive government services, and individual cases of refugees being refused health-care services.
Durable Solutions: The law does not provide for naturalization within the country for Syrians under temporary protection or for conditional refugees, but it allows them to stay until resettled to a foreign country or able to return to their country of origin. The government granted citizenship to some Syrian refugees on a limited basis. As of September authorities had granted approximately 110,000 Syrians citizenship since 2010, according to the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Population and Citizenship Affairs.
As of September 30, UNHCR in cooperation with the DGMM, observed spontaneous voluntary returns in 14 provinces of 10,917 Syrians who chose to return to Syria. In April and May, the DGMM suspended voluntary repatriation as a result of COVID-19 measures. As of the end of November, authorities referred 6,022 refugees to 14 countries for resettlement, and 3,864 refugees departed the country for resettlement. The main reasons for the decrease in resettlement are due to reduced refugee quotas and the suspension of resettlement departures in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of September, however, resettlement departures resumed.
Temporary Protection: The country adopted a geographically limited understanding of the term “refugee” when it ratified the Refugee Convention and acceded to the Refugee Protocol, recognizing only Europeans as eligible for legal refugee status. In recognition of this gap, the government adopted a temporary protection regulation in 2014. The government continued to offer temporary protection to Syrian refugees who did not qualify as refugees due to the European-origin limitation in the law. According to the Syrian National Coalition and Turkish authorities, at year’s end the country was hosting under this “temporary protection” status nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Authorities required Syrian asylum seekers to register with the DGMM to legalize their temporary stay in the country. In September 2019 the governate of Bursa announced that the provinces of Antalya, Aydin, Bursa, Canakkale, Duzce, Edirne, Hatay, Istanbul, Izmir, Kirklareli, Kocaeli, Mugla, Sakarya, Tekirdag, and Yalova would limit registration processing to exceptional cases and newborns. The DGMM has not made any official announcement regarding provinces stopping processing of registrations. Syrians who registered with the government were able to receive an identification card, which qualified them for assistance provided through the governorates, including free primary health care.
By the end of 2019, the DGMM had closed all but seven refugee camps, which the government called temporary accommodation centers, in five provinces. As of the end of November, there were 59,077 Syrians in the accommodation centers, a slight decline from the previous year.
Syrians who officially entered the country with passports could receive one-year residence permits upon registration with the government. In 2019 a total of 117,579 Syrians held valid residence permits; official figures for the calendar year were not available at year’s end.
The government did not keep figures for stateless persons. The government provided documentation for children born to conditional refugees and Syrians under temporary protection, although statelessness remained an increasing concern for these children, who could receive neither Turkish citizenship nor documentation from their parents’ home country. As of December 2019, at least 516,000 babies had been born to Syrian mothers in the country since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, according to the Ministry of Interior.
West Bank and Gaza
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The PA basic law generally provides for freedom of expression but does not specifically provide for freedom of the press. The PA enforced legislation that NGOs claimed restricted press and media freedom in the West Bank, including through PASF harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Notably, Palestinian activists complained of narrowing space for political discussion, with arrests of Fatah party opponents in the West Bank. Other Palestinian activists, especially anticorruption campaigners, complained that the emergency orders put in place to address COVID-19 were abused by the PASF to arrest preemptively 19 activists before they could begin protesting at an intended rally in July.
In Gaza Hamas restricted press freedom through arrests and interrogations of journalists, as well as harassment and limitations on access and movement for some journalists. These restrictions led many journalists to self-censor.
Israeli civil and military law provides limited protections of freedom of expression and press for Palestinian residents of the West Bank. NGOs and Palestinian journalists alleged that Israeli authorities restricted press coverage and placed limits on certain forms of expression. These included restricting Palestinian journalists’ movement, as well as using violence, arrests, closure of media outlets, and intimidation, according to media reports and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms. The Israeli government stated it allowed journalists maximum freedom to work and investigated any allegations of mistreatment of journalists.
Freedom of Speech: Although no PA law prohibits criticism of the government, media reports indicated PA authorities arrested West Bank Palestinian journalists and social media activists who criticized or covered events that criticized the PA.
On August 19, the Preventive Security Organization arrested journalist, film director, and television producer Abdel Rahman Thaher for allegedly criticizing the PA on his Facebook page, according to his lawyer and media reports. He was released on bail on September 21. On October 27, ISF arrested Thaher at his home in Nablus, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On November 24, ISF released him and Thaher claimed he was arrested because of his international media activities, according to media reports.
The law restricts the publication of material that endangers the “integrity of the Palestinian state.” The PA arrested West Bank journalists and blocked websites associated with political rivals, including sites affiliated with political parties and opposition groups critical of the Fatah-controlled PA.
According to HRW, the PA arrested 1,609 individuals between January 2018 and April 2019 for insulting “higher authorities” and creating “sectarian strife.” HRW stated these charges “criminalize peaceful dissent.” The PA arrested more than 750 persons during this period for social media posts, according to data provided to HRW.
In Gaza Hamas arrested, interrogated, seized property from, and harassed Palestinians who publicly criticized Hamas. Media practitioners accused of publicly criticizing Hamas, including civil society and youth activists, social media advocates, and journalists, faced punitive measures including raids on their facilities and residences, arbitrary detention, and denial of permission to travel outside Gaza. On May 11, Hamas arrested independent journalist Yousef Hassan after he released an investigative report on alleged corruption and extortion related to aid distribution, according to the ICHR. He was released after four days. On May 27, the PIJ abducted him for the same report and the following day handed him to Hamas Internal Security authorities, who released him. The ICHR stated the abduction violates Article 11 of the Palestinian Basic Law, which prohibits detaining, detaining, or restricting the freedom of anyone except by judicial order.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent Palestinian media operated under restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza. The PA Ministry of Information requested that Israeli reporters covering events in the West Bank register with the ministry. According to the PA deputy minister of information, the ministry provides permits to Israeli journalists only if they do not live in a settlement. While officially the PA allowed Israeli reporters to cover events in the West Bank, at times Palestinian journalists reportedly pressured Israeli journalists not to attend PA events.
Hamas permitted broadcasts within Gaza of reporting and interviews featuring PA officials. Hamas allowed, with some restrictions, the operation of non-Hamas-affiliated broadcast media in Gaza. For example, the PA-supported Palestine TV continued to operate in Gaza.
Hamas arrested, detained, and interrogated several journalists throughout the year for reporting on suicides in Gaza, according to media reports. For example, on July 11, Hamas arrested journalist Osama al-Kahlout on charges of encouraging a man to commit suicide after al-Kahlout posted on social media a photo of a young man asking for help and threatening to take his own life. Other journalists said the charge was an attempt to distract attention from a spate of suicides that they alleged was a source of embarrassment for Hamas, according to NGOs and media reports.
In April, Hamas arrested Palestine TV (which is PA-owned) reporter Mohammed Abu Hatab and photographer Mohammed Nassar at the Jabalia camp in northern Gaza for lacking an official permit to film there. Hamas also confiscated their equipment, according to the ICHR. Authorities released them two hours later, returned their confiscated equipment, and made them sign a pledge always to obtain an official permit before filming.
On July 15, Hamas banned Saudi-owned media outlets al-Arabiya and al-Hadath, accusing them of “deceit,” publishing “fabricated information,” and “spreading rumors and lies.” In a July 12 report, al-Arabiya alleged Hamas arrested several Hamas members for collaborating with Israel and a Hamas military commander had fled to Israel. The Palestinian journalists union and Reporters without Borders called for the ban’s reversal.
In areas of the West Bank to which Israel controlled access, Palestinian journalists claimed Israeli authorities restricted their freedom of movement and ability to cover stories. ISF did not recognize Palestinian press credentials or credentials from the International Federation of Journalists. Few Palestinians held Israeli press credentials.
There were reports of Israeli forces detaining journalists in the West Bank. For example, on October 1, ISF arrested journalist Tareq Abu Zeid at his home in Nablus, according to media reports and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Abu Zeid’s wife said Israeli soldiers blew up their front door at 3 a.m. and took her husband, his cell phone, and computers without explaining why he was being arrested.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous reports that the PA harassed, detained (occasionally with violence), prosecuted, and fined journalists in the West Bank during the year based on their reporting.
The PA occasionally obstructed the West Bank activities of media organizations with Hamas sympathies and limited media coverage critical of the PA. For example, on May 15, PA police at a checkpoint stopped, assaulted, and arrested Anas Hawari, a journalist for Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network, according to media reports and rights groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists. Hawari’s lawyer said police knocked out one of Hawari’s teeth during the incident and confiscated his cell phone. On May 21, police released Hawari on bail after charging him with insulting an official, resisting arrest, and violating COVID-19 lockdown measures. The case continued at year’s end.
The PA also had an inconsistent record of protecting Israeli and international journalists in the West Bank from harassment by Palestinian civilians or PA personnel.
In Gaza Hamas at times arrested, harassed, and pressured, sometimes violently, journalists critical of its policies. Hamas reportedly summoned, detained, and questioned Palestinian journalists to intimidate them. Hamas also constrained journalists’ freedom of internal movement in Gaza during the year, attempting to ban access to some official buildings.
Throughout the year, there were reports of Israeli actions that prevented Palestinian or Arab-Israeli journalists from covering news stories in the West Bank and Gaza. These actions included alleged harassment and acts of violence against journalists by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian journalists also claimed that Israeli security forces detained Palestinian journalists and forced them to delete images and videos under threat of violence, arrest, or administrative detention. Israeli authorities defended these detentions on security grounds.
Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain permits to enter Israel, as well as Jerusalem-based Arab journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. In June the Journalists’ Support Committee, a nonprofit journalist advocacy organization, stated Israeli security forces committed more than 50 human rights violations against Palestinian journalists working in Jerusalem in the first half of the year, including arrests and expulsions from the city. In May, then Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan extended for six months the closure order against Palestine TV’s East Jerusalem office, according to media reports. In November 2019 Erdan first ordered the closure when Israeli police raided the office.
Israeli police officers detained, used violence against, and confiscated equipment of journalists during demonstrations in Jerusalem. On June 8, police officers hit, shoved to the floor, and then detained Haaretz photojournalist Tomer Appelbaum at the end of a demonstration against the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank. Witnesses indicated that Appelbaum was clearly identified as a journalist; however, police stated they did not notice his press credentials until after the incident.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The PA prohibits calls for violence, displays of arms, and racist slogans in PA-funded and -controlled official media. There were no confirmed reports of any legal action against, or prosecution of, any person publishing items counter to these PA rules. Media throughout the West Bank and Gaza reported practicing self-censorship. There were reports of PA authorities seeking to erase images or footage from journalists’ cameras or cell phones.
In Gaza, civil society organizations reported Hamas censored television programs and written materials, such as newspapers and books.
The Israeli government raided and closed West Bank Palestinian media sources, primarily on the basis of allegations the media sources incited violence against Israeli civilians or security services. Conviction of acts of incitement under military law is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. NGOs and observers stated Israeli military regulations were vaguely worded and open to interpretation. ISF generally cited two laws in its military orders when closing Palestinian radio stations: the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations and the 2009 Order Concerning Security Provisions. These laws generally define incitement as an attempt to influence public opinion in a manner that could harm public safety or public order.
While the Israeli government retained the authority to censor the printing of publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Editors and journalists from those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were some accusations of slander or libel against journalists and activists in the West Bank and Gaza.
According to Human Rights Defenders Fund, Israeli individuals and right-wing NGOs used defamation lawsuits to discourage public criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For example, on July 13, the Samaria Regional Council sued former Member of the Knesset and the head of the Zulat Institute Zehava Galon after she criticized on Twitter their granting of a certificate of honor to two settlers who in 2019 allegedly shot and killed an alleged Palestinian attacker. According to B’Tselem, the settlers purportedly continued to shoot the Palestinian after he no longer posed a threat. In June an additional libel lawsuit against Galon, B’Tselem, and three individuals who tweeted on the incident was filed by Yehusha Sherman, who shot the attacker. The lawsuits continued at year’s end.
National Security: Human rights NGOs alleged that the PA restricted the activities of journalists on national security grounds.
Internet was generally accessible throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Frequent power outages in Gaza interrupted accessibility. According to HRW, between January 2018 and March 2019, both the PA and Hamas arrested dozens of persons for their social media posts and brought charges of “harming revolutionary unity” and “misuse of technology.”
The PA actively monitored social media to pressure and harass activists and journalists. There were instances when the PA arrested or detained Palestinians because of their posts on social media. In 2018 the PA arrested and brought to trial Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro for a social media post critical of the PA’s arrest of a Palestinian journalist, according to media reports. Amro’s trial continued at year’s end. Amro was also subject to legal action by Israeli authorities (see Freedom of Peaceful Assembly).
Gaza-based Palestinian civil society organizations and social media practitioners stated Hamas authorities monitored the internet activities of Gaza residents and took action to intimidate or harass them. On September 1, local media reported that the Hamas authorities arrested a Gazan youth after he posted allegations on Facebook claiming Hamas distributed COVID-19-related food donations and financial aid to its affiliates and excluded others. The youth was released the next day.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The PA did not restrict academic freedom in the West Bank, and there were no known reports of PA censorship of school curricula, plays, films, or exhibits. Palestinian law provides for academic freedom, but individuals or officials from academic institutions reportedly self-censored curricula. Faculty members reported PA security agents were present on university campuses among the student body and faculty members, which may have contributed to self-censorship. NGOs claimed that authorities closely monitored criticism of the PA by university students and professors.
Public schools as well as UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools in Gaza followed the same curriculum as West Bank schools. Palestinians in Gaza reported substantially decreased interference by Hamas in public schools at the primary, secondary, and university levels due to COVID-19 related school closures and a focus on online schooling.
Students and faculty from Gaza participating in certain cultural and education programs (including programs sponsored by foreign governments and international organizations) faced questioning from Hamas, according to the ICHR.
Israeli restrictions on movement (see section 2.d.) adversely affected academic institutions and access to education and cultural activities for Palestinians. As of October 9, a total of 52 Palestinian schools in Area C were under pending demolition or stop-work orders, according to the PA Ministry of Education.
Israeli civil law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejecting the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”
Israeli authorities provided an edited version of the Palestinian Authority curriculum that deleted certain information on Palestinian history and culture to schools in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Israeli authorities sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of Israeli curriculum. Some Palestinians expressed concern at what they perceived as Israeli efforts to impose Israeli views on these students. Others welcomed the Israeli curriculum, and the additional resources associated with it, as better preparing students in Jerusalem to work in the Israeli workforce, compared to lower paying employment in PA-controlled areas in the West Bank or in manual labor and low-wage sectors in Israel.
The Israeli government maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and the Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestine Liberation Organization office. The government renewed a closure order for these and other institutions under a 1994 law passed after the Oslo Accords that requires the PA to obtain Israeli permission to open a representative office or hold a meeting in areas Israel recognizes as under its sovereignty. The government likewise continued to shut down Palestinian institutions and cultural events in Jerusalem that the government stated had PA participation or support, incited violence against Israel, or had anti-Israel or other objectionable content. Israeli authorities said they would also detain and ban PA-affiliated officials in Jerusalem from conducting PA-related activities. According to Haaretz, the Ministry of Public Security approved dozens of such orders during the year. PA officials publicly point to the 1993 letter sent by then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to his Norwegian counterpart Johan Holst as proof of an agreement to allow Palestinian institutions and activities in East Jerusalem.
Authorities in the West Bank and Gaza limited and restricted Palestinian residents’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
PA law permits public meetings, processions, and assemblies within legal limits. The law requires permits for rallies, demonstrations, and large cultural events. Both the PA and Hamas security forces selectively restricted or dispersed peaceful protests and demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza during the year.
In July the PASF arrested 22 anticorruption activists gathering for protests after their permit request was denied under coronavirus emergency regulations, according to media reports. The PASF arrested several of the activists as they were heading to the protest location, according to the ICHR. The ICHR claimed the activists were also arrested for social media posts critical of the PA. The PASF released 10 activists shortly after their arrest; the remaining 12 were released on bail after criticism from human rights groups of the arrests. The trials continued at year’s end. Some NGOs claimed the PASF used the emergency COVID-19 measures as a pretext to crack down on dissent.
According to a Hamas decree, any public assembly or celebration in Gaza requires prior permission. Hamas used arbitrary arrest to prevent some events from taking place, including political events affiliated with Fatah. Hamas also attempted to impede criticism of its policies by imposing arbitrary demands for the approval of meetings on political or social topics.
A 1967 Israeli military order stipulates that a “political” gathering of 10 or more persons requires a permit from the regional commander of military forces, which Israeli commanders rarely granted. The penalty for conviction of a breach of the order is up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine. The IDF Central Command declared areas of the West Bank to be “closed military zones” in which the IDF prohibited public assembly by Palestinians. Israeli military law prohibits Palestinians from insulting a soldier, participating in an unpermitted demonstration or march consisting of more than 10 persons, and “incitement” (encouraging others to engage in civil disobedience).
Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro faced 16 charges in a trial in an Israeli military court that began in 2016 and continued through the year. The charges include participation in a march without a permit, assaulting a soldier, and incitement, according to human rights groups. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International stated Amro’s actions during these incidents were consistent with nonviolent civil disobedience. The latest hearing in his case took place in September. Haaretz reported the IDF detained Amro at least 20 times at various checkpoints since 2018. In August, IDF soldiers detained Amro at a checkpoint in Hebron and released him two hours later with no explanation, according to rights groups.
PA law allows freedom of association. PA authorities sometimes imposed limitations on the freedom of association in the West Bank, including on labor organizations (see section 7.a.). NGOs stated a regulation subjecting “nonprofit companies” to PA approval prior to receiving grants impeded their independence and threatened the ability of both local and international nonprofits to operate freely in the West Bank.
In Gaza Hamas attempted to prevent various organizations from operating. This included some organizations Hamas accused of being Fatah-affiliated, as well as private businesses and NGOs that Hamas deemed to be in violation of its interpretation of Islamic social norms. Hamas claimed supervisory authority over all NGOs, and Hamas representatives regularly harassed NGO employees and requested information on staff, salaries, and activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
PA law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions. The PA’s May 20 decision to end security coordination with Israel exacerbated many of the issues that constrain Palestinian movement. For example, during the olive harvest some Palestinian farmers were left to coordinate access to their olive groves with Israel’s Civil Administration without the assistance of a PA intermediary, according to human rights groups.
Hamas restricted some foreign travel into and out of Gaza, and required exit permits for Palestinians departing through the Gaza-Israel Erez crossing. Hamas also prevented some Palestinians from exiting Gaza based on the purpose of their travel or to coerce payment of taxes and fines. There were some reports unmarried women faced restrictions on travel out of Gaza. Hamas restricts the entry of foreigners into Gaza unless a recognized local entity applies for their entrance prior to arrival. Hamas prohibited several international journalists from entering due to a lack of local agencies or persons applying for permits on their behalf.
Citing security concerns and frequent attempted terrorist attacks, Israel occasionally imposed significant restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israeli authorities often prohibited travel between some or all Palestinian West Bank towns and deployed temporary checkpoints for that purpose. Palestinians who lived in affected villages stated that “internal closures” continued to have negative economic effects, lowering their employment prospects, wages, and days worked per month. During periods of potential unrest, including on some major Israeli, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, Israeli authorities enacted “comprehensive external closures” that prevented Palestinians from leaving the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel placed restrictions on Palestinian farmers accessing their land in the so-called seam zone west of the barrier and east of the green line, according to human rights groups, and there were some reports that soldiers operating the checkpoints at seam-zone access points did not allow farmers to move farming implements and machinery, including trucks for transporting olive harvests, into the area.
The Israeli travel permit system restricts Palestinians’ ability to travel from Gaza to the West Bank. Palestinian higher education contacts reported that permits for Gazans to attend West Bank universities were seldom granted. According to HaMoked, Israeli authorities required Palestinians from the West Bank who are married to a Palestinian in Gaza and reside in Gaza to sign a “Gaza resettlement form” and permanently forego their right to move back to the West Bank.
Israel has declared access-restricted areas (ARAs) on both the coastal and land borders around Gaza, citing evidence that Hamas exploited these areas at times to conduct attacks or to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza. The lack of clear information regarding the ARAs created risks for Palestinians in Gaza who lived or worked either on the Mediterranean Coast or near the perimeter fence. No official signage exists for the line of demarcation, and official policy changed frequently. Hamas’s use of certain technologies for rockets, drones, other weapons, and surveillance systems led Israel to restrict importation of dual-use equipment into Gaza including Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The lack of GPS devices made it more difficult for fishermen to locate and avoid restricted maritime activity areas. In addition the permitted maritime activity area for Palestinians along the coastal region of Gaza changed between zero and 15 nautical miles multiple times throughout the year, according to Gisha, an Israeli organization that focuses on Palestinian freedom of movement. Gisha called the changes a form of collective punishment. Human rights NGOs asserted that confusion over permitted activity areas led to multiple instances of Israeli forces firing upon farmers and fishermen. According to the Israeli government, Hamas attempted to conduct terrorist activities by sea. According to the United Nations, regular electrical outages often made it necessary for Gazan farmers to work their fields after dark; in some instances, IDF soldiers shot at farmers near the ARA when farmers irrigated their fields at night.
On September 25, Egyptian naval forces shot and killed two brothers and wounded another fishing off the Gaza coast near Rafah, according to media reports. It was unclear whether the brothers’ boat had crossed into Egyptian waters.
In February 2019 Israeli naval forces allegedly shot Gaza fisherman Khader al-Saaidy with rubber-coated bullets in the face and chest at close range, and he lost sight in both eyes as a result. After examining the case, the Military Prosecutor did not find that the actions of IDF forces raised grounds for any suspicion of criminal misconduct and decided not to launch a criminal investigation, according to the Israeli government.
The barrier that divides the majority of the West Bank from Israel, including Jerusalem, and some parts of the West Bank, significantly impeded Palestinian movement. Israeli authorities stated they constructed the barrier to prevent attacks by Palestinian terrorists. In some areas the barrier divides Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. At its widest points, the barrier extends 11 miles into the West Bank. B’Tselem estimated that 27,000 Palestinians resided in communities west of the barrier who were required to travel through Israeli security checkpoints to reach the remainder of the West Bank.
Other significant barriers to Palestinian movement included internal ISF road closures and Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian persons and goods into and out of the West Bank and Gaza. Major checkpoints, such as Container and Za’tara, caused major disruptions in the West Bank when closed, according to media reports. When Container (near Bethlehem) is closed, it cuts off one-third of the West Bank population living in the south, including Bethlehem and Hebron, from Ramallah and the north. Similarly, Za’tara checkpoint blocks traffic in and out of the entire northern part of the West Bank, including Nablus, Tulkarem, and Jenin, according to media reports. UNOCHA reported during the year that there were 593 permanent obstacles throughout the West Bank. Israeli restrictions on movement affected virtually all aspects of Palestinian life, including attendance at weddings and funerals, access to places of worship, employment, access to agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. There were also reports of patients dying in traffic before reaching hospitals and ambulances on the way to accidents or scenes of attacks being stopped by the IDF for hours at a time.
The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. For example, restrictions on access in Jerusalem had a negative effect on Palestinian patients and medical staff trying to reach the six Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem that offered specialized care, including delays at checkpoints lasting up to two hours. Authorities sometimes restricted internal movement in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Old City and periodically blocked entrances to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya, Silwan, and Jabal Mukabber. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons and restrictions on movement in Jerusalem were temporary and implemented only when necessary for investigative operations, public safety, public order, and when there was no viable alternative.
Israeli officials imposed restrictions on movement of materials, goods, and persons into and out of Gaza based on security and economic concerns. Amnesty International and HRW reported difficulties by foreign workers in obtaining Israeli visas, which affected the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. Amnesty International and HRW also reported that the Israeli government denied permits to Amnesty International and HRW employees to enter Gaza from Israel. The United Nations and several international NGOs reported that the Israeli government denied permits to the UN’s and NGO’s local Gazan staff to exit Gaza into Israel. The Israeli government stated all Gaza exit requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with security considerations arising from Hamas’s de facto control of Gaza.
PA-affiliated prosecutors and judges claimed that ISF prohibitions on movement in the West Bank, including Israeli restrictions on the PA’s ability to transport detainees and collect witnesses, hampered their ability to dispense justice.
UNRWA reported staff movement continued to be restricted and unpredictable at several checkpoints, notably those controlling access to East Jerusalem or through the barrier. Movement restrictions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, resulted in the loss of at least 27 staff days. According to UNRWA, on two occasions at checkpoints in the West Bank, including for entry into East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities demanded to search UNRWA vehicles and on at least three occasions personnel assigned to UNRWA’s West Bank Field Office were denied access through a checkpoint and prevented from attending work.
From March to June, Israeli authorities required that each individual UNRWA staff movement between Israel and the West Bank, in both directions, be coordinated through the UN Access Coordination Unit and approved by Israeli authorities, amounting to hundreds of individual approvals, according to UNRWA. This requirement was later removed for West Bank staff entering Israel and East Jerusalem. As of the end of the year, however, UNRWA staff who hold Israeli-issued residency in East Jerusalem or who are Israeli nationals needing to travel from East Jerusalem to the West Bank (Areas A and B where the majority of UNRWA operations are located) were still required to submit a coordination request through the UN Access Coordination Unit, according to UNRWA.
In-country Movement: In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, Hamas occasionally enforced restrictions on internal movement in Gaza. Pressure to conform to Hamas’s interpretation of Islamic norms generally restricted movement by women, who often must travel in groups when visiting certain public areas such as the beach. There were sporadic reports of security officers requiring men to prove a woman with them in a public space was their spouse.
In the West Bank, ISF routinely detained Palestinians for several hours and subjected them to interrogations, according to human rights groups.
Israeli authorities allegedly damaged Palestinian property in the West Bank during raids, sealed off entries and exits to homes and other buildings, and confiscated vehicles and boats. The Israeli government stated that it imposed collective restrictions only if an armed forces commander believed there was a military necessity for the action and that the imposition on the everyday lives of Palestinian civilians was not disproportionate.
Israeli authorities restricted or prohibited Palestinian travel on 29 roads and sections of roads (totaling approximately 36 miles) throughout the West Bank, including many of the main traffic arteries, according to B’Tselem. ISF also imposed temporary curfews confining Palestinians to their homes during ISF arrest operations. Israel continued to restrict movement and development near the barrier, including access by some international organizations.
Palestinian farmers continued to report difficulty accessing their lands in Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank. NGOs and community advocates reported numerous Palestinian villages owned land rendered inaccessible by the barrier. A complicated Israeli permit regime (requiring more than 10 different permits) prevented these Palestinians from fully using their lands. Israeli NGO HaMoked reported that government of Israel data showed a marked reduction in permit approvals, compared to previous years, to cross the barrier. Data showed 84 percent of permit applications were denied, although only 1 percent were reportedly denied for security reasons. HaMoked also reported that Israeli authorities opened gates to these areas late, which the NGO stated reduced access for Palestinian farmers to cultivate their land.
Israeli restrictions on the importation of dual-use items, including wires, motors, and fiberglass which could be used for the production of weaponry or explosives, prevented some fisherman from being able to repair their boats.
In the West Bank, Israeli military authorities continued to restrict Palestinian vehicular and foot traffic and access to homes and businesses in downtown Hebron. They cited a need to protect several hundred Israeli settlers resident in the city center. ISF continued to occupy rooftops of private Palestinian homes in Hebron as security positions, forcing families to leave their front door open for soldiers to enter. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated that freedom of movement is not an absolute right but must be balanced with security and public order.
The Israeli government, citing security concerns, continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to certain religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount. Israeli officials cited security concerns when imposing travel restrictions, including limiting access to Jerusalem during major Jewish holidays as well as continuing construction of Israel’s barrier, which impeded the movements of Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the West Bank.
UNOCHA reported Palestinians in Gaza considered areas up to 1,000 feet from the perimeter fence to be a “no-go” area, and up to 3,300 feet to be “high risk,” which discouraged farmers from cultivating their fields. UNOCHA estimates nearly 35 percent of Gaza’s cultivable land is in these areas.
Foreign Travel: Hamas in Gaza occasionally enforced movement restrictions on Palestinians attempting to exit Gaza to Israel via the Erez Crossing and to Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. Palestinians returning to Gaza were regularly subject to Hamas interrogations regarding their activities in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.
After the PA’s May 20 decision to end security coordination with Israel, Gazans were not able to get advanced medical care outside of Gaza for several weeks. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the ICRC filled the gap temporarily then ceded the coordination role to the World Health Organization until coordination resumed.
Citing security concerns, Israeli authorities often denied or did not respond to Palestinian applications for travel permits through the Erez Crossing, including patients seeking medical care unavailable inside Gaza. Israeli authorities largely limited entry and exit from Gaza at the Erez Crossing to humanitarian cases and limited permits to businesspersons and day laborers working in Israel. These limitations prevented some Palestinians from transiting to Jerusalem for visa interviews; to Jordan (often for onward travel) via the Allenby Bridge; and to the West Bank for work or education. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated there were no new restrictions on items that could be brought through Erez into Israel, but Gazans reported additional restrictions, including not being allowed to carry cell phone chargers or more than one pair of shoes.
The Israeli government continued selective revocations of residency permits of some Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. This meant those residents could not return to reside in Jerusalem. Reasons for revocation included holding residency or citizenship of another country; living in another country, the West Bank, or Gaza for more than seven years; or, most commonly, being unable to prove a “center of life” (interpreted as full-time residency) in Jerusalem. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report that as of October 28 the Israeli government had revoked 17 residency permits in Jerusalem on the grounds of regulation 11A of Israel’s Entry Regulations, regarding individuals who stayed outside of Israel for more than 7 years or have acquired Citizenship/ Permanent Residence Status outside of Israel. Some Palestinians who were born in Jerusalem but studied abroad reported losing their Jerusalem residency status, but the government denied revoking residency status of anyone who left for the sole purpose of studying abroad. The government added that the residency of individuals who maintain an “affinity to Israel” would not be revoked and that former residents who wished to return to Israel could receive renewed residency status under certain conditions.
Palestinians possessing residency permits issued by the Israeli government but no PA or Jordanian identity document needed special documents to travel abroad.
During the year the Israeli Supreme Court continued to uphold, with few exceptions, the ban imposed in 2000 on students from Gaza attending West Bank universities. Students in Gaza generally did not apply to West Bank universities because they understood Israeli authorities would deny permits or could revoke them during the school year.
Delays in permit approvals by Israeli officials caused some Palestinians to miss the travel dates for exchange programs abroad and matriculation in foreign universities. In some cases authorities asked students to submit to security interviews prior to receiving permits. Israeli authorities detained some students indefinitely without charge following their security interview, which caused other students to refuse to attend these interviews due to fear of being detained.
According to Gisha, Israeli authorities denied some exit permit applications by residents of Gaza on the grounds that the applicants were “first-degree relative[s] [of] a Hamas operative.” UNOCHA reported that some of their staff members were denied exit permits out of Gaza because UNOCHA coordinates with Hamas as the de facto government in Gaza to facilitate the entry, exit, and transportation of UN personnel.
According to the United Nations, 1,001 persons were displaced in the West Bank and East Jerusalem due to demolitions.
UNRWA and other humanitarian organizations provided services to IDPs in Gaza and the West Bank, with some limitations due to Israeli restrictions on movement and border access.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Israeli security operations in the West Bank led to three fatalities of Palestinian UNRWA beneficiaries, one of whom was killed while reportedly conducting an attack on ISF or Israeli civilians. ISF conducted an estimated 560 operations in West Bank refugee camps, injuring 180 Palestinians, according to the UN. Of these injuries, 43 persons, including eight minors, were injured with live ammunition, the United Nations reported. Israeli authorities demolished 220 structures belonging to UNRWA beneficiaries, which resulted in the displacement of 287 refugees, according to the UN.
In July 2019 the most recent fatality in the Deheisha refugee camp south of Bethlehem occurred when ISF shot and killed 14-year-old Arkan Thaer Mizher. According to the Israeli government, the investigation has concluded and the MAG was reviewing the findings.
UNRWA provided education, health care, and social services in areas of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza; however, the agency continued to experience funding shortfalls throughout the year that caused temporary delays in salary payments to staff. A 2019 UN Office of Internal Oversight Services investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement by UNRWA’s senior management team found no evidence of fraud or misuse of donor funds, although it did highlight mismanagement and significant shortcomings in human resources and accountability mechanisms. UNRWA stated it would continue to prioritize a series of management initiatives to address concerns regarding transparency, accountability, and inclusive decision making at the agency.
Access to Asylum: Palestinian residents of the West Bank who claimed to be in a life-threatening situation due to their sexual orientation or other reasons, such as domestic violence, did not have access to the asylum system in Israel; however, many of them resided in Israel without legal status. NGOs stated this situation left these persons, who claimed they could not return to the West Bank due to fear of persecution, vulnerable to human traffickers, violence, and exploitation. Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+) Palestinians were able to obtain a temporary permit allowing them to stay in Israel without authorization to work or access to social services from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), but. A Supreme Court petition by NGOs demanding these rights was pending as of the year’s end. According to UNHCR, prior to the issuance of permits, COGAT requested proof of efforts to resettle in a third country. The government stated that COGAT examined the issue on a case-by-case basis. Following a HIAS administrative petition, on March 1, PIBA launched a program that allowed Palestinians recognized as trafficking victims to work in Israel.
Access to Basic Services: Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza were eligible to access UNRWA schools and primary health care clinics, although in some cases, movement restrictions limited access to UNRWA services and resources in the West Bank (see section 1.d.).
All UNRWA projects in the West Bank and Gaza required Israeli government permits, but UNRWA does not apply for permits in refugee camps.
Socioeconomic conditions in Gaza severely affected refugees. UNRWA reported that food security continued to be at risk. In March, UNRWA temporarily suspended food distribution at its official distribution centers to avoid spreading COVID-19 but began door-to-door delivery as an alternative soon afterwards.
Israeli import restrictions on certain commodities considered as dual use continued to impede humanitarian operations in Gaza, including those directed toward refugees. In 2016 Israeli authorities introduced a requirement whereby approval of UNRWA projects remained valid for only one year. As project implementation timelines often exceeded one year, this requirement necessitated applications for reapproval of projects, which hampered implementation and increased transaction costs for multiple UNRWA projects.
According to NGOs, 40,000 to 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza lacked identification cards recognized by Israel. Some were born in Gaza but never recognized by Israel as residents; some fled Gaza during the 1967 war; and some left Gaza for various reasons after 1967 but later returned. A small number lacking recognized identification cards were born in Gaza and never left but had only Hamas-issued identification cards. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA administers the Palestinian Population Registry, although status changes in the registry require Israeli government approval. The Israeli government has not processed changes to the registry since 2000.
The PA’s decision to suspend civil and security coordination with Israel caused travel and work disruptions for many Palestinians and left multiple gaps in processes for obtaining work and medical travel permits and other documents. Between May and November, the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry did not transfer population registry updates to Israel’s Civil Administration reflecting births, deaths, or passport and ID card numbers. Without this information, Israel did not recognize PA identity cards issued during the suspension. COGAT confirmed that without accurate and updated records in Israeli databases, Israeli authorities cannot process Palestinians’ movement in and out of the West Bank and Gaza.
There was no process for foreign spouses or foreign-born children of Palestinians to obtain permanent legal status in the West Bank. As a result many Palestinian children and young adults, especially those born abroad, are without legal status in the region where they have spent most or all of their lives. In 2019 a court granted Maen Abu Hafez a one-year visitor’s permit to stay in the West Bank, which expired during the year, and his renewal request was rejected. HaMoked requested a renewal on his behalf, but he remained without legal status in the interim. Abu Hafez reportedly lived in the Jenin refugee camp since he was three, when he moved there with his Palestinian father and Uruguayan mother. His family reunification request has been on hold for several years. In 2017 he was detained at a checkpoint and was held for more than two and a half years in an Israeli prison in Ramle. The Israeli government sought to deport him to Brazil, where he was born, although he has no ties there and does not speak Portuguese.