Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provided for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the pre-August 15 government sometimes restricted this right. Following August 15, the Taliban used force against protesters and journalists and suppressed political discussion and dissent. Journalists reported a chilling effect on free speech and press in the country as a result of the Taliban’s policies, particularly following media reports of torture of two local journalists covering women’s protests after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban announced restrictive media regulations in September and additional guidelines in November, in line with the Taliban’s strict interpretation of sharia.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provided for freedom of speech under the pre-August 15 government. There were reports that the pre-August 15 government officials at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the pre-August 15 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.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of a law that provides for public access to government information remained inconsistent, and media reported consistent failure by the pre-August administration to meet the requirements of the law. Pre-August 15 government officials often restricted media access to official government information or simply ignored requests for information. UNAMA, HRW, and Reporters without Borders reported the government did not fully implement the law, and therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they sought. Furthermore, journalists stated pre-August 15 government sources shared information with only a few media outlets.
On September 16, Reporters Without Borders said that 103 journalists signed a joint statement asking the international community to take urgent action to help protect press freedom in the country. The journalists pled for international action to guarantee the protection of female journalists who sought to continue their work, resources for local media outlets to remain open, and material assistance for those who have fled abroad.
Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association reported that approximately 200 media outlets have shut down, leaving almost 60 percent of journalists unemployed. Various factors, including financial constraints, fear, and departure of staff, also contributed to closures.
Violence and Harassment: Pre-August 15 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. The Taliban insurgency continued to threaten, attack, and kill journalists and media organizations. The Taliban warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.” Increased levels of insecurity until August 15 created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation, especially after the Taliban takeover in August.
Many media workers fled to safe havens starting in January after the Taliban launched a campaign of violence against journalists in late 2020, as reported by UNAMA and independent media. Taliban violence continued to escalate against journalists throughout the year, and frequent reports of attacks continued after their occupation of the country in August. According to the UNESCO observatory of killed journalists, seven journalists were killed between January 1 and August 8, including four women.
On January 1, gunmen in Ghor Province opened fire on the car of journalist Bismillah Adil, killing him in an attack for which no one has claimed credit. On February 25, gunmen stormed Adil’s family home and killed three of his family members and wounded five children.
On June 3, unidentified assailants in Kabul detonated an explosive device attached to a van in which Ariana News TV Kabul anchor Mina Khairi was a passenger, killing her and two family members. An Ariana News TV manager said other station employees had received threats.
In response to increased concern regarding the targeting of journalists following the Taliban’s takeover in August, the UN Human Rights Council held an emergency session, and a group of UN human rights experts convened to issue a statement through the OHCHR. On September 3, the statement called on all member states to provide urgent protection to Afghan journalists and media workers who fear for their lives and are seeking safety abroad. Many of those journalists who remained in the country ceased their work and reported living in hiding to avoid targeted attacks. According to an al-Jazeera report in October, more than 30 instances of violence and threats of violence were reported by the Afghanistan National Journalists Union. Many journalists fled the provinces to Kabul and others departed the country.
Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and pre-August 15 government-linked figures attempting to influence how they were covered in the news. With the Taliban takeover of the country, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in September reported numerous instances of Taliban physical violence against and detention of journalists, warning that an entire generation of reporters was at risk in the country.
On September 7, Taliban fighters detained a freelance photographer after he covered a protest in the western city of Herat, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the end of the year, he had not been released.
On September 8, according to the CPJ, the Taliban detained and later released at least 14 journalists covering protests in Kabul. According to media sources, at least nine of the journalists were subjected to violence during their arrests or detention.
On September 18, an unidentified man shot journalist Mohammad Ali Ahmadi after accusing him of working for an “American radio station.” Ahmadi, a reporter and editor with national radio broadcaster Salam Watandar in Kabul, was shot twice in the leg and hospitalized.
CPJ reported in October that Taliban fighters assaulted at least three journalists covering a women’s protest in Kabul for demanding “work, bread, and education.” The fighters also attacked a photographer working with a French news agency, who captured some of the violence on camera.
According to UNAMA, two journalists were killed after August 15 – one by the ISIS-K and another by unknown actors.
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. Most requests for information from journalists who lacked influential connections inside the pre-August 15 government or international media credentials were disregarded, and government officials often refused to release information, claiming it was classified.
On September 19, the Taliban issued a set of 11 media directives including a requirement that media outlets prepare detailed reports in coordination with the new “governmental regulatory body.” The directives prohibit media from publishing reports that are “contrary to Islam,” “insult national figures,” or “distort news content.” The directives also included prohibitions on “matters that could have a negative impact on the public’s attitude or affect morale should be handled carefully when being broadcast or published.” Journalists in Kabul reported being turned away from covering events of interest and being told to obtain individual permits from local police stations with jurisdiction over the area of reporting activity.
Tolo TV, a commercial television station broadcasting programming through major cities across the country, scaled back programming in September in an act of self-censorship with the Tolo TV CEO, saying, “we had to sacrifice music for survival,” with the process of self-censorship entailing the elimination of Turkish soap operas, adding programming featuring women scarved, and replacing musical programming with religious chants.
Journalists called the restriction and censorship of information by the Taliban the primary obstacle to reporting and said many media organizations stopped their activities in an act of self-censorship after the collapse of the pre-August 15 government.
The Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced eight restrictive “religious guidelines” on November 21, including one recommending that women should not appear in television dramas or entertainment programs and another indicating that female journalists should wear head coverings. As of December the guidelines were not being enforced consistently.
Libel/Slander Laws: The pre-August 15 government’s laws prescribed prison sentences and fines for defamation. Pre-August 15 authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained pre-August 15 government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the relevant law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Throughout the year some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the Taliban 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 the Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as by religious leaders.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provided for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the pre-August 15 government limited these freedoms in some instances. The Taliban generally did not respect freedom of peaceful assembly and association, although they allowed some limited protests and demonstrations to take place without interference.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The pre-August 15 government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition into the air when attempting to break up demonstrations. On January 29, at least 10 civilians were killed and 20 others injured when police fired upon a protest in the Behsud district of Maidan Wardak Province, according to Etilaatroz news. The Ministry of Interior stated the protesters were armed. On June 8, the Badakhshan Province governor allegedly ordered police to shoot demonstrators who had entered the governor’s compound, resulting in four deaths.
Protests and rallies were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. The August Taliban takeover prompted numerous, small-scale protests by women demanding equal rights, participation in government, and access to education and employment. Taliban fighters suppressed several women’s protests by force.
In the weeks immediately following the August 15 Taliban takeover, several peaceful protests were staged in cities throughout the country, primarily by women activists, without interference by the Taliban. Further protests were increasingly met with resistance and violence by the Taliban, however, and as of December the Taliban suppressed protests against the group and its policies.
On September 5, a march by dozens of women towards the presidential palace calling for the right to work was broken up by the Taliban with tear gas and pepper spray. In a similar incident three days later in Kabul, the Taliban reportedly used whips and batons to suppress a group of women demonstrating for equal rights. On September 8, the Taliban issued instructions banning unauthorized assemblies, motivating civil society, particularly women, to shift their efforts behind closed doors and to online platforms. The UN Human Rights Commission stated on September 10 that peaceful protests in many parts of the country were met with an increasingly violent response by the Taliban after their takeover. The Taliban frequently used force to suppress protests, including firing live ammunition overhead to disperse crowds.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provided for the right to freedom of association, and the pre-August 15 government generally respected it. The pre-August 15 government’s law on political parties required political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The same law prohibited 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 were subject to dismissal.
After August 15, the Taliban generally did not respect freedom of association.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The pre-August 15 government’s law provided for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The pre-August 15 government generally respected these rights. The Taliban generally respected these rights for citizens with sufficient identity documentation, including passports, but they prevented certain political figures associated with previous administrations from travelling abroad. Restrictions were also placed on women’s in-country movements.
In-country Movement: The pre-August 15 government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s free movement in some areas without a male family member’s consent or a male relative chaperone (mahram). Prior to August 15, 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. Prior to August 15, the Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel.
Through the year, Taliban checkpoints increasingly dotted the main highways leading in and out of Kabul, since many outposts were abandoned by pre-August 15 government security forces. Media workers and officials of the pre-August 15 government avoided in-country travel because they feared being identified by the Taliban and subjected to reprisals.
After the Taliban takeover in August, intercity travel was generally unobstructed. On December 26, the Taliban announced that women could not engage in long-distance travel without a mahram. Within populated areas, women could move more freely, although there were increasingly frequent reports of women without a mahram being stopped and questioned.
Foreign Travel: The country’s neighbors closed land borders to regular traffic after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August, and travel by air decreased significantly due to capacity constraints and lack of functionality at the country’s airports. The Taliban stated they do not want citizens to leave the country but that those with foreign travel authorization and required documentation would be allowed to depart; Taliban leaders stated the right to travel is guaranteed by Islam. Enforcement of these “regulations” was inconsistent. Citizens with passports and visas for third countries were generally permitted to depart the country, and Pakistan was allowing pedestrians from Kandahar Province to cross into Pakistan and back for trade and day labor using only identity cards. The Taliban prevented certain political figures associated with previous administrations from travelling abroad due to concerns regarding possible political activities abroad. After August 15, most airlines flying commercial routes to and from Kabul International Airport cancelled flights, although Afghan airlines (Ariana and Kam) continued to fly commercial routes. Damaged equipment at Kabul International Airport limited aircraft takeoffs and landings to daylight hours under visual flight rules, which also required clear weather; these limitations made insurance costs for airlines prohibitive to operate and prevented the return of many commercial routes that existed prior to August 15.
In October the Taliban stated they would resume issuing passports, ending a months-long suspension that had diminished the limited ability of citizens to depart the country. According to local media, more than 170,000 passport applications received in August and September remained unadjudicated as of December 31. In December the Taliban announced that passport offices had opened in 25 provinces. Anecdotal reports suggested passports were not always issued impartially but rather reserved for individuals whom the Taliban deemed “unproblematic” or who could pay substantially higher prices for the passport. Some individuals associated with the previous administration reported being detained and beaten following their visit to passport offices.
In October Taliban authorities closed the Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing into Pakistan. After a 27-day closure, the crossing reopened to pedestrians and trade. After the reopening, Pakistan reportedly permitted Kandahar tazkira (national identification card) holders – as well as individuals with medical reasons but without documentation – to cross the border.
Internal population movements continued because of armed conflict and natural disasters, including avalanches, flooding, and landslides. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that widespread intense fighting between pre-August 15 government security forces and the Taliban between May and August forced approximately 250,000 citizens to flee their homes. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated a total of 669,682 persons were displaced between January and December 19, of whom 2 percent were displaced following August 15. 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. UNHCR estimated that 158,000 displaced persons returned home since fighting subsided following the Taliban takeover in August.
Limited humanitarian access due to 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. 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.
Protection concerns were increasingly reported to humanitarian partners, with growing protection needs for persons with disabilities, the elderly, female-headed households, and sexual and gender minorities. By October, food shortages and lack of access to basic services contributed to a widespread humanitarian crisis, with millions of individuals lacking basic life necessities as the country faced the onset of winter. The economic and liquidity crisis since the Taliban takeover, lower agricultural yield due to drought conditions, unreliable electricity supply and deteriorating infrastructure, and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic all combined to worsen the humanitarian crisis.
The pre-August 15 government cooperated with UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to IDPs, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The Taliban has cooperated to a limited extent with UNHCR, the IOM, or other humanitarian organizations. On September 13, UN Refugee Commissioner Filippo Grandi visited the country and met with the Taliban’s so-called interim minister of refugees and repatriation affairs Khalil-ur-Rahmen Haqqani. In an interview with the Washington Post, Grandi noted that humanitarian access had increased since August due to the cessation of hostilities and improved security.
Access to Asylum: The pre-August 15 government did not create a legal and programmatic framework for granting asylum or refugee status and had not established a legal framework for providing protection to refugees. Since the takeover, the Taliban also have not created a legal and programmatic framework for granting of asylum or refugee status.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: The pre-August 15 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 Taliban’s “Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation Affairs” repatriated approximately 4,000 IDPs to their communities of origin, although the IOM estimated there were more than five million IDPs in the country. “Interim Minister” Khalil Haqqani told al-Jazeera that the Taliban had a plan to return all IDPs to their homes, assist in repairing damaged homes, and designate provincial support zones to assist returnees.
The IOM estimated that all returning migrants required humanitarian assistance. Between January and September, the IOM recorded a total of 866,889 undocumented Afghans returning or being deported from Iran and Pakistan. In the same time period, the IOM recorded 40,089 assisted returnees. UNHCR reported the number of registered refugees returning remained lower than in 2020, mainly due to the Taliban takeover. The country lacked the capacity to reintegrate successfully large numbers of returnees due to continuing insecurity, poor development, and high unemployment, exacerbated by COVID-19. Insecurity and lack of services meant most recent returnees could not return to their places of origin. While numbers of deportations or spontaneous voluntary returns were trending upwards, the seizure of Kabul by the Taliban in August disrupted accurate tracking of returnees.
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
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media. Independent media outlets regularly criticized and satirized government officials and policies, but the government on some occasions restricted these rights. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists. Some media figures alleged the government used its control over most printing houses and significant funding of public-sector advertising preferentially, and that the lack of clear regulations over these practices permitted it to exert undue influence on press outlets.
Freedom of Expression: While public debate and criticism of the government were widespread, journalists and activists were limited in their ability to criticize the government on topics crossing unwritten “red lines.” Authorities arrested and detained citizens for expressing views deemed damaging to state officials and institutions, including the use of the Berber flag during protests, and citizens practiced self-censorship in expressing public criticism. The law criminalizing speech regarding security force conduct during the internal conflict of the 1990s remained in place, although the government stated there had never been an arrest or prosecution under the law. A separate law provides for up to three years’ imprisonment for publications that “may harm the national interest” or up to one year for defaming or insulting the president, parliament, army, or state institutions. Government officials monitored political meetings.
Authorities have summoned, arrested, and prosecuted journalist Mustapha Bendjama in at least six different cases for charges such as “offense to public bodies” and “undermining national unity.” On June 27, the court in Annaba convicted Bendjama, and the judge sentenced him to two months in prison and 2,500 dinars ($19) fine.
Police arrested former parliamentarian Nordine Ait-Hamouda on June 26 in Bejaia for making “inappropriate statements towards various important national figures.” On August 29, authorities released Ait-Hamouda from El-Harrach prison after two months of incarceration. The Court of Ruisseau in Algiers granted Ait-Hamouda’s provisional release, pending the completion of the investigation and determination of the trial date.
On June 30, security personnel arrested Fethi Ghares, national coordinator of the opposition party Democratic and Social Movement and searched his home. His wife, Messaouda Cheballah, posted a live video of her husband’s arrest and denounced the police’s “indiscreet search of her belongings.”
NGOs reported in 2020 that they stopped holding events outside private locations due to longstanding government suppression and pressure on owners of public gathering spaces.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The National Agency for Publishing and Advertising (ANEP) controlled public advertising for print media, and most daily newspapers depended on ANEP-authorized advertising to finance their operations. Press outlets reported taking extra caution before publishing articles critical of the government or government officials due to fear of losing revenue from ANEP. According to the NGO Reporters without Borders, private advertising existed but frequently came from businesses with close links to the ruling political party. ANEP stated its support for a pluralistic press and freedom of information and noted that it funded opposition newspapers.
In April 2020 parliament adopted amendments to the penal code that criminalize spreading “false news” that harms national unity. Penalties for convictions under the bill, which does not distinguish among news reports, social media, and other media, include prison terms of two to five years and fines. Civil society groups reported that the amendments gave authorities excessive power to prosecute activists and human rights defenders.
On May 10, authorities found journalist Khellaf Benhedda guilty in absentia and fined him 100,000 dinars ($750) for an “offense to the President.”
On May 14, police arrested Maghreb Emergent journalist Kenza Khatto during a Hirak march in Algiers on charges of “incitement to unarmed gathering,” “contempt of police,” and “noncompliance with the instruction of the wali (governor) of Algiers on the ban of marches.”
On May 18, authorities placed journalist El Kadi Ihsane, director of Radio M and Maghreb Emergent websites, on probation. The judge issued a travel ban and confiscated Ihsane’s passport. According to Radio M, authorities charged Ihsane with “undermining national security and territorial unity” and “sharing publications undermining national interest.” The CNLD said the charges emanated from a complaint filed by the Minister of Communication Ammar Belhimer.
On September 6, authorities arrested Hassan Bourras at his home in El Bayadh and charged him with “belonging to a terrorist organization,” “conspiracy against the security of the State to change the system of governance,” and “use of technical and media tools to enlist individuals against the authority of the State.” Bourras is a well known human rights’ activist with the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH). According to the CNLD, authorities transferred Bourras on September 12 to a court in Algiers, which ordered him into pretrial detention.
On September 12, police arrested Mohamed Mouloudj, a reporter for Liberte, and raided his home. On September 14, the Sidi M’hamed Court in Algiers placed Mouloudj in custody and charged him with spreading false news, harming national unity, and belonging to a terrorist group. The court placed him in pretrial detention which was ongoing at year end.
Many civil society organizations, government opponents, and political parties had access to independent print and broadcast media and used them to express their views. Opposition parties also disseminated information via the internet and published communiques but stated they did not have access to the national television and radio stations. Journalists from independent print and broadcast media expressed frustration regarding the difficulty of receiving information from public officials. Except for several daily newspapers, most print media outlets relied on the government for physical printing materials and operations.
Organizations wishing to initiate regular publications must obtain authorization from the government. The law requires the director of the publication to hold Algerian citizenship. The law additionally prohibits local periodicals from receiving direct or indirect material support from foreign sources.
The ministry’s Media Directorate is responsible for issuing and renewing accreditations to foreign media outlets operating in the country. Although this accreditation is required to operate legally, the ministry did not accredit most foreign media. Regulations require the shareholders and managers of any radio or television channel to be citizens and prohibit them from broadcasting content that offends “values anchored in Algerian society.”
The law mandates that online news outlets must inform the government of their activities but does not require them to request authorization to operate.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected some journalists to harassment and intimidation. Journalists reported that selective prosecutions served as a mechanism for intimidation. According to Reporters without Borders, the government intimidated activists and journalists. The government’s actions included harassment of some critics, arbitrary enforcement of vaguely worded laws, and informal pressure on publishers, editors, advertisers, and journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Some major news outlets faced direct and indirect retaliation from the Audiovisual Regulatory Authority (ARAV) for criticism of the government. According to state-run Algerie Presse Service (APS), in March, Algerian authorities warned France 24 to tone down its “biased Hirak coverage.”
On June 13, Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer cancelled France 24’s accreditation for its “clear and repeated hostility towards our country and its institutions.” Upon the withdrawal of France 24’s accreditation, several foreign news outlets said all journalists in Algeria – both foreign and local – faced bureaucratic hurdles and must navigate murky procedural processes to operate.
In June the ARAV suspended El Hayet TV for one week after it broadcast an interview with Nordine Ait Hamouda, the founding member of the opposition party Rally for Culture and Democracy and son of independence war hero Colonel Amirouche Ait Hamouda. During the interview, Nordine Ait Hamouda called several Algerian historical figures “traitors.” The interview prompted the Ministry of Communication to summon El Hayet TV director Habet Hannachi to the ARAV headquarters to explain his decision to broadcast the controversial interview. On June 26, authorities arrested Ait Hamouda and placed him in pretrial detention, although authorities granted his provisional release on August 29 pending trial on charges of “attacking symbols of the nation and the revolution.”
On July 31, the ARAV withdrew the accreditation of Saudi-funded al-Arabiya TV for “propagating misinformation.” In a statement the Ministry of Communication stated al-Arabiya failed to “respect the rules of professional ethics and practiced media misinformation and manipulation.”
On August 16, the Ministry of Communication announced “the immediate and final closure” of the private television channel Lina TV at the request of the ARAV. Communication Minister Ammar Belhimer stated the ARAV had previously warned Lina TV for its “noncompliance with ethical principles.” Belhimer characterized the channel as a “danger to national unity.” The Ministry added that Lina TV did not have the required accreditation to operate.
On August 23, the Ministry of Communication suspended the private progovernment television channel El Bilad TV for one week. The ARAV based its decision on “noncompliance with the requirements of public order” and due to legal proceedings against Ayoub Aissiou, a station shareholder who also owns El Djazairia One. The government accused Aissiou of violating the law on broadcast activity, which forbids holding shares in more than one television station.
On August 23, the Ministry of Communication shut down the private television channel El Djazairia One, after the ARAV recommended its immediate closure. On August 24, officials at the ARAV said El Djazairia One’s owners violated the law on audiovisual activity by purchasing shares in more than one television channel. The station’s owners, brothers Ayoub and Tayeb Aissiou, were close associates of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Bouteflika-era prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia.
On August 24, the ARAV censured state-run EPTV after one of its reporters said the suspects arrested for lynching Djamel Bensmail were charged with belonging to a “terrorist region” instead of a “terrorist organization.” The ARAV stated this was “an unforgivable breach,” prompting EPTV to apologize and discipline the reporter.
Libel/Slander Laws: NGOs and observers criticized the law on defamation as vaguely drafted and stated the definitions in the law failed to comport with internationally recognized norms. The law defines defamation as “any allegation or imputation of a fact offending the honor or consideration of a person, or of the body to which the fact is imputed.” The law does not require that the fact alleged or imputed be false or that the statement be made with malicious intent to damage another individual’s reputation. Defamation is not a crime but a serious misdemeanor that carries a fine. The Ministry of Justice did not provide information on the percentage of defamation claims that originated from private citizens, as opposed to government officials. Defamation laws specify that former members of the military who make statements deemed to have damaged the image of the military or to have “harmed the honor and respect due to state institutions” may face prosecution.
The law criminalizes statements denigrating Islam or insulting the Prophet Muhammed or “messengers of God.”
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the government severely restricted the exercise of these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the right of peaceful assembly, but the government curtailed this right. A ban on demonstrations in Algiers remained in effect. Authorities utilized the ban to prohibit assembly within the city limits. Nationwide, the government required citizens and organizations to obtain permits from the local governor, who is appointed by the national government, before holding public meetings or demonstrations. The government restricted licenses to political parties, NGOs, and other groups to hold indoor rallies or delayed permission until the eve of the event, thereby impeding organizers’ publicity and outreach efforts. The DGSN reported it arrested 10,943 protesters during the year, up from 3,017 protesters arrested in 2020. Of those, authorities interviewed and released 9,900 protesters, typically on the same day as the arrest. Of the remainder, police charged 545, and the remaining 489 were placed in pretrial detention. The Hirak protest movement, which began in 2019, consisted of mass, peaceful protest marches taking place every Tuesday and Friday in many locations throughout the country. The protests paused with the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020.
On February 22 and 26, Hirak marches resumed in cities throughout the country, with thousands of demonstrators returning to the streets to commemorate the movement’s two-year anniversary. Student protests also resumed their weekly Tuesday marches on February 23 in Algiers, but by May they had largely ceased.
On April 3, police arrested 23 Hirak protesters on alleged charges of “holding an unarmed gathering or protest.” The court placed them in pretrial detention on April 5. On April 14, El Harrach prison officials relocated the detainees to the hospital after they engaged in a hunger strike because, they asserted, they were arbitrarily detained.
On April 28, police arrested Kaddour Chouicha, a university professor and vice president of the LADDH, and journalist Jamila Loukil, as they left an Oran court following a hearing on “unarmed assembly” charges.
In May security forces further increased arrests and use of force against Hirak protesters, drawing negative international attention and condemnation from human rights groups. Amnesty International said authorities’ “illegal and constant use of violence…against demonstrators” was unacceptable and called for the government to allow peaceful protests without resorting to force, and for the government to release prisoners of conscience.
On May 5, according to purported official documents leaked on social media, authorities asked the police to intervene – using force, if necessary – to maintain public order during demonstrations. On May 7, Hirakists unexpectedly changed their usual procession route, prompting the Ministry of Interior to issue a communique on May 9 requiring the organizer to provide names, start and stop times, routes, and slogans in advance of marches. When the Hirak protests resumed, some public transportation was not operational on Fridays, which Hirakists claimed was another mechanism the government used to prevent protesters from gathering.
On May 14 and 21, police blocked Hirak protests in Algiers and several other cities and arrested many protesters including journalists, politicians, and academics. The CNLD reported that police arrested more than 800 demonstrators nationwide. Marches took place without incident in Tizi Ouzou and Bejaia, while in Bouira the protest turned violent after police intervened to prevent the march. The Ministry of Interior denied receiving a request for the May 21 Hirak march; however, a group of pro-Hirak lawyers publicized the protest request, which bore signatures from wilaya (state) officials.
On May 21 and May 25, security forces created new checkpoints in locations throughout Algiers to prevent protesters from reaching Hirak rally points or changing their protest routes. Police checked identification documents and individuals who did not reside in Algiers were arrested and taken to various police stations throughout the city. Hotels in Algiers and other major cities continued their practice of refusing to sign rental contracts for meeting spaces with political parties, NGOs, and civil associations without a copy of written authorization from the Ministry of Interior for the proposed gathering. NGOs reported instances of not receiving the written authorization in time to hold planned meetings. NGOs reported that the government threatened hotel and restaurant owners with penalties if they rented rooms to NGOs without official authorization. In most cases the NGOs continued to hold their meetings and police came to the hotels to end the gatherings.
Throughout the year police dispersed unauthorized gatherings or prevented marching groups of protesters from demonstrating. Police typically dispersed protesters shortly after a protest began and arrested and detained organizers for a few hours.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for the right of association, but the government restricted this right.
The law’s extensive requirements and uneven enforcement served as major impediments to the development of civil society. The law grants the government wide-ranging oversight of and influence in the day-to-day activities of civil society organizations. It requires national-level civil organizations to apply to the Ministry of Interior for permission to operate. Once registered, organizations must inform the government of their activities, funding sources, and personnel, including notification of personnel changes. The law imposes an additional requirement that associations obtain government preapproval before accepting foreign funds. If organizations fail to provide required information to the government or attempt to operate with or accept foreign funds without authorization, they are subject to fines and individuals may face up to six months’ imprisonment.
According to the law, associations that apply for accreditation are entitled to receive a response within two months for national organizations, 45 days for interregional-level associations, 40 days for provincial-level associations, and 30 days for communal organizations. While the Ministry of Interior oversees the accreditation process for most associations, the president of a local assembly approves applications for communal associations. Although the Ministry of Interior is responsible for authorizing associations, the government stated COVID-19 spurred the ministry to relax registration rules, specifically for health-care charities operating on the local level, as these organizations were better positioned to assist during the pandemic.
The Ministry of Interior may deny a license to or dissolve any group regarded as a threat to the government’s authority or to public order, and on several occasions it failed to grant in an expeditious fashion official recognition to NGOs, associations, religious groups, and political parties. According to the ministry, organizations receive a receipt after submitting their application for accreditation and after the relevant time frame based on the type of association, this slip is legally sufficient for them to begin operating, to open a bank account, and to rent office or event space. The law does not explicitly include this provision. If the application is approved, the ministry issues a final accreditation document.
Many organizations reported they never received a deposit slip and that even with the receipt, it was difficult to conduct necessary administrative tasks without formal accreditation. Other organizations reported they never received any written response to their application request even after calling the ministry and trying to register at local police stations. The ministry maintained that organizations that were refused accreditation or that did not receive a response within the specified period could appeal to the State Council, the administrative court responsible for cases involving the government.
On October 13, an administrative court ruled in favor of the Ministry of Interior’s request to dissolve the Youth Action Rally, a prominent civic association. The Ministry of Interior stated the group’s political activities violated its bylaws, which its leaders denied, contending that authorities targeted the association because of its support for the Hirak movement.
The government issued licenses and subsidies to domestic associations, especially youth, medical, and neighborhood associations. According to the Ministry of Interior, there were 117,801 local and 1,799 regional NGOs registered as of September, including 5,864 new local NGOs and 52 new national NGOs. Unlicensed NGOs remained active, but rarely received government assistance, and citizens at times hesitated to associate with these organizations.
According to the Ministry of Interior, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government significantly eased local association requirements, giving local organizations the space to operate. The government determined local civil society organizations, specifically health-care-related charities, were better positioned to assist locally than the federal government. The Ministry of Interior relaxed its registration rules, allowing local governments to authorize local associations, resulting in more than 1,000 new local charity associations. National associations must still submit their applications to the Ministry of Interior for authorization.
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 restricted the exercise of these rights.
In-country Movement: The constitution provides citizens “the right to freely choose their place of residence and to move throughout the national territory.” Citing the threat of terrorism, the government prevented overland tourist travel between the southern cities of Tamanrasset, Djanet, and Illizi.
Foreign Travel: The constitution states that citizens have the right to enter and exit the country. The law does not permit those younger than 18 to travel abroad without a guardian’s permission. Married women younger than 18 may not travel abroad without permission from their husbands, but married women older than 18 may do so. The government did not permit young men eligible for the draft who had not completed their military service to leave the country without special authorization. The government granted such authorization to students and persons with special family circumstances.
The government generally cooperated with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated 90,000 migrants enter the country annually, and the Ministry of Interior reported approximately 100,000.
According to UNHCR’s September report on refugees in Algeria and Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf, there were 7,830 refugees in urban areas, 2,450 asylum seekers in urban areas, and an estimated 90,000 “vulnerable” Sahrawi refugees. The government protected a significant number of refugees in five large refugee camps in Tindouf and ran two other smaller camps near Tindouf, one surrounding a women’s boarding school, and another used for administrative purposes. UNHCR reported many Sahrawi refugees lost their jobs and other sources of income due to COVID-19. UNHCR, the World Food Program (WFP), UNICEF, the Algerian Red Crescent, the Sahrawi Red Crescent, and other organizations assisted Sahrawi refugees.
As of September, UNHCR continued registering asylum seekers, determining refugee status, issuing documentation, and advocating for the adoption of legislation to protect persons in need of international protection. Despite the ongoing border closures, asylum applications rose during the year, with 1,570 recorded in the first half of the year, an increase of 20 percent compared with 2020, due to the progressive easing of COVID-19 restrictions. UNHCR monitored and advocated for the release of refugees.
Access to Asylum: While the law generally provides for asylum or refugee status, the government has not established a formal system through which refugees can request asylum. There were no reports that the government granted refugee status and asylum to new refugee applicants during the year. According to UNHCR, the government did not accept UNHCR-determined refugee status for individuals. From the beginning of January to June, UNHCR recommended 35 refugees for resettlement to France, Canada, and Sweden, and submitted 41 refugees for resettlement to Canada and Sweden during the same period. UNHCR assisted eight refugees to depart Algeria for family and educational reasons. UNHCR reported the majority of its registered refugees came from Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Mali, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. There was no evidence of any pattern of discrimination toward asylum applicants, but the lack of a formal asylum system made this difficult to assess.
Refoulement: The government provided some protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Since the outbreak of violence in northern Mali in 2012, international observers reported an influx of individuals into Algeria across the Mali border inconsistent with traditional migratory movements.
In 2019 the National Human Rights Council stated the government had dedicated 1.6 billion dinars ($12 million) to ensure the human rights of migrants during repatriation operations (to include accommodation, food, clothing, health care, medicines, and transportation). Authorities conducted repatriations in coordination with consular officials from the migrants’ countries of origin, but the migrants were not permitted to challenge their removal. The government stated it maintained a policy of not removing migrants registered with UNHCR, and that in a few cases it worked with UNHCR to return registered refugees who were mistakenly removed. Air Algerie signed an agreement with the IOM agreeing to provide charter flights for humanitarian supplies and migrants returning voluntarily.
Since January the NGO Alarme Phone Sahara (APS) reported the government deported 18,749 individuals from Algeria to Niger, an increase from 4,722 individuals in 2020. APS reported two types of deportation convoys from Algeria to Niger: official deportation convoys and nonofficial deportation convoys. Official deportations from Algeria to Niger take place pursuant to a 2014 bilateral agreement for the deportation of Nigerien nationals. According to APS, however, Algeria also deports numerous nationals from other countries to Niger in nonofficial convoys, and the Nigerien authorities lacked the power or the will to stop this practice. Convoys also left citizens of various nationalities near Assamaka where they must walk the last 10 to 15 miles into Nigerien territory. APS reported the IOM, Doctors without Borders, and Nigerien security forces looked for deportees lost in the desert. According to APS, deportees includes nationals from Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Togo.
In April the NGO Doctors Without Borders reported that authorities forcibly returned more than 4,000 migrants to Niger. Many migrants travelled on trucks that returned them to Agadez, a Nigerien city that has become a crossroads on the migration route.
On September 29, APS reported that the country deported 894 individuals in a nonofficial convoy to the Assamaka border post.
On October 1, APS reported an additional 1,275 individuals in an official convoy were transported to the Assamaka border post.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: UNHCR reported refugees and migrants traversing land routes to and through the country continued to risk death, kidnapping, sexual- and gender-based violence, physical abuse, and other violence.
Employment: The government does not formally allow refugee employment; however, many worked in the informal market and were at risk of labor exploitation due to their lack of legal status in the country. Other migrants, asylum seekers, and Malians and Syrians who had a “special status” with the government, relied largely on remittances from family, the support of local family and acquaintances, and assistance from the Algerian Red Crescent and international aid organizations.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR provided registered refugees with modest food assistance and lodging support. Sahrawi refugees lived predominantly in five camps administered by the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) near the city of Tindouf. The POLISARIO (through the Sahrawi Red Crescent Society), UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, and partner NGOs provided basic services including food aid, primary health care, and primary and secondary education. The Algerian government invested heavily in developing the camps’ infrastructure and also provided free secondary and university educations, as well as advanced hospital care, to Sahrawi refugees. The remote location of the camps and lack of government presence resulted in a lack of access by police and courts. Other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants had access to free public hospitals, but independent NGOs reported instances of migrants being turned away.
School administrators must allow migrant and refugee children to enroll in primary school through high school and require only that they present their passport and documentation showing their level of schooling from their home country. International organizations reported some children had trouble integrating into the educational system but that migrants’ access to education was improving, particularly in the north of the country. These organizations reported that migrant parents were often reluctant to enroll their children in Algerian schools due to language barriers or cultural differences. NGOs also indicated that some migrants were denied treatment at health-care facilities.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees from foreign countries for resettlement. The Sahrawi refugees have not sought local integration or naturalization during their over 40-year stay in the refugee camps near Tindouf, and the Polisario Front continued to call for a referendum on independence in Western Sahara. The IOM led an Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program to help migrants return to their homes willingly with economic and social support, including personalized professional training and other socioeconomic assistance. Although the government was not a financial donor to the initiative, it did cooperate.
Temporary Protection: The law does not address formal temporary protection, but authorities provided informal, temporary protection to groups such as Syrians and Malians.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provides for freedom of expression including for members of the press and other media, but the government frequently contravened this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of expression both online and offline. Members of media and bloggers self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for conviction of sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad latitude to interpret it. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or which constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The law criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies.
The DSA, passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrime, provides for sentences of up to life imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. In 2020 the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a press release restricting “false, fabricated, misleading and provocative statements” regarding the government, public representatives, army officers, police, and law enforcement through social media in the country and abroad. The release stated legal action would be taken against individuals who did not comply, in the interest of maintaining stability and internal law and order in the country.
Throughout the year the government widely used the DSA against persons criticizing the government, including questioning the government’s handling of the pandemic. Increasingly, the law was used against speech found on social media, websites, and other digital platforms, including for commentators living outside of the country. The government also issued other restrictions on freedom of speech. Health officials remained banned from speaking with media members after media reports on the health system’s lack of preparation in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
A March op-ed in the Dhaka Tribune reported the Cybercrime Tribunal in Dhaka faced 2,450 pending DSA and Information Communications Act cases, having delivered one DSA guilty verdict to date.
On March 2, the minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs told news outlets the government was taking measures to review the DSA, develop a check and balance system for misuse or abuse, and change the law to prevent an accused from arrest or charges before a police investigation. Although the minister again stated publicly the law had been abused, as of December no revisions had been issued.
On July 25, Amnesty International released a 24-page report on the DSA and freedom of expression online and profiled 10 individuals as emblematic DSA cases, including Mushtaq Ahmed and Ahmed Kabir Kishore. The report stated more than 1,300 cases had been filed against 2,000 persons under the DSA and nearly 1,000 persons had been arrested since the law was enacted in 2018. More than 100 journalists were sued under the DSA between January 2019 and July 2020, and at least 40 of them were arrested. Of the DSA cases covered within the report, 80 percent were filed by lawmakers, members of the ruling party, or law enforcement officials. In all cases individuals were accused of publishing posts on social media critical of the government and ruling party politicians. Amnesty International called on the government to drop the DSA charges against those exercising their right to freedom of expression.
According to the Department of Prisons, authorities have imprisoned at least 433 individuals under the DSA through July. At least 185 of these individuals were held for allegedly publishing offensive and false information online. Local human rights organization Human Rights Culture Foundation reported at least 21 individuals were arrested in DSA cases in October.
On December 31, local human rights organization ASK reported at least 210 journalists faced harassment, physical torture, assault, threats, and lawsuits, including cases filed under the DSA. The organization stated there were at least 1,134 DSA cases during the year.
Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government were pressured by the government. Independent media could not operate freely or without restrictions.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and allegedly mandated that private channels broadcast government content free of charge. Civil society organizations stated political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party. A January Center for Governance Studies study, Who Owns the Media in Bangladesh, reported family ties, political affiliations, and business interests shaped the ownership pattern in the media landscape in the country. A total of 32 business entities owned 48 media outlets, including newspapers, radio, television stations, and web portals. According to the study, the ruling party provided television licenses to individuals directly involved with its party or whose loyalty to the regime is “unquestionable” since 2009.
On May 17, media reported the government arrested and charged investigative journalist Rozina Islam under the 1923 Official Secrets Act and sections of the penal code for investigating a corruption story involving the Ministry of Health. Authorities accused Islam of taking photos and stealing official documents from the ministry. Media outlets reported Islam was confined to a government office in Dhaka for five hours and, according to her family, physically harassed and mistreated. On May 21, 83 citizens, including journalists across the country, released a statement demanding her immediate release. On May 23, Islam was released from jail after a Dhaka court approved her interim bail until July 15, which civil society organizations asserted was due to international and “unprecedented” local pressure.
On September 19, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Dhaka rejected Islam’s request for the return of her passport, two mobile phones, and press identification card, which were seized during her arrest. As of December 31, Islam faced charges if convicted of up to 14 years in prison or the death penalty. International and local human rights organizations and journalists criticized Islam’s arrest and charges and demanded the charges against her be dropped immediately. Local newspaper Prothom Alo’s associate editor called for the government to withdraw its case against Islam and said the high level of support from print, online, and electronic media journalists on Islam’s behalf was unprecedented.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation, especially when tied to the DSA, which human rights activists viewed as a government and ruling party tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism, and members published editorials stating so publicly. Individuals faced the threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as the social stigma associated with having a criminal record. Of 20 clauses of the law relating to crime and punishment, 14 are nonbailable, five are bailable, and one is negotiable, according to the Editor’s Council. On March 6, the Editors’ Council stated, “It is no exaggeration to say that in some cases, the implementation of the DSA is more concerning than we fear. Mushtaq Ahmed, a free-spirited writer, had to prove it with his life.”
On January 6, Rohingya refugee and photojournalist Abul Kalam was released on bail. In December 2020, Kalam, a Rohingya refugee from Burma who lived in Bangladesh for 28 years, was apprehended for covering the relocation of Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. Kalam was taken to the police station in Cox’s Bazar where he was allegedly abused and held for more than 60 hours, despite the law limiting police custody to a maximum of 24 hours absent a statement of charges.
On March 4, media reported government authorities released cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore on a six-month bail, one day after the High Court approved his bail and two days after the remarks of the minister for law, justice, and parliamentary affairs. In May 2020, Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed were jailed on DSA charges for expressing critical commentary regarding the government’s management of the pandemic. Previously, Kishore and Ahmed’s bail petitions were denied six times. On February 25, Ahmed died in custody after being held in pretrial detention for 10 months, spurring nationwide protests on his custodial death and the DSA. Kishore alleged he and Ahmed experienced torture while in custody (see section 1.c.). From March 5 to 7, politicians and human rights organizations protested the DSA and urged the government to investigate Kishore’s claims. Kishore and six others accused in the same DSA case faced up to 10 years in prison and fines up to one million taka ($11,628) if convicted.
In July local media circulated photos of a journalist handcuffed to a hospital bed where he was receiving treatment for COVID-19 after he was taken into custody and charged under the DSA for “tarnishing the image of a local hospital.” He was one of three journalists arrested in the case under the DSA for reporting on corruption and irregularities in government-funded daily food rations allotted to patients in a hospital in Thakurgaon. After hearing the news of his arrest, local journalists staged a protest at a press club, demanding his release. The journalist was granted bail after his hospital stay but continued to face DSA charges.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. The government penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. In September a group of media experts, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and journalists stated the downward trend of the rule of law and media freedom went hand in hand with government media censorship, which, in civil society’s view, translated to the government’s distrust of society.
Privately owned newspapers usually were free to carry diverse views outside politically sensitive topics or those that criticized the ruling party. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and of editors “killing” reports due to fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists received threats after publishing their stories.
On February 1, al-Jazeera’s Investigative Unit released a documentary “All the Prime Minister’s Men” (see section 4). Although the story was widely discussed internationally, local media barely referred to the report. Prominent newspapers ran editorials explaining why they did not cover the allegations raised in the report. An editor of the Daily Star, the country’s most prominent English-language daily newspaper stated, “If we were a free media today, we would have delved deeper into the widely-talked-about al-Jazeera report and analyzed it, point by point, and exposed it for what it really is, not a top-class work of investigative journalism.” The Dhaka Tribune’s editorial explained the reason for its near silence, stating, “The current state of media and defamation law in Bangladesh, and how it is interpreted by the judiciary, makes it unwise for any Bangladeshi media house to venture into any kind of meaningful comment on the controversy.”
The first online newspaper, bdnews24.com, faced political pressure from a former ruling party member of parliament (MP) demanding removal of old reports on cases against him and his family. The MP, through a friend, tried to file a two billion-taka ($23.3 million) defamation suit against four senior editors of the newspaper, but a court in Barishal rejected the petition.
According to journalists and human rights groups, journalists engaged in self-censorship due to fear of security force retribution, prosecution under the DSA, and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. Laws referring to defamation of individuals and organizations were used to prosecute opposition figures and members of civil society.
On April 20, media reported that police arrested Abu Tayeb, the bureau chief of local broadcaster NTV and for Khulna Gazette and Dainik Loksomaj newspapers, after Khulna city mayor Talukder Khalek filed a DSA case against him alleging he spread false information on Facebook that defamed his character. On both April 22 and 28, a Khulna court denied Tayeb’s request for bail and jailed him pending an investigation into the complaint. The Committee to Protect Journalists stated Tayeb reported local news in Khulna and on corruption allegations. On May 12, he was freed from jail, but the case against him remained pending.
On April 25, the Rangpur city mayor sued Mominur Rahman Sarkar under the DSA, alleging Sarkar spread false information regarding him. Sarkar posted on social media an article concerning the mayor’s alleged connection to corruption and reported fearing being arrested for a Facebook post.
In a public statement on April 26, the United Kingdom-based international human rights organization Article 19 expressed deep concern regarding the widespread filing of cases and arrests of journalists under the DSA. The organization stated most of the cases filed belonged to the ruling party and the DSA’s “abuse during the pandemic had risen to worrying levels.”
National Security: Authorities stated the DSA was essential to protect national and cyber security and used the law to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials.
Nongovernmental Impact: Nongovernmental, societal pressures also limited freedom of expression, as atheist, secular, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from alleged extremist organizations.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for the right to peaceful assembly, but the government limited this right. The law gives the government broad discretion to ban assemblies of more than four persons. The government requires advance permission for gatherings such as protests and demonstrations (see section 1.e.).
According to human rights groups, authorities continued to use provisions to prohibit gatherings by opposition groups and imposed what observers saw as unreasonable requirements for permits. Occasionally police or ruling party activists used force to disperse demonstrations assembled by opposition parties, organizations, and activists.
The March 26-28 demonstrations after Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit were organized by members of Hefazat-e-Islam (see sections 1.a., 1.b., 1.d., 2.a., and 6). Observers said the demonstrations started out peacefully until members of law enforcement agencies and ruling party leaders and activists arrived. Police filed 154 cases against 3,270 named and many unnamed persons, which allegedly made it easier for them to include anyone in the case. As a result, 1,230 opposition leaders and activists, including members of Hefazat-e-Islam, were arrested and detained. In addition, 53 leaders and activists of the Bangladesh Students, Youth and Labor Rights Council were arrested and taken into custody through court proceedings.
Opposition leaders and activists reported numerous restrictions towards organizations throughout the year. The opposition BNP was regularly denied holding events or intimidated by authorities and ruling party activists at their events. On March 29, 20 persons were injured after police allegedly attacked a program organized in front of the BNP office in Khulna. On May 31, police allegedly obstructed various programs, including a food drive for the poor, organized on the anniversary of the death of BNP’s founder and former president, Ziaur Rahman.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for the right of citizens to form associations, subject to “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of morality or public order, and the government generally respected this right. The government’s NGO Affairs Bureau often withheld or delayed its approval for foreign funding to NGOs working on issues the bureau deemed sensitive, such as human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights, or humanitarian assistance to Rohingya refugees (see sections 2.d., 5, and 7. a.).
The law places restrictions on the receipt of foreign funds by NGOs or government officials and provides for punishment of NGOs making any derogatory comments regarding the constitution or constitutional institutions (see section 5).
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, except in three sensitive areas: the CHT and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar and on the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal. The government enforced restrictions on access to the CHT by foreigners and restricted movement of Rohingya refugees. The Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar were surrounded by barbed and concertina wire fencing with few pedestrian gates to allow the Rohingya to move among the camps or into the local community. The lack of pedestrian gates hampered egress during a large fire in some camps in March. Bhasan Char is an island with no regular links to the mainland. In August at least 11 Rohingya died after their boat capsized while trying to leave Bhasan Char, and hundreds more have attempted do so since transfers began in January. Authorities caught and arrested many Rohingya who tried to leave Bhasan Char and detained them on the mainland or returned them to the island.
While foreign travel is allowed, some senior civil society and international NGO representatives reported harassment and delays at the airport when applying for a visa, entering, or departing the country. The government prevented war crimes suspects from the 1971 independence war from leaving the country.
Throughout the year numerous lockdown periods and movement restrictions were enforced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. While restrictions enforced applied to all citizens during any designated period, civil society reported individuals from poorer communities were disproportionately arrested or punished for violating quarantine rules. Allegations of bribes to avoid movements restrictions or penalties were also reported.
Societal tensions and marginalization of indigenous persons continued in the CHT because of a government policy initiated during an internal armed conflict from 1973-97. This policy relocated landless Bengalis to the CHT with the implicit objective of changing the demographic balance to make Bengalis the majority, displacing tens of thousands of indigenous persons.
The internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the CHT had limited physical security. Community leaders maintained indigenous persons faced widespread violation of their rights by settlers, sometimes supported by security forces (see section 6).
The number of IDPs in the CHT remained disputed. In 2000 a government task force estimated the number at 500,000, which included nonindigenous as well as indigenous persons. In 2020 the CHT Commission estimated slightly more than 90,000 indigenous IDPs resided in the area. The prime minister pledged to resolve outstanding land disputes in the CHT to facilitate the return of the IDPs and close remaining military camps, but the taskforce on IDPs remained unable to function due to a dispute regarding classifying settlers as IDPs. The commission reported authorities displaced several indigenous families to create border guard camps and army recreational facilities. No land disputes were resolved during the year.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees.
The government is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol. As a result the government claimed it was not under legal obligation to uphold the basic rights enshrined in this treaty.
Prior to the 2017 Rohingya arrivals, the government and UNHCR provided temporary protection and basic assistance to approximately 33,000 registered Rohingya refugees from Burma living in two official camps (Kutupalong and Nayapara), while the government and the International Organization for Migration aided approximately 200,000 undocumented Rohingya living in makeshift settlements in Cox’s Bazar. In 2017 more than 750,000 Rohingya fled ethnic cleansing in neighboring Burma to seek safe haven in Bangladesh. As a result of this influx, more than 907,000 registered Rohingya refugees were living in refugee camps, makeshift settlements, and host communities. The government claimed actual numbers totaled more than one million. The government did not recognize the arrivals as refugees, referring to them instead as “forcibly displaced Burmese nationals,” but abided by many of the established UN standards for refugees. One notable exception was that the Rohingya did not enjoy full freedom of movement throughout the country. Government officials stated repatriation was the government’s only goal, stressing privileges such as freedom of movement, formal education, or livelihood opportunities could not be afforded to the Rohingya population.
A National Task Force of 25 ministries and department representatives and chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided oversight and strategic guidance for the overall Rohingya response. The Ministry of Home Affairs coordinated and maintained law and order for the Rohingya response, with support from the Armed Police Battalion. At the local level, the Refugee, Relief, and Repatriation Commission, under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, was responsible for the management of the Rohingya response.
As of December 31, Bhasan Char hosted nearly 17,000 Rohingya refugees. The government paused relocations for several months in the middle of the year, but it resumed the transfer of refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bhasan Char at the end of November. Media reported the government spent more than 25.8 billion taka ($300 million) to prepare for the eventual transfer of 100,000 refugees to the island. The government rejected requests from international human rights groups to move Rohingya refugees to the mainland, asserting that living conditions were better on Bhasan Char than in the overcrowded Cox’s Bazar camps. In March authorities allowed UN and other international donors to visit the island in conjunction with local authorities. On October 9, authorities signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UNHCR that outlines the humanitarian and protection framework underlying potential UN operational engagements on Bhasan Char. During the year the UN organizations conducted a series of assessments on Bhasan Char and worked with the government on the modalities of operations on the island.
On September 29, gunmen shot and killed Mohammad Mohib Ullah, chairman and founder of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, in Cox’s Bazar. Media reports alleged that criminal groups carried out the attack, potentially in retribution for his work to advocate for rights for Rohingya in the country. Mohib Ullah was an advocate for Rohingyas’ human rights, worked to document the Burmese security forces’ crimes against Rohingya, and advocated for Rohingya in multiple international forums. As of December authorities had not publicly identified a motive or perpetrators.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, nor has the government established a formal system for providing protection to refugees. The government provided significant protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees residing in the country. Prior to 2017 the government cooperated with UNHCR to provide temporary protection and basic assistance to registered refugees resident in two official camps. After the 2017 arrival of more than 750,000 additional Rohingya refugees, the government started to register the refugees biometrically and provided identity cards with their Burmese addresses. At the end of 2019, the government completed the second phase of its joint registration exercise with UNHCR to verify Rohingya refugees and issue identity cards that replaced prior cards and provided for protection of Rohingya refugees, consistent with the government’s stance against forced returns to Burma. Despite this documentation system, the lack of formal refugee status for Rohingya and clear legal reporting mechanisms in the camps impeded refugees’ access to the justice system.
On February 11, international media reported a boat carrying 90 Rohingya refugees with mostly women and children sailed from Cox’s Bazar towards Malaysia. After four days the boat’s engine failed in the Andaman Sea; nine refugees died, and after a 113-day journey, the 81 survivors landed on an Indonesian island. According to media reports, international humanitarian organizations and family members of those onboard appealed to India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Malaysia for information regarding the fate of the 81 survivors on the boat. Media reported the Bangladeshi government denied reentry to the 81 survivors.
The government mostly cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to Rohingya refugees, although following the end of COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions on humanitarian access in August, security concerns grew in the camps regarding high-profile killings. NGOs reported human trafficking was common in the camps with few cases prosecuted in the country’s judicial system. When discovered, government officials returned trafficking victims to the camps.
International organizations reported gender-based violence directed against women in the camps. Intimate partner violence comprised 90 percent of the cases. The reduced footprint of international organizations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic limited reporting and monitoring of gender-based violence.
Accountability for all crimes, including human trafficking, remained a problem. Rohingya relied on government officials responsible for each camp (also known as the Camps in Charge, or CiC) to address allegations of crime. The CiCs were largely autonomous and varied in terms of responsiveness to camp needs. According to international organizations, some CiCs were susceptible to corruption. International organizations alleged some border guard, military, and police officials were involved in facilitating trafficking of Rohingya women and children, ranging from “looking the other way,” to bribes for allowing traffickers to access Rohingya in the camps, to direct involvement in trafficking.
Human Rights Watch reported security forces on April 6, allegedly arrested and beat 12 refugees who were caught trying to leave Bhasan Char. On April 12, a sailor allegedly beat four refugee children with a polyvinyl chloride pipe for leaving their quarters to play with refugee children in another area. Human Rights Watch reported witnesses stated security forces allegedly beat refugees in the Bhasan Char police station.
On June 3, international media reported Rohingya refugees were allegedly beaten by security forces with batons after protesting lack of access to UNHCR officials during a high-level UN visit to Bhasan Char. Reuters reported two Rohingya refugees stated authorities blocked them from speaking to the UNHCR delegates. UNHCR expressed deep concern regarding the reported injuries and arbitrary arrests, detentions, and lack of freedom of movement afforded to refugees.
On June 7, Human Rights Watch published a report, An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea, alleging the government misled Rohingya refugees and international donor communities regarding the conditions on Bhasan Char. Some refugees described being forced to relocate without informed consent. Other Rohingya refugees interviewed for the report agreed that the shelters on the island were superior to those in the Cox Bazar camps and contained more open space, but they reported food shortages, inadequate health services, lack of formal education opportunities, freedom of movement restrictions, and lack of livelihood opportunities. Some refugees alleged their relatives were arbitrarily detained and beaten for attempting to leave the island. Some also reported being beaten for trying to move outside their compound. Authorities have not investigated these reports. Local human rights organizations reported difficulty accessing the refugee community because of the island’s remote location.
On August 14, a boat carrying 40 to 45 Rohingya, including women and children, capsized while they were fleeing Bhasan Char. Authorities rescued 15 persons, but the capsized boat resulted in the deaths of 11 Rohingya while 15 remained unaccounted for. Reuters reported that refugees living in Bhasan Char claimed lack of work and inability to meet with family remaining in the camps prompted increased attempts at the dangerous maritime crossing journey.
The MOU between the United Nations and the government has provisions to improve protections and services for Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char. The MOU proposes expanded access to services, such as education, skills and vocational training, livelihoods, health care, and uninterrupted telecommunication services, which may be funded by international donors through the 2022 Joint Response Plan.
There were restrictions on Rohingya freedom of movement. According to the 1993 MOU between Bangladesh and UNHCR, registered Rohingya refugees are not permitted to move outside official camps. After the 2017 influx, police set up checkpoints on the roads to restrict travel by both registered refugees and arrivals beyond the Ukhia and Teknaf subdistricts. Rohingya located at Bhasan Char had little means to exit the island or travel to camps in Cox’s Bazar, where many claimed to have family members, leading some human rights groups to characterize the Rohingya stay on the island as “detention.” At least 200 refugees have been arrested for trying to leave the island.
On March 22, a fire erupted in the Balukhali area of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, killing at least 15 refugees. UNHCR estimated the fire injured 550 refugees and left more than 48,000 homeless. While local fire and rescue teams and aid agencies responded, witnesses to the fire reported the barbed wire through and around the camps restricted the ability of refugees to flee and responders to reach them. UN News reported the frequent fires in the Cox’s Bazar camps left the refugee community traumatized.
In December authorities allowed 68 Rohingya from Bhasan Char to visit their family members on the mainland. A senior disaster management ministry official stated the government had decided to allow at least two trips per month from the island to the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
In 2019 the government began erecting watchtowers and fencing in the camps in Cox’s Bazar, stating the objective was to better secure the camp and protect Rohingya from migrant smuggling, while humanitarian agencies expressed concerns that fencing would hinder delivery of services to refugees and exacerbate tensions between refugees and host communities.
Many camp authorities introduced curfews and law enforcement patrols, particularly at night, in response to reported concerns regarding violent attacks, abductions, or kidnappings in the camps.
The government did not formally authorize Rohingya refugees in the country to work locally, although it allowed limited cash-for-work activities for Rohingya to perform tasks within the camps. In February the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) issued a letter requesting the UN heads of sub offices in Cox’s Bazar to regulate the recruitment of Rohingya volunteers for work in all sectors except sanitation and night guardianship. Pursuant to this letter, some CiCs reportedly delayed or refused to approve NGO needs assessments or to issue closure certificates upon the completion of projects, stopping some NGO activities midstream and delaying new projects. Despite their movement restrictions, some refugees worked illegally as manual laborers on the informal economy, where some were exploited as labor-trafficking victims.
Access to Basic Services: The rapid increase in the population strained services both inside and outside the designated camps and makeshift settlements. The UN-led Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) coordinated the many actors and agencies providing basic services to the Rohingya. Donor agencies reported complex and ambiguous certification processes disrupted a timely humanitarian response. Nonetheless, according to the ISCG, refugees lived in congested sites that were poorly equipped to handle the monsoon rains and cyclone seasons. While agencies made significant efforts to move those most vulnerable, the shortage of land remained a central problem hindering the ability of Rohingya to access basic services.
Public education remained a problem. The government continued its policy prohibiting formal education but allowed informal education of Rohingya children. UNICEF led the education sector in developing a comprehensive learning approach to guide the education interventions of humanitarian partners in the camps. Primary education followed a learning framework developed by UNICEF and endorsed by the government; however, it did not confer recognition or certify students have attained a specific education level. Implementation of an education sector pilot program launched in 2020 to provide education using the Burmese national curriculum was to begin for 10,000 Rohingya refugee children by the end of the year. The program had previously been delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic-related closures of refugee learning centers. Authorities did not allow the distribution of remote learning materials throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning September 22, the RRRC allowed reopening of learning centers for levels two through four and in December expanded the reopening to include to level one.
Government authorities allowed registered and unregistered Rohingya regular access to public health care, but the Rohingya needed authorities’ permission to leave the camp. Humanitarian partners ensured their health-care expenses were covered and that they returned to the camps. The health sector maintained information on all the health facilities within the camps and the surrounding areas. Based on the data available, overall coverage met the minimum requirements.
Bhasan Char had primary health-care facilities but lacked secondary and tertiary facilities, necessitating referrals to medical facilities off the island for advanced-level care. The transfer of patients to mainland facilities was hampered by required authorizations to depart the island, weather conditions, and boat availability. In July the government announced plans to administer COVID-19 vaccines to Rohingya refugees, and the vaccinations began in August. The vaccination campaign, administered with the help of UN agencies, vaccinated Rohingya refugees older than age 55 as part of phase one. As of October, 36,943 refugees received their first dose and 33,386 received their second dose. In October phase two of the COVID-19 vaccination program targeting refugees older than age 50 started, and at year’s end health-care officials discussing with the government plans to expand access to other adults as more vaccines became available. In December the government expanded vaccinations to persons ages 18 to 54, with an estimated 393,193 eligible beneficiaries.
The government had not accepted refugees for resettlement or naturalization and continued to maintain that repatriation of refugees to Burma remained the only acceptable solution to the crisis.
The Rohingya in the country were legally or in fact stateless. They could not acquire citizenship, nor does the government of Burma recognize them as citizens.
Every individual born in Bangladesh is a citizen of the country by birth as per Bangladesh’s Citizenship Act of 1951. This provision is not afforded to Rohingya. A 2009 amendment to the Act allows anyone born in the country to either a Bangladeshi mother or father the right to claim citizenship. This amendment was not retroactively applied to Rohingya children born in the country to stateless fathers prior to 2009, who remain at risk of statelessness. There were cases in which children born to one Bangladeshi parent and one Rohingya parent were not recognized as citizens, despite the 2009 amendment.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
Despite provisions of the Basic Law and government claims, the PRC and SAR governments increasingly encroached upon freedom of expression. Attacks on independent media included the coerced closures of Apple Daily and Stand News; the restructuring of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) to gut its editorial independence and to delete previous online content considered politically sensitive; pressure applied to a prominent journalists’ labor union; and acts to encourage self-censorship by other media outlets and public opinion leaders.
Freedom of Expression: There were legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Expressing views perceived to be critical of the PRC or SAR prompted charges of sedition or NSL violations for prodemocratic activists and politicians. On June 4, Chow Hang-tung, the vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, was arrested and later charged for inciting unauthorized assembly, because she urged members of the public to “turn on the lights wherever you are – whether on your telephone, candles, or electronic candles” in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. The overhauled electoral system (see section 3) requires all elected officials to swear an oath of allegiance and to adhere to “patriotic” standards with respect to the PRC and SAR. Even with the signed pledge and oath of office, the Electoral Affairs Commission chose to disqualify 49 seated members of local District Councils and one remaining non-pro-Beijing legislative councilor, questioning their patriotism based on past statements or actions, despite their adherence to the requirements of office. There was no judicial recourse.
The government requires all civil servants to swear an oath of allegiance. According to media reports, civil servants may lose their jobs if they refuse to swear the oath and may face criminal charges, including under the NSL, if they later engage in behavior, including speech, deemed to violate the oaths. SAR authorities and Beijing officials insinuated that interactions with foreign diplomats could be considered “collusion” under the NSL. One former pan-democratic politician facing NSL charges was denied bail in part based on an email invitation from a foreign consulate, while another was denied bail in part based on interviews and text messages with international press.
Any speech critical of the central or local government or its policies may be construed as advocating secession or subversion in violation of the NSL, or inciting hate against the government in violation of a colonial-era sedition law. Prosecutors argued in multiple court hearings that the phrase “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” a common slogan of the 2019 prodemocracy protests, contained an inherent meaning of support for independence, a change in the SAR’s constitutional status, or both. To date, courts have convicted two individuals under the NSL in part on that basis. Scholars and activists have argued that the courts’ decisions failed to take into consideration protections for freedom of expression enshrined in the Basic Law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the NSL itself.
In May SAR authorities passed legislation that criminalized inciting others not to vote in elections or to cast blank ballots. Violators are subject to up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. The SAR anticorruption agency arrested at least 10 individuals in November and December for allegedly urging, on social media, others to cast blank votes. On December 16, two of the 10 were the first to be prosecuted under this law. Legal experts described the legislation as disproportionate and out of line with common law norms that criminalize incitement only when the behavior incited is itself illegal. SAR officials have also claimed that inciting others to boycott elections or cast blank votes may violate the NSL.
SAR legislation prohibits acts deemed to abuse or desecrate the PRC national flag or anthem. In September SAR authorities amended the legislation to criminalize desecrating the national flag or anthem online, such as by posting an image of a “defiled” national flag on social media. At least one individual was convicted during the year for desecrating the national flag, and at least three others were arrested for allegedly desecrating the flag or insulting the national anthem.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The operating space for independent media shrank considerably. The SAR targeted independent media that expressed views it construed as not progovernment. Pro-Beijing media and politicians accused government-owned public broadcaster RTHK of exercising insufficient editorial oversight, opposing police and the government, and thus potentially standing in violation of the NSL. The SAR government subsequently forced out the managing director and replaced him with a pro-Beijing civil servant with no broadcasting experience. RTHK’s civil service employees were given a deadline to swear loyalty oaths, leading many to resign. Under its new management, RTHK also fired presenters, cancelled shows, and censored content based on political perspective.
The SAR systematically dismantled Apple Daily, an independent newspaper and online news platform. On June 17, national security police officers arrested five executives of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily. The same day, police searched Apple Daily offices and froze its assets. During the search, police documented each staff member on site. Following the freeze of its assets, on June 24, Apple Daily issued its last online reports and newspaper edition. Three members of the editorial staff, including a senior editor prohibited from boarding a flight at the airport, were subsequently arrested under the NSL. Cheung Kim-hung, CEO of Apple Daily parent company Next Digital, was denied bail based in part on public statements made by foreign governments, over which the defendant had no control.
On December 29, national security police officers arrested seven individuals affiliated with prodemocracy online media outlet Stand News on charges of “conspiracy to print or distribute seditious materials” under a colonial-era sedition law. The same day, police raided its office, seized journalistic materials, and froze its assets. Police also raided the home of Stand News deputy editor and chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Ronson Chan, who was taken in for questioning but later released. Stand News subsequently announced on its social media page the resignation of its chief editor, the layoff of all staff, and the immediate cessation of all its operations.
Violence and Harassment: The pro-Beijing media and SAR officials began in September to accuse the Hong Kong Journalists Association of potential NSL violations. The association released a report in July titled Freedom in Tatters outlining the worrisome loss of journalistic freedom. The report expressed concern that police force national security offices would begin scrutinizing its activities using tactics like those used against trade unions and other professional associations. The Hong Kong Journalists Association is a frequent target of SAR government officials’ and pro-Beijing media criticism. In November the Foreign Correspondents’ Club issued the results of a member survey showing that 83 percent of respondents believed the NSL caused the media environment to change for the worse. This spurred the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in the city to condemn the club for smearing the city’s press freedom and interfering in the territory’s affairs.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. Public libraries and universities culled their holdings, including archives, to comply with the NSL; it was unclear if this was based on a request from SAR officials or if the institutions chose to self-censor. Public libraries removed past issues of Apple Daily and books authored by prodemocratic activists. After the closure of Apple Daily and the increased scrutiny of RTHK, Stand News removed articles and columns from its website in June to reduce risks that SAR authorities would accuse the media outlet of breaking the NSL or other laws.
In July officers in the Hong Kong police’s National Security Department arrested and later charged five members of a labor union with “conspiring to publish seditious publications” after the union published a series of children’s books that referred to the 2019-20 protest movement. Police also froze more than 160,000 Hong Kong dollars ($20,000) of the union’s assets. In August SAR authorities announced they were canceling the union’s registration for alleged activities inconsistent with the union’s stated objectives. SAR officials accused the books of “inciting hatred” and “poisoning” children’s minds against the PRC and SAR governments.
In October the Legislative Council passed a film censorship law that empowers SAR authorities to revoke a film’s license if “found to be contrary to national security interests.” Violators are liable for up to three years’ imprisonment.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but SAR authorities did not respect those rights, especially for individuals and organizations associated with the prodemocracy movement. The government repeatedly claimed COVID-19 pandemic health concerns as reasons for restricting public gatherings, although it made exceptions for events involving government officials and pro-Beijing groups.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
While the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government effectively banned peaceful assembly for political purposes to prevent COVID-19. Because of the strict public health limits on any public gathering, police did not issue any “letters of no objection” for public demonstrations from groups not aligned with the PRC and SAR governments after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, police refused permits for a May 1 Labor Day rally, the annual 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre vigil, and the annual July 1 prodemocracy rally marking the anniversary of the SAR’s handover to China.
Freedom of Association
SAR law provides for freedom of association, but the government did not respect the law. SAR authorities investigated and forced the closure of any group they deemed a “national security” concern. Pro-Beijing media also accused several unions, including the SAR’s largest trade and teacher unions (see section 7, Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining) of “foreign collusion” – punishable by up to life in prison under the NSL – due to their affiliation with international organizations.
The Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group that organized large-scale annual prodemocracy protests, announced its dissolution just days after the police commissioner publicly accused the group of possible violations of the NSL and of operating since 2002 without proper registration. He made this accusation despite previous police approvals of the group’s requests for protest permits in prior years.
The 612 Humanitarian Fund, which used crowdfunding to support emergency financial and legal assistance for persons injured or arrested during the 2019 protests against the extradition bill, was also forced to shutter its operations after the government publicly made criminal allegations against the group.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, a prodemocracy group organizing annual vigils to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, voted to disband after Hong Kong police charged seven of its leaders, as well as the organization itself, under the NSL, and froze the group’s assets. In October Chief Executive Carrie Lam ordered the Alliance removed from the city’s Companies Registry.
By law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison and fined. Those convicted of providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government sometimes confiscated travel documents and enforced travel bans for democracy activists and opposition politicians facing charges. SAR authorities forced some individuals, including foreign nationals, who were arrested under the NSL but not charged and were on police bail, to surrender their travel documents as part of the conditions for bail.
In June after the closure of Apple Daily, SAR authorities arrested a senior editor at the airport for national security offenses. This editor had not previously been charged, and some media reporters indicated that SAR authorities maintained an exit ban “watchlist” of residents who would be intercepted if they attempted to leave the SAR.
The SAR government enacted an immigration bill amendment effective on August 1. The legal sector, NGOs, and refugee advocates expressed concern that the amendment empowered SAR authorities to bar anyone, without a court order, from entering or leaving the SAR.
Foreign Travel: The United Kingdom granted those born in Hong Kong prior to 1997 certain British rights but not the right to abode. After the United Kingdom granted these British National (Overseas) passport holders further rights and a path to citizenship, the PRC and SAR announced they would no longer recognize the British National (Overseas) Passport as an identity or travel document.
Some activists alleged that this action also effectively prevents some permanent residents who are members of ethnic minority groups but are not PRC nationals from obtaining a travel document because only SAR residents who are PRC nationals may apply for a Hong Kong passport.
The government cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, but the SAR government has established a system for providing limited protection to persons who would be subject to torture or other abuses in their home country.
The SAR government uses the term “nonrefoulement claim” to refer to a claim for protection against deportation. Persons subject to deportation could file a nonrefoulement claim if they either arrived in the SAR without proper authorization or had overstayed the terms of their admittance. Filing such a claim typically resulted in a period of detention followed by release on recognizance. Activists and refugee rights groups expressed concerns about the quality of adjudications and the very low rate of approved claims, fewer than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice that the Hong Kong Bar Association previously noted created concerns about the consistency and transparency of decisions. Persons whose claims were pending were required to appear periodically before the Immigration Department. In August the SAR implemented an ordinance amendment specifically targeting those seeking asylum and barring them from entering the SAR. The amendment also shortened timeframes for individuals seeking protection against deportation, and in some cases limited these individuals’ access to interpretation into their mother tongues.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were frequent targets of negative commentary by some political parties and media organizations.
Employment: “Nonrefoulement claimants” have no right to work in the SAR while their claims are under review, and they must rely on social welfare stipends and charities. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to work legally in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking. The SAR government, however, frequently granted exceptions to this rule for persons granted nondeportation status and awaiting UNHCR resettlement.
Access to Basic Services: Persons who made “nonrefoulement” claims were eligible to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. Claimants were also entitled to basic health-care services at public hospitals and clinics. The children of such claimants could attend SAR public schools.
Temporary Protection: Persons whose claims for “nonrefoulement” are substantiated do not obtain permanent resident status in the SAR. Instead, the SAR government refers them to UNHCR for possible recognition as refugees and resettlement in a third country. In some cases, individuals waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, but there were instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of terrorists and extremists perpetrating killings, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately via online platforms, television, radio, or in print media. According to the HRW World Report 2021, the government “increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, academics, and others critical of the government or its policies.” Harassment and detainment of journalists critical of the government in their reporting or social media messaging continued.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report downgraded the country’s ranking from “Free” to “Partly Free,” due in part to “a crackdown on expressions of dissent by media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.” The Freedom House report stated authorities used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices. Media contacts said that some media outlets practiced self-censorship in response to the government reportedly withholding public-sector advertising from some outlets critical of the government.
On January 1, Madhya Pradesh police arrested stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui and four other persons for offending religious sentiments with jokes he allegedly planned to perform. The Supreme Court granted Faruqui bail in February, stating the allegations against him were vague.
On February 1, the government ordered Twitter to block accounts belonging to journalists covering the protests against agricultural reform laws, stating the order was to prevent a potential escalation of violence. Twitter initially complied with the government’s request, but subsequently restored access to the accounts after conducting an internal review.
On May 13, Manipur police arrested social activist Erendro Leichombam for a Facebook post critical of a BJP leader who advocated cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19. On July 19, the Supreme Court granted bail to Leichombam, who was previously kept in preventive detention under the National Security Act after being granted bail by a lower court.
On July 24, Tamil Nadu police arrested Father George Ponnaiah, a Catholic priest, for alleged hate speech against the prime minister and home minister. The priest was attending a July 18 meeting honoring deceased tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy. The court remanded Ponnaiah to judicial custody for 15 days, and the Madras High Court granted conditional bail on August 10.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media; broadcast media; digital media platforms, including streaming services; and publication or distribution of books.
There were reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials at both the local and national levels were involved in intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement.
NGOs alleged criminal prosecutions and investigations were used to intimidate journalists critical of the government.
The Reporters without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Index described the country as very dangerous for journalists, with press freedom violations by police, political activists, criminal groups, and local officials. The report also identified “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks,” encouraging threats against journalists as a major area of concern. Harassment and violence were particularly acute for female journalists. Journalists working in Jammu and Kashmir continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions.
In Jammu and Kashmir at least six journalists were assaulted, detained, or questioned by police through August according to the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society. In 2020 the government introduced a new media regulation in Jammu and Kashmir empowering local administration to determine “fake and antinational news” and to initiate criminal charges against journalists. The Kashmir Press Club protested the policy and alleged that the government was institutionalizing intimidation by exploiting the policy against media platforms critical of the government.
In January, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka, and New Delhi police filed charges against India Today anchor Rajdeep Sardesai; National Herald senior consulting editor Mrinal Pande; Qaumi Awaz editor Zafar Agha; the Caravan founder Paresh Nath, editor Anant Nath, and executive editor Vinod K. Jose; and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor. The charges included sedition, intent to cause riot, and other charges through their coverage of a violent January 26 protest. The Supreme Court granted the individuals a stay of arrest on February 9.
On March 5, journalists Shafat Farooq and Saqib Majeed said they were beaten by police during a protest in Srinagar. On July 17, Kashmiri journalist Aakash Hassan was allegedly assaulted by police. In August, Jammu and Kashmir police detained and questioned journalist Irfan Malik concerning tweets critical of the Jammu Kashmir government’s film promotion policy.
On April 7, Jammu and Kashmir Police inspector general Vijay Kumar issued a warning that police would file criminal charges against journalists who approached ongoing police counterterrorism operations, on the grounds that such reporting was “likely to incite violence” or promote “antinational sentiment.” The Editors Guild of India criticized the prohibitions as “draconian and undemocratic.”
Media reported criminal charges were filed against individuals who posted requests for oxygen supplies via social media during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 28, police in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, filed charges against 26-year-old Shashank Yadav for tweeting a plea for oxygen for his grandfather. On April 30, the Supreme Court warned that states should protect citizens’ right to communicate their grievances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on social media.
On June 15, Uttar Pradesh police filed charges against Twitter; online news platform The Wire; journalists Rana Ayyub, Saba Naqvi, and Mohammad Zubair; and Congress leaders Salman Nizami, Masqoor Usmani, and Sama Mohammad for “stoking communal unrest” by posting video footage of the assault of an elderly Muslim man.
On July 22, the Income Tax Department searched 32 office and residential locations affiliated with the Dainik Bhaskar Group, publisher of Dainik Bhaskar, the country’s second-most-read Hindi language newspaper. The Income Tax Department also raided the offices of Hindi language television station Bharat Samachar. Government sources asserted the raids were a result of alleged tax evasion by the media groups. The media groups claimed the raids were conducted as retaliation for investigative reporting during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February the Kashmir Press Club stated security agencies had routinely deployed intimidation tactics such as threats, summonses, and physical attacks on journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. On February 8, police summoned journalists Naseer Ganai and Haroon Nabi to the police facility, where they were questioned for reporting on a statement by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
In June the Jammu and Kashmir government released Media Policy – 2020, a policy which authorizes the Directorate of Information and Publication Relations to “examine” the content of print, electronic, and other forms of media for “fake news, plagiarism, and unethical or antinational activities” in the name of law and order. Under the new media policy, government action could range from legal proceedings against journalists for “indulging in fake news, unethical or antinational activities, or plagiarism” to withholding advertisements from any media that “incite or tends to incite violence, question sovereignty and the integrity of India, or violate the accepted norms of public decency and behavior.”
On June 13, Uttar Pradesh authorities charged Scroll.in executive editor Supriya Sharma for a news report critical of the COVID-19 lockdown; she was charged with violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and sections of the penal code regarding printing defamatory matter and negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life. Police also charged the Mumbai-based editor in chief of Scroll.in. On August 26, the Allahabad High Court granted Sharma protection from immediate arrest in the case but allowed the investigation to continue.
On July 1, UNESCO director general Audrey Azoulay called for authorities to end “gunpoint censorship” and prosecute those responsible for the killing of Shubham Mani Tripathi, a journalist for the newspaper Kampu Mail. Tripathi died on June 19 when he was shot six times by two gunmen in Uttar Pradesh. His killing was allegedly in retaliation for his investigative reports into connections between illegal sand mining and corruption allegations. The two assailants, along with a third individual, were arrested.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses to entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of selected books that contained material government officials deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
On May 14, Andhra Pradesh police filed sedition charges against Telugu news channels TV5 and ABN Andhra Jyothi for broadcasting the speeches and statements of Member of Parliament K. Raghu Ramakrishna Raju that allegedly “promoted enmity and hatred among different communities.” Police arrested Raju and filed sedition charges against him. On May 21, the Supreme Court granted bail to the lawmaker; on May 31, the Supreme Court blocked Andhra Pradesh police from acting against the two channels.
Violence and Harassment: The Committee to Protect Journalists reported five journalists were killed during the year. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
On March 24, Syandan Patrika journalist Bikash Das was assaulted in Tripura while covering a story on corruption. A group of assailants attacked Das, inflicting serious injuries before he was able to escape.
On June 13, Uttar Pradesh journalist Sulabh Srivastava was found dead under mysterious circumstances. On the day before his death, Sulabh wrote to seek protection from Uttar Pradesh police, claiming he faced danger after reporting on organized crime in the city. Police reported the cause of Srivastava’s death as a motorcycle accident.
In July photojournalist Masrat Zahra, who relocated to Germany after UAPA charges were filed against her, alleged her parents were beaten by Jammu and Kashmir police because of her work.
On August 8, journalist Chennakeshavalu was stabbed to death by two suspects allegedly for his reporting on illegal gambling activities in Andhra Pradesh. Police arrested Venkata Subbaiah, a police officer, and his brother Nani for suspected murder.
Online and mobile harassment was prevalent, and reports of internet “trolling,” continued to rise. In some instances police used information provided by anonymous social media users as a pretext to initiate criminal proceedings against journalists.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public and national interest provisions in Article 19 of the constitution.
On February 25, the government published new regulations to govern social media platforms, messaging services, and streaming service that delivers content directly to the consumer over the internet. Human rights advocates and journalists expressed concerns that these rules would curtail freedom of speech and expression, and several media organizations filed legal actions against the regulations. They contended that parts of IT Rules 2021 are unconstitutional and contrary to the necessity and proportionality standard laid down by the Supreme Court in the 2018 Puttaswamy v. India decision guaranteeing the right to privacy in the constitution. In response to one such challenge on August 14, the Mumbai High Court ordered a stay on implementation of Rules 9(1) and 9(3) of the IT Rules 2021, which require digital news media and online publishers to adhere to a prescribed code of ethics and establish a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to face legal action for posting offensive or derogatory material on social media. In January the Delhi High Court dismissed a criminal defamation case filed by a former senior official against Priya Ramani, accusing Ramani of sexual harassment. The court noted, “a woman cannot be punished for raising her voice against sexual abuse.”
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. The government banned more than 200 Chinese mobile apps because they were “prejudicial” to the sovereignty and security of the country.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for freedom of assembly. Authorities often required permits and notification before parades or demonstrations, and local governments generally respected the right to protest peacefully. Jammu and Kashmir was an exception, where the state government sometimes denied permits to separatist political parties for public gatherings, and security forces reportedly detained and assaulted members of political groups engaged in peaceful protest (see section 1.g.). During periods of civil unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used the law to ban public assemblies and impose curfews.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association. While the government generally respected this right, the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of NGOs that received foreign funding caused concern. In certain cases the government suspended foreign banking licenses or froze accounts of NGOs that allegedly received foreign funding without authorization or that unlawfully mixed foreign and domestic funding. In other instances the government canceled or declined to renew Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registrations.
In September 2020 parliament passed amendments to the FCRA that placed additional limitations on the international funding of nongovernmental organizations. Financial consultants and NGO leaders believed the new legislation would severely restrict the ability of smaller, regional organizations to raise funds and diminish collaboration between the government and civil society.
Some NGOs reported an increase in random FCRA compliance inspections by Ministry of Home Affairs officials. FCRA licenses were also reportedly canceled periodically based on confidential investigations by the Intelligence Bureau.
Some NGOs stated they were targeted as a reprisal for their work on “politically sensitive” topics such as human rights or environmental activism. In September 2020 Amnesty International India (AII) closed its offices after a two-year FCRA investigation charged the organization with financial irregularities resulting in the suspension of its local bank accounts. In February the Enforcement Directorate froze access to AII assets worth more than 170 million rupees ($2.3 million) as part of a money-laundering investigation.
On March 31, the National Investigation Agency conducted searches of suspected terrorist organizations at 31 locations across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The Human Rights Forum described the searches as intimidation intended to stifle lawful protest, while a representative of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties alleged that human rights activists were being deliberately targeted and silenced by this law enforcement action.
On June 7, the government temporarily suspended the FCRA license of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for alleged violations. CHRI lawyers believe the enforcement action was taken as retribution for CHRI’s human rights work. Subsequently, the Delhi High Court allowed the human rights organization access up to 25 percent of the impounded funds to pay staff salaries.
On September 16, Enforcement Directorate officials raided the home and office of human rights activist Harsh Mander. Authorities alleged Mander violated provisions of the FCRA. Human Rights Watch claimed authorities repeatedly targeted Mander, who has criticized the government’s “discriminatory policies against religious minorities.” On September 29, more than 30 activists and intellectuals released a statement condemning the raids as a tactic to harass and intimidate Mander.
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 central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The Ministry of Home Affairs and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits when traveling to certain states. Inner Line Permits are required in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The government delayed issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir, sometimes for up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: In 2019 parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act does not include Muslims from those countries and does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam and Tripura, most of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, widespread protests against its passage and the exclusion of Muslims from the statute occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few instances.
On July 27, the minister of state for home affairs notified parliament that the government required additional time to further develop and notify the rules for the CAA, effectively meaning that the law was not in effect during the year.
Approximately 1.9 million residents of the state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh, were left off the Supreme Court-mandated National Register of Citizens (NRC) register in Assam. The government established procedures for appeals. The nationality status of those excluded remained unclear, pending the adjudication of appeals. On May 13, Assam’s NRC authorities requested Supreme Court permission for a reverification of the NRC list.
Settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) existed throughout the country. In 2020 approximately 3,900 persons were displaced because of conflicts and violence, while natural disasters displaced almost four million persons.
Precise numbers of those displaced by conflict or violence were difficult to obtain because the government does not monitor the movements of displaced persons, and humanitarian and human rights agencies had limited access to camps and affected regions. While authorities registered residents of IDP camps, an unknown number of displaced persons resided outside the camps. Many IDPs lacked sufficient food, clean water, shelter, and health care (see section 1.g., Other Conflict-related Abuse).
National policy or legislation did not address the matter of internal displacement resulting from armed conflict or from ethnic or communal violence. The welfare of IDPs was generally the purview of state governments and local authorities, allowing for gaps in services and poor accountability. The central government provided limited assistance to IDPs but allowed NGOs and human rights organizations access to IDPs; neither access nor assistance was standard for all IDPs or all situations.
On April 20, nearly 400 families of Mizoram’s Bru tribe left a temporary camp and relocated to permanent homes. Since 1997, nearly 37,000 Brus have lived in six relief camps after they fled Mizoram’s Mamit, Kolasib, and Lunglei Districts. In 2020 the central government, along with the state governments of Tripura and Mizoram, signed an agreement with the leaders of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum that allowed Brus to settle permanently in Tripura.
The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing minimal protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern. While UNHCR does not have an official agreement with the government, it is able to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries. UNHCR did not have direct access to newly arriving refugees on the country’s border with Burma or protracted Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu.
The country hosted a large refugee population, including more than 73,404 Tibetan refugees, per the latest census conducted by Central Tibetan Relief Committee. More than 92,000 refugees from Sri Lanka lived in the country as of July 1. In February, Burmese nationals fleeing violence in Burma began arriving in Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland states. The estimated number of Burmese refugees varied widely from approximately 5,000 to 20,000. A protection working group consisting of civil society and humanitarian organizations provides basic humanitarian assistance to this population.
UNHCR reported 736 Afghans registered for protection between August 1 and September 30, and it established a telephone helpline to answer queries from this population. The Ministry of Home Affairs announced an emergency e-visa for Afghan nationals seeking emergency entry into India on August 17 after the collapse of the previous Afghan government. On September 5, a Ministry of Home Affairs official stated that no Afghan national would be required to leave the country without prior approval of the Home Ministry.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution. The Supreme Court, however, issued an order allowing the deportation of a group of Rohingya on April 8. The group of more than 150 Rohingya were detained on March 6 for illegally residing in Jammu and Kashmir. The government argued Rohingya were illegal migrants who had crossed the border. They enjoyed equal protection of law, but their right to movement was restricted.
In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased obstacles to regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries.
UNHCR maintained an office in New Delhi, where it registered refugees and asylum seekers, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The government permitted UNHCR and its partner staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Access to some refugees or asylum seekers in detention was granted.
The government generally permitted NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram, Manipur, and Jammu and Kashmir. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government cooperated with UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily; however, UNHCR did not have access to Sri Lankan refugees who remained in Tamil Nadu.
Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, 43,157 persons of concern were registered by UNHCR as of the end of August.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of refugees to Burma. According to UNHCR, at least 26 non-Rohingya refugees (of an estimated 40,000) have been deported since late 2016.
On April 2, Assam police took a 14-year-old Rohingya girl from a shelter home to the international border in Manipur for deportation to Burma. Burmese immigration officials reportedly refused to accept the girl, and police returned the girl to the shelter home.
On May 3, the High Court of Manipur granted seven Burmese nationals who illegally entered the country permission to approach the UNHCR office in New Delhi. The High Court interpreted Article 21 of the constitution as protecting the principle of nonrefoulement.
On August 9, the minister of state for defense informed parliament that 8,486 Burmese refugees entered the country after the military coup in February. The minister noted that 5,796 refugees were “pushed back” into Burma while 2,690 remained in the country.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees as any other foreigner. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to detention, forced returns, and abuse. The country historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
NGOs claimed law enforcement officials harassed and intimidated Rohingya refugees, including by confiscating UNHCR-issued refugee cards and government identification documents. NGOs also alleged Delhi police handcuffed, physically abused, and covered refugees’ heads with hoods while detaining them for routine questioning.
UNHCR continued to advocate for the release of detained refugees, for asylum seekers to freely move within the country and have their claims assessed, and for refugees to benefit from protection in the state where they arrived, and which has jurisdiction over them.
Freedom of Movement: UNHCR registered 43,157 refugees and asylum seekers as of August 31. This included 23,518 persons from Burma. On August 10, the minister of state for home affairs told the lower house of parliament the government did not have accurate data on the number of illegal migrants in the country and responded to questions from parliamentarians that there were reports of Rohingya migrants committing illegal activities.
The country hosted more than 92,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. In August, 29 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees attempted suicide in two separate incidents at a detention camp in Tamil Nadu. Media reports stated nearly 80 Sri Lankan Tamils conducted a protest for weeks demanding their release and alleging false detention. The refugees were reportedly dissatisfied after meeting Tamil Nadu government officials in May who determined that their release would be delayed. Tamil Nadu has 107 refugee camps across the state, including one detention camp for refugees with criminal records.
Employment: Most UNHCR-registered refugees found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers and landlords. According to UNHCR, obtaining formal employment was difficult for refugees because they did not possess government-issued documents such as long-term visas, which the government stopped issuing to refugees in 2017.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees and asylum seekers had access to housing, primary and secondary education, and health care. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR or its partners were able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access.
For asylum seekers UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was being considered for UNHCR refugee status.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during elections and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
On August 27, Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin announced a special welfare package of 3.17 billion rupees ($42 million) for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu. The assistance will support refugee housing, cooking gas subsidies, and education allowances for refugee children. This allocation followed the disbursement of 4,000 rupees ($53) per Sri Lankan refugee family earlier in the year.
Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. According to a factsheet published by UNHCR in June, 6,561 refugees and asylum seekers were vaccinated against COVID-19 across the country during the year.
Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
According to UNHCR an April 2020 moratorium on the repatriation of Sri Lankans remained in effect since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of commercial flight operations. A ferry project jointly proposed by the government and the government of Sri Lanka for the repatriation of refugees remained on hold. Departures for voluntary repatriation, third country resettlement, and complementary pathways continued.
By law parents confer citizenship, and birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Any person born in the country on or after January 26, 1950, but before July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship by birth. A child born in the country on or after July 1, 1987, obtained citizenship if either parent was a citizen at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities consider those born in the country on or after December 3, 2004, citizens only if at least one parent was a citizen and the other was not illegally present in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Authorities considered persons born outside the country on or after December 10, 1992, citizens if either parent was a citizen at the time of birth, but authorities do not consider those born outside the country after December 3, 2004, citizens unless their birth was registered at a consulate within one year of the date of birth. Authorities may also confer citizenship through registration in specific categories and via naturalization after residing in the country for 12 years.
Children born in Sri Lankan refugee camps received birth certificates. While these certificates alone do not entitle refugees to citizenship, refugees may present birth certificates to the Sri Lankan High Commission to obtain a consular birth certificate, which entitles them to pursue Sri Lankan citizenship.