Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government did not respect these rights and enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Moreover, the state press propagated views in support of the president and official policies, without giving room for critical voices.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize the president or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal. Authorities videotaped political meetings, conducted frequent identity checks, and used other forms of intimidation. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
On June 10, a Minsk regional court convicted prominent painter and art performer Ales Pushkin for holding banners urging Belarus to join NATO as well as protesting “Russian Aggression in Europe” in the town of Krupki on June 6. Despite the fact that Pushkin staged his protest alone, authorities charged him with violating the Law on Mass Events and resisting police and fined him 204 rubles ($100).
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Government restrictions limited access to information and often resulted in media self-censorship. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the official version of events. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media were rare and limited primarily to those required by law during election campaigns. Authorities warned, fined, detained, and interrogated members of independent media.
By law the government may close a publication, printed or online, after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Additionally, regulations give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling. The law also prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, continued to operate under restrictive media laws and most faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limiting access to government officials and press briefings, controlling the size of press runs of newspapers, and raising the cost of printing. For example, journalists from independent media outlets Euroradio, BelaPAN, and tut.by did not receive accreditation to cover President Lukashenka’s April 19 annual address to the nation and the parliament, allegedly because the press center did not have enough seats.
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations.
Some international media continued to operate in the country but not without interference and prior censorship. Euronews and the Russian channels First Channel, NTV, and RTR were generally available, although only through paid cable services in many parts of the country and with a time delay that allowed the removal of news deemed undesirable. At times authorities blocked, censored, or replaced international news programs with local programming.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely.
Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country. The independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported that authorities briefly detained an accredited German media outlet’s driver and impounded media equipment, which prevented the outlet from covering a rally on November 15.
On March 4, a Minsk district court convicted popular independent news portal tut.by editor in chief Maryna Zolatava of “executive inaction” allegedly for allowing tut.by journalists to access the subscription service of state-run news agency Belta without payment. The court sentenced her to a fine of 7,650 rubles ($3,740). In addition, Zolatava must pay Belta’s court costs of 6,000 rubles ($2,930). Criminal charges against several other journalists from tut.by and an independent press agency Belapan were dropped after the accused agreed to pay fines.
The government refused to register some foreign media, such as Poland-based Belsat Television and Radio Racyja, and routinely fined freelance journalists working for them. As of September 25, at least 17 journalists were fined in 38 cases for not having government accreditation or for cooperating with a foreign media outlet. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, freelance journalists received fines totaling more than 35,000 rubles ($17,200). Most of the fines were imposed on journalists working for Belsat Television.
In October the Foreign Ministry refused the 11th accreditation application of freelancer Viktar Parfyonenka to work for Radio Racyja.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government exerted pressure on the vast majority of independent publications to exercise self-censorship, warning them not to report on certain topics or criticize the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to air at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and reported local news, although most were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive issues or risk censorship.
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) monitoring report, during the November 17 parliamentary elections campaign at least seven opposition candidates’ prerecorded television speeches were not aired, and state newspapers censored or refused to publish a number of opposition candidates’ campaign platforms.
Authorities allowed only state-run radio and television networks to broadcast nationwide. The government used this national monopoly to disseminate its version of events and minimize alternative or opposing viewpoints.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. As a result, independent media outlets operated under severe budgetary constraints.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. There are large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report.
On April 9, police searched Belsat Television’s Minsk office and confiscated computer equipment. The Investigative Committee press service indicated that the search was related to an unspecified defamation case. According to Belsat journalist Ales Zaleuski, the criminal case might have been connected to an article in which Belsat Television incorrectly reported that Andrei Shved, the head of the Committee for Forensic Examination, had been detained. Belsat Television issued a retraction and apology, and the committee returned the computer equipment on April 11.
On April 18, a Brest district court convicted popular video blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin on charges of defaming and insulting police officers and sentenced him to a fine of 9,180 rubles ($4,480). In addition, Piatrukhin was ordered to pay 7,500 rubles ($3,660) in damages to police officers.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security as grounds for censorship of media.
The government interfered with internet freedom by monitoring email and internet chat rooms. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions, and at times were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists’ emails and other web-based communications were likely to be monitored.
Under amendments to the Media Law that came into force in December 2018, registered news websites and any internet information sources are subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration can continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. They cannot receive accreditation from state agencies for their correspondents, who will also not be able to cover mass events or protect sources of information, among other things.
Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a prohibition against “extremist” information. The law also restricts access to websites whose content includes promotion of violence, wars, or “extremist activities”; materials related to illicit weapons, explosives, and drugs; trafficking in persons; pornography; and information that may harm the national interests of the country. Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication will be able to appeal a decision to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court within a month.
In addition, owners of internet sites may be held liable for users’ comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. There were no reports of independent websites being blocked during the year.
Authorities monitored internet traffic. By law the telecommunications monopoly Beltelekam and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
A presidential edict requires registration of service providers and internet websites and requires the collection of information on users at internet cafes. It requires service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide that information to law enforcement agencies upon request. Violations of the edict are punishable by prison sentences.
In response to the government’s interference and internet restrictions, many opposition groups and independent newspapers switched to internet domains operating outside the country. Observers reported that the few remaining independent media sites with the country domain BY practiced self-censorship at times.
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of Belarus under the leadership of President Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals. The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
Use of the word “academic” was restricted, and NGOs were prohibited from including the word “academy” in their titles. Opportunities to receive a higher education in the Belarusian (vice Russian) language in the majority of fields of study were scarce.
Students, writers, and academics said authorities pressured them to join ostensibly voluntary progovernment organizations, such as the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRYU) and the Union of Writers of Belarus. Students who declined to join the BRYU risked economic hardships, including lack of access to dormitories, which effectively limited their ability to attend the country’s top universities.
Students from various universities and colleges reported to an independent election-monitoring group that their faculties pressured students into early voting by threatening them with eviction from their dormitories. Additionally, authorities at times reportedly pressured students to act as informants for the country’s security services.
According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions.
On November 4, authorities in Lida cancelled an event scheduled to include history lectures, an exhibition, music performances, and public speaking, claiming that it was “political.” Speakers and performers included prominent Minsk-based activists, bloggers, and folk music performers.
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups in various communities around the country.
The law penalizes participation in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training of persons to demonstrate, financing of public demonstrations, or solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Some violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
Persons with unexpunged criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals cannot act as mass event organizers as well as persons who were fined for participating in unauthorized mass events (during one year since the imposition of the fine). The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities must inform organizers of their denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials can be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group, or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held at designated venues far from city centers.
Authorities often used intimidation to discourage persons from participating in some demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unauthorized events.
On January 24, the government adopted a system of reimbursements for police, medical and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. If an application for holding a mass event is approved, organizers must sign contacts for such services two days ahead of the event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about high costs of such contracts, which were not applied to mass events cosponsored by state agencies. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 6,380 rubles ($3,120) and at a nondesignated venue the price is 1.5 times higher.
On April 25, organizers of the annual Charnobylski Shlyakh (Chernobyl March) announced that for the first time in approximately 30 years they would not be holding the event due to the high costs of required services. The opposition parties that filed the event application were able to negotiate the Minsk city police’s fee down from 7,500 rubles ($3,660) to 5,740 rubles ($2,800), but the organizers said they still could not afford to pay such a sum. Organizers withdrew their application, but some activists marched the route on April 26 and laid flowers at a commemorative chapel. Subsequently, authorities fined at least 12 participants, including economic expert Siarhei Chaly and Belarusian Christian Democrat Volha Kavalkova, up to 1,280 rubles ($625) each.
On April 29, a Minsk district court fined the leaders of the organizing groups of authorized March 24 Minsk Freedom Day events, including Movement for Freedom NGO chairman Yury Hubarevich, Belarusian Christian Democracy Party cochair Volha Kavalkova, and United Civic Party chairman Mikalai Kazlou, ordering them to pay 765 rubles ($374) each after their organizations refused to pay for security services at the March 24 rally and concert. On May 2, Belarusian Social Democratic Party Hramada chairman Ihar Barysau, also one of the organizers, was fined 765 rubles ($374) for similar reasons.
During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage various demonstrations.
Minsk city authorities rejected applications from the Belarus Popular Front and Art Siadziba, an independent public cultural initiative, to hold a March 25 Freedom Day concert at Freedom Square, Dinamo stadium, or near the Palace of Sports. The authorities allowed opposition political parties to hold a concert and a rally at a remote location on March 24, during which at least two opposition activists, including Zmitser Dashkevich and Belarusian Christian Democracy cochair Vital Rymasheuski, were briefly detained. Human rights advocates reported that a total of 15 people were detained at different events on March 25, including United Civil Party chair Mikalai Kazlou, Belarusian Christian Democracy cochair Vital Rymasheuski, and musicians Liavon Volsky, Zmitser Vaityushkevich, Ihar Varashkevich, and Paval Arakelyan, who had announced a street concert. All were released with no charges.
During the year local authorities in Brest denied dozens of applications from a local group of residents who protested the construction and operations of a car battery plant. Police detained and fined several of them for violating the Law on Mass Events and holding rallies without the government’s approval in March and April.
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to become registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.
Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders, along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office, an extraordinary burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs and individual property owners’ fears of renting space to independent groups. Individuals listed as members were vulnerable to reprisal. The government’s refusal to rent office space to unregistered organizations and the expense of renting private space reportedly forced most organizations to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or to deregister them. The law criminalizing activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups and subjecting group members to penalties ranging from large fines to two years’ imprisonment was repealed on July 19 and replaced with administrative fines up to 1,280 rubles ($625) (also see section 7.a.).
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.
Only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of the Economy for technical aid before they may accept such funds or register the grants.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members.
The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.
Authorities continued to harass the independent and unregistered Union of Poles of Belarus and its members, while supporting a progovernment organization of a similar name. On April 23, a district court in Hrodna dropped civil charges against Andzelika Borys, the leader of the unregistered Union of Poles. Authorities claimed Borys violated the Law on Mass Events when she organized a fair, held for the 20th consecutive year, to mark the Feast of Saint Casimir in the vicinity of the Polish consulate in Hrodna on March 3.
On July 28, Brest regional authorities denied registration to a group of local residents seeking to establish an environmental rights NGO EcoBrest, which united campaigners against a car battery plant constructed in the area. Courts denied the group’s appeals.
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 at times restricted the right of citizens, former political prisoners in particular, to foreign travel.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to harass selectively individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database; others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but sources asserted that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, and many were in self-imposed exile.
Many university students who were expelled or believed they were under the threat of expulsion for their political activities opted for self-imposed exile and continued their studies abroad.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a procedure for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but cannot be returned to their countries of origin.
All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russians may legally settle and obtain residence permits in the country based on their Russian citizenship.
Freedom of Movement: Asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status as asylum seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. In accordance with the law, they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.
Durable Solutions: Adult asylum seekers have to pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.
Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.
As of July 1, the Ministry of the Interior and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) listed 6,158 stateless persons in the country; all had permanent residence, according to authorities.
Permanently resident stateless persons held residence permits and were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, with the exception of a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.
There is a path towards citizenship for the stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to Belarusian citizenship.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Freedom of Expression: Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities.
In August the Unirule Institute of Economics, a prominent economic think tank, closed its doors after years of increasing government pressure. Founded in 1993 to promote market reforms, a decade ago Unirule was a well-respected institution in the country with the space to disseminate ideas and facilitate dialogue with government leaders. The last few years have seen the shutdown of its website and public office, and as of August the organization was in liquidation.
On April 19, Zi Su was sentenced by a Chengdu court to four years’ imprisonment on charges of subversion. Zi, a retired professor from the Yunnan Communist Party School, was detained in 2017 after releasing an open letter questioning Xi Jinping’s suitability to continue as the CCP’s leader. Prior to his trial in December 2018, the government offered to shorten his sentence if he fired his lawyer and accepted a court-appointed attorney. Zi accepted, reducing his sentence from 10 to four years.
In September a Sichuan court convicted Chengdu-based activist Huang Xiaomin to 30 months’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Huang had called for direct elections to select party leaders. He was detained for several months before being allowed to hire a lawyer. He was then told to fire his lawyer and accept a court-appointed lawyer in exchange for a more lenient sentence, which he did.
On September 19, local police from Gucheng Township, Chengdu, detained Chen Yunfei for publishing comments in support of Hong Kong’s antiextradition bill movement. Chen had shown public support for the antiextradition protests in Hong Kong and called for a dialogue between Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and protesters to try to reach a resolution.
Countless citizens were arrested and detained for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on sensitive issues. For example, in Nan Le, Henan, a netizen was arrested for spreading “fake news” about a chemical factory explosion on WeChat. In Lianyungang police arrested 22 persons for “internet rumors,” and in Huzhou a netizen was arrested for “spreading rumors,” while he claimed he was only sharing political views.
This trend was particularly apparent in Xinjiang, where the government had developed a multifaceted system of physical and cyber controls to stop individuals from expressing themselves or practicing their religion or traditional beliefs. Beyond the region’s expansive system of internment camps, the government and the CCP implemented a system to limit in-person speech and online speech. In Xinjiang police regularly stopped persons of certain ethnicities and faith and demanded to review their cell phones for any evidence of communication deemed inappropriate. During the year the government significantly extended the automation of this system, using phone apps, cameras, and other electronics to monitor all speech and movement. Authorities in Xinjiang built a comprehensive database that tracked the movements, mobile app usage, and even electricity and gasoline consumption of inhabitants in the region.
The government also sought to limit criticism of their Xinjiang policies even outside the country, disrupting academic discussions and intimidating human rights advocates across the world. Government officials in Xinjiang detained the relatives of several overseas activists. Chinese embassy officials in Belgium asked a Belgian university to remove information critical of the PRC’s Xinjiang policies from their website, and in February the Belgian author of that critique reported that Chinese government officials disrupted a Xinjiang-focused academic conference in Strasbourg, France. Numerous ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs living overseas were intimidated into silence by government officials making threats against members of their family who still lived in China, threats sometimes delivered in China to the relatives, and sometimes delivered by Chinese government officials in the foreign country.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. During the year there was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included such criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
In October PRC authorities publicly condemned a tweet by the professional basketball team Houston Rockets’ general manager that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, and the state-run CCTV cancelled broadcasts of games involving U.S. professional basketball teams visiting China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from its consulate general in Houston to personally denounce the statement to the Houston Rockets. Similarly, in December Chinese state television cancelled the broadcast of an English Premier League soccer game after one of its players, Mesut Ozil, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram–both of which were blocked in China–denouncing the government’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
In July Dalian police detained a man only identified as “Lu” for distributing online cartoons that featured pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese contents. The CCP-controlled Global Times accused Lu of being “spiritually Japanese” by advocating for Japanese right-wing politics and militarism. In March 2018 Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly criticized such pro-Japanese cartoonists as “scum among Chinese people.”
In May Anhui police arrested cartoonist Zhang Dongning on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for creating comic books that depicted the Chinese people as pigs. The drawings “distorted historical facts, trampled national dignity, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” according to a police statement. Zhang remained in custody at year’s end.
The government used economic leverage on the mainland to suppress freedom of expression in Hong Kong. In reaction to protests in Hong Kong in August, the mainland government told Hong Kong-based Cathay Airlines that any of its employees who had engaged in “illegal demonstrations, protests, and violent attacks, as well as those who have radical behaviors” were forbidden from working on flights that entered Chinese airspace.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all.
During the year state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing media to further promote the interests of the government.
The government continued its tight ideological control over media and public discourse following the restructuring of its regulatory system in 2018. The CCP propaganda department has the ultimate say in regulating and directing media practices and policies in the country. The reorganization created three independent administrative entities controlled by the CCP propaganda department: the National Radio and Television Administration (NART), the General Administration of Press and Publications, and the National Film Bureau. While NART is still ostensibly under the State Council, its party chief was also a deputy minister within the CCP’s propaganda department.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda. The CAC served as the representative office to a recently formed CCP committee on cyberspace, which is nominally chaired by President Xi Jinping. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
The internet “clean up” CAC announced in November 2018 continued into 2019. As part of CAC’s 2018 requirements, internet platforms had to submit reports on their activities if their platforms could be used to “socially mobilize” or could lead to “major changes in public opinion.” On January 23, the CAC issued a statement confirming another step in its crackdown on internet content. On April 6, the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications announced an eight-month crackdown on “vulgar content” online. According to the announcement, the National Office tasked local authorities to conduct inspections of online platforms, including social media, livestreaming, videos, and online games. In July the CAC ordered 26 podcast and music applications to terminate, suspend services, or have “talks” with regulators. According to a CAC notice, these applications were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism.”
In 2018 the government directed consolidation of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China,” which “strengthened the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Several popular domestic soap operas from 2018 were taken off the air after state-owned newspaper the Beijing Daily called the dramas “incompatible with core socialist values.” One such popular show featured Emperor Qianlong and concubines. While episodes from 2018 remained available online, many television stations had canceled similar period dramas in their 2019 programming plans. The National Radio and Television Administration followed up with a temporary ban of historical dramas in late March. The CCP also policed cartological political correctness to ensure that cartoons and documentaries supported the CCP. In one example the domestic television drama Go Go Squid was investigated after displaying a map that did not show Taiwan and Hainan Island as part of China.
Journalists operated in an environment tightly controlled by the government. Only journalists with official government accreditation were allowed to publish news in print or online. The CCP constantly monitored all forms of journalist output, including printed news, television reporting, and online news, including livestreaming. Journalists and editors self-censored to stay within the lines dictated by the CCP, and they faced increasingly serious penalties for crossing those lines, which could be opaque. While the country’s increasingly internet-literate population demanded interesting stories told with the latest technologies, government authorities asserted control over those new technologies (such as livestreaming) and clamped down on new digital outlets and social media platforms.
Because the CCP does not consider internet news companies “official” media, they are subject to debilitating regulations and barred from reporting on potentially “sensitive” stories. According to the most recent All China Journalist Association report from 2017 on the nation’s news media, there were 231,564 officially credentialed reporters working in the country. Only 1,406 worked for news websites, with the majority working at state-run outlets such as XinhuaNet.com and ChinaDaily.com. Other online outlets also reported on important issues but limited their tactics and topics, since they were acting without official approval.
In January government officials detained Yang Zhengjun, the editor in chief of an online labor rights news outlet, iLabour, which reported on harmful working conditions for Chinese laborers. According to RFA, on March 20, police detained Wei Zhili, editor of the citizen media magazine New Generation and a labor rights activist, at his Guangzhou home. He was not allowed to meet with his lawyer for 19 days, during which police interrogated Wei five times at the Shenzhen No. 2 Detention Center. Voice of America reported that authorities forbade Wei’s wife, Zheng Churan, from speaking to foreign media about her husband’s detention. Police also detained Wei’s colleague Ke Chengbing in Guangzhou on March 20, but there was no information regarding his status as of year’s end. Authorities formally arrested and charged Yang, Wei, and Ke in August on charges of “picking quarrels.”
In June authorities in Chongqing announced they had convicted Liu Pengfei on unknown charges and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment. Liu was detained in 2017 while running a WeChat group that reposted foreign press articles in Chinese. Until his conviction was announced, Liu’s condition and location were unknown.
On August 1, Chongqing police arrested former journalist Zhang Jialong. No charges were formally announced, although police reportedly arrested him for social media posts he made in 2017 and earlier. Zhang, a well-known journalist and anticensorship activist, had stopped posting publicly in 2014 after being fired from Tencent, where he worked as an editor, for meeting with then secretary of state John Kerry. His location was unknown at year’s end.
Violence and Harassment: The government frequently impeded the work of the press, including citizen journalists. Journalists reported being subjected to physical attack, harassment, monitoring, and intimidation when reporting on sensitive topics. Government officials used criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, and other punishment, including violence, detention, and other forms of harassment, to intimidate authors and journalists and to prevent the dissemination of unsanctioned information on a wide range of topics.
Family members of journalists based overseas also faced harassment, and in some cases detention, as retaliation for the reporting of their relatives abroad. As of year’s end, dozens of Uighur relatives of U.S.-based journalists working for RFA’s Uighur Service remained disappeared or arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.
A journalist could face demotion or job loss for publishing views that challenged the government. In many cases potential sources refused to meet with journalists due to actual or feared government pressure. During the year the scope of censorship grew to the point that, according to several journalists, “almost all topics are considered sensitive.” For example, whereas in past years business news reporting had been relatively free of control, many journalists’ contacts were hesitant to express themselves openly even on this topic. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
On June 10, the discipline inspection commission of the CCP’s Beijing branch accused Dai Zigeng, former publisher and cofounder of popular daily newspaper the Beijing News, of “serious violations of discipline and law.”
Prominent Chinese journalist Huang Xueqin, known for her publications about the #MeToo movement in China, was arrested in Guangzhou in October after she wrote about antigovernment protests in Hong Kong. Officials charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” At year’s end she remained in detention.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published a report in January detailing conditions for foreign journalists in the country. More than half (55 percent) of journalists who responded to the FCCC’s survey said reporting conditions had further deteriorated over the prior 12 months. They reported the government regularly surveilled foreign journalists, both in person and, increasingly, via electronic means. Of respondents, 91 percent expressed concern about the security of their telephones, and 66 percent worried about surveillance inside their homes and offices. Half of the journalists said this surveillance diminished their ability to report in the country.
In August a Canadian journalist working for a foreign outlet was detained while reporting in Guangdong. Local police detained the journalist and a PRC news assistant in a rural area, then drove them to a police station in a larger town, held them for seven hours, confiscated their electronic devices, copied all the data on their cell phones, and tried to compel the PRC colleague to sign a confession before putting them on a train out of town. The officials followed them onto the train, separated the two, and continued to intimidate them.
During the Hong Kong protests, mainland government authorities escalated their harassment of foreign journalists, stopping numerous journalists at border crossings near Hong Kong and at airports in Beijing and elsewhere, threatening them with visa obstacles, and making copies of their electronic devices. Journalists said this impeded their ability to gather and disseminate reports about the protests.
Foreign press outlets reported local employees of foreign news agencies were subjected to official harassment and intimidation. A citizen who was assisting a foreign journalist on a reporting trip was detained by local police, then chained to a chair for a full day before being released. Government officials contacted and harassed many Chinese citizen employees’ family members in an attempt to pressure them away from their reporting work. Both the local citizens and their foreign employers lacked recourse in these cases and were generally hesitant to address grievances with authorities due to fear of experiencing even greater repression.
Government harassment of foreign journalists was particularly aggressive in Xinjiang. According to the January FCCC report, 26 of 28 foreign journalists who traveled to Xinjiang in 2018 reported that government officials told them reporting was restricted or prohibited. This continued throughout the year, as numerous foreign journalists reported being followed constantly while in Xinjiang, with government agents stepping in to block access to some areas, intimidating local inhabitants so they would not talk to the journalists, and stopping the journalists–sometimes many times per day–to seize their cameras and force them to erase pictures. Foreign journalists also had trouble securing hotel rooms, since authorities directed hotels to prohibit the journalists’ stays.
Media outlets that reported on commercial issues enjoyed comparatively fewer restrictions, but the system of post-publication review by propaganda officials encouraged self-censorship by editors seeking to avoid the losses associated with penalties for inadvertently printing unauthorized content.
Government officials also sought to suppress journalism outside their borders. While in past years these efforts largely focused on Chinese-language media, during the year additional reports emerged of attempts to suppress media critical of China regardless of language or location. In March government officials warned a Swedish media outlet to cease its “serious political provocations,” for publishing a Swedish-language editorial that supported a position that Chinese officials opposed. Another government official threatened to blacklist a Russian journalist if the journalist did not retract an article in a Russian newspaper detailing negative Chinese economic statistics.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The State Council’s Regulations on the Administration of Publishing grant broad authority to the government at all levels to restrict publications based on content, including mandating if, when, and how particular issues are reported. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs daily press briefing was generally open, and the State Council Information Office organized some briefings by other government agencies, journalists did not have free access to other media events. The Ministries of Defense and Commerce continued allowing select foreign media outlets to attend occasional press briefings.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity.
Journalist arrests and dismissals for reporting on sensitive issues continued. One of the country’s few prominent investigative reporters, Liu Wanyong, announced he was leaving the profession, blaming the shrinking space for investigating and publishing accurate news. The Weibo accounts of several bloggers, including Wang Zhian, a former state broadcast commentator who wrote about social issues, were blocked.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
Domestic films continued to be subject to government censorship. In July the head of the government’s film regulatory body, the National Film Bureau, gave a speech to government officials and film industry representatives exhorting them to use films to promote Chinese political values. Throughout the year the government forbade the release of a number of new movies–including several films with prominent directors and large budgets–because they ran afoul of government censors. Shortly before its July 5 release date, the historical war drama The Eight Hundred was removed from distribution despite numerous theatrical trailers and an $80 million budget. Similarly, in February the film One Second by world-famous director Zhang Yimou was pulled from the Berlin Film Festival only days before its debut for “technical difficulties,” a common euphemism for censorship in China. Another film, Better Days, was pulled from the same festival after the movie failed to receive the necessary permissions from Chinese authorities. The head of the National Film Bureau explicitly encouraged domestic filmmakers to find more “valuable and heavy” topics and materials in the country’s “excellent traditional culture,” “revolution culture,” and “advanced culture of socialism.”
In October, when the U.S. comedy show South Park ran an episode depicting the PRC’s censorship practices, authorities banned the episode and other South Park content from local television and internet.
Newscasts from overseas news outlets, largely restricted to hotels and foreign residence compounds, were subject to censorship. Individual issues of foreign newspapers and magazines were occasionally banned when they contained articles deemed too sensitive. Articles on sensitive topics were removed from international magazines. Television newscasts were blacked out during segments on sensitive subjects.
Politically sensitive coverage in Chinese, and to a lesser extent in English, was censored more than coverage in other languages. The government prohibited some foreign and domestic films deemed too sensitive or selectively censored parts of films before they were released, including Bohemian Rhapsody and Top Gun: Maverick. Under government regulations, authorities must authorize each foreign film released in the country, with a restriction on the total number that keeps annual distribution below 50 films.
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. Individuals who attempted to publish without government approval faced imprisonment, fines, confiscation of their books, and other punishment. The CCP also exerted control over the publishing industry by preemptively classifying certain topics as state secrets.
In May media reported that three government officials in Chongqing and Yunnan were disciplined for “secretly purchasing, reading, and keeping overseas books and publications with serious political problems.”
In the fall the Ministry of Education directed all school libraries to review their holdings and dispose of books that “damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” Officials at a state-run library in Zhenyuan, Gansu, responded by burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases,” according to a notice and photograph on the library’s website, which circulated widely online.
New cases of extraterritorial book censorship occurred: government censors required that books printed domestically conform to government propaganda guidelines, even if those books were written by a foreign author for a foreign audience. In February an Australian bookseller reported that PRC officials forbade a Chinese company from publishing a book that included political content they found objectionable, even though the books would have been shipped out of China as soon as they were printed.
On the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, the government made an array of efforts to block all public mention of that historical event, not just in China but even in other countries. Within the country the government preemptively targeted potential critics, including elderly parents of the massacre victims, jailing them or temporarily removing them from major cities. Online censorship increased, with government censors aggressively blocking even indirect references and images from all online platforms, including, for example, an image of books lined up facing a cigarette packet in a pattern invoking the famous video of a man facing down tanks on a Beijing street. The CNN website, normally accessible in the country, was blocked on June 4, and officials broke up a live CNN newscast in Beijing on June 4 by rushing between a news reporter and cameraman as they were broadcasting, demanding CNN staff stop reporting. Other international media outlets faced increased monitoring and detentions for reporting focused on the anniversary, including one reporter who was detained for six hours. Censors at domestic internet companies said tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning as well as voice and image recognition.
The new Heroes and Martyrs Law makes it illegal to insult or defame prominent communists. Citing this law, the CAC ordered major domestic news app Bytedance to rectify information “slandering” Fang Zhimin, a prominent communist historical figure, and to punish the individuals responsible for publishing the defamatory information. Sichuan police arrested a prominent female blogger for violating the Heroes and Martyrs Law because in one of her videos she paired a red scarf, “which symbolized the revolutionary tradition,” with an “inappropriately short” skirt. On March 28, the court sentenced the blogger, identified in court documents only by her last name “Tang,” to 12 days’ incarceration, a fine, and removal of her videos.
Authorities often justified restrictions on expressions on national security protection grounds. In particular, government leaders generally cited the threat of terrorism in justifying restricting freedom of expressions by Muslims and other religious minorities. These justifications were a baseline rationale for restrictions on press movements, publications, and other forms of repression of expression.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In the first three weeks of January, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.
The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. New approvals for offerings on Tencent’s gaming platforms were frozen for nine months in 2018 for any new video game approvals as part of an industry-wide tightening of the video game market, but this was the first time the news app had been criticized. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.
The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to freely communicate.
On April 8, popular social media site Weibo (similar to Twitter and owned by Sina) announced it had suspended more than 50 popular accounts “according to relevant laws and regulations,” as they included “politically harmful information.” Account owners received notifications from Weibo that the suspensions would last 90 to 180 days. Account holders included Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar of rural development and activist for the country’s peasants, who reportedly had not published information deemed sensitive for several years but had 7.2 million followers at the time his Weibo account shut down.
The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.
Xinhua issued an authoritative news piece in January stating that the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) had released two new documents regarding short-video market regulation: one on regulation of the platforms and one concerning censorship. The new censorship measures imposed stricter criteria for short videos online. The guidelines, which were believed to have been issued at the government’s direction, banned 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist Party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism.” The CNSA documents openly discussed the “content review” standards it expected of these online video services. Other content to be removed included anything that “attacks China’s political or legal systems,” “content that damages China’s image,” “foot fetishes or sexual moaning,” and “spoofing the national anthem.” The documents called for platforms to expand their internal censorship teams as business grows and changes, and to keep at least one “content review” employee on staff for every 1,000 new videos posted to their platform each day.
CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.
In June censors abruptly shut down the app of the financial news aggregator wallstreetcn.com, which had been downloaded more than 100 million times, as well as its website. Earlier in the year, regulators fined wallstreetcn.com for distributing news without a license, and disrupting “online news order.” In the shutdown notice the CAC said that wallstreetcn.com was in breach of cybersecurity measures.
The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register.
Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.
The finalization of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, imposing penalties on network operators that provide services to users who do not provide real-name information. In response, Baidu and Sina Weibo announced accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents. In March, following a chemical plant explosion outside of Shanghai, the local government jammed drones sent by media outlets to capture footage of the explosion.
In December 2018 the Zhuhai Court sentenced prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to a jail term of two years for “inciting subversion of state power” in a closed-door trial. He was released from prison on November 8. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, reportedly provided technical guidance to domestic Internet users on how to circumvent the Great Firewall to make their posts visible overseas. He was also the executive governor of a website, Rights Movement, which helped collect and disseminate information on rights protections.
Many if not most of the major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The government further restricted this space during the year, adding the Washington Post, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Australia’s the Age and News, and Wikipedia to the list of websites blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.
Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Hong Kong protests that occurred during the year were subject to heavy, selective censorship: the government initially struck any mention of the protests from media and online discussions, then began to allow and even promote reports criticizing the protesters, while continuing to prohibit access to positive or neutral reporting on the protesters, including reporting that detailed the protesters’ demands for democracy and accountability for police actions.
On August 5, Sun Yat-sen University doctoral student Chen Chun joined the protests in Hong Kong and posted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on his Weibo account. Other netizens reported him to Guangdong police, and his account was shut down.
Censorship on Chinese-owned social media platforms of users in other countries also occurred. In November TikTok, which was owned by Bytedance, blocked the account of a foreign-based user who had posted a video to raise awareness of the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. After a public outcry, TikTok restored her account and admitted her video had been temporarily removed “due to human moderation error.”
The government also punished Chinese citizens for expressing their opinions on foreign social media platforms while outside the country. In November a court in Wuhan sentenced Luo Daiqing to six months’ imprisonment on charges of “provocation” for posting a set of images mocking Chinese leaders on Twitter. Luo posted the images while living in Minnesota, where he was a student; he was arrested in July on a visit home to Wuhan.
The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information. In June at least 10 prominent blogs that published financial news and analyses were shut down and had all past content erased. This happened at the same time that government propaganda sources were publishing specific new messages about the country’s economy.
Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.
Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users there. A recent round of government attention on Twitter users in China started in late 2018. A Chinese dissident who lived in Beijing said the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau summoned him twice on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and presented printed pages of his tweets as evidence. Internet monitors and activists tallied at least 40 cases of government authorities pressuring users in person to delete their tweets or their Twitter accounts. One user spent 15 days in a detention center, while police threatened another user’s family, and a third Twitter user was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.
During the year authorities continued to manipulate the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In March the anonymous netizen behind @AirMovingDevice, a Twitter account that specialized in using publicly available data to critically analyze government activity, declared she or he would be deleting all previous tweets and ceasing communication, adding, “it is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority.”
Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On July 29, a court in Sichuan sentenced prominent blogger Huang Qi–a Chinese internet pioneer who once won CCP praise for using the web to “combat social ills”–to 12 years in prison for “deliberately disclosing state secrets” and “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” The charges arose from Huang’s efforts to publicize cases of human rights abuses on the 64Tianwang blog. Huang Qi had been jailed twice previously, for a total of eight years, as a result of his blogging that exposed local government malfeasance and brutality. After Huang’s release from those sentences, he continued his blogging activities.
On January 29, a court in Hubei sentenced Liu Feiyu to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he ran a news portal publicizing government corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, there were continuing reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign entities, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.
References to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. A Weibo account featuring lesbian topics, where more than 143,000 users swapped information, was abruptly shut down in April and then reopened several weeks later. Several scenes in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody that depicted the main character’s gay relationships were cut out of the version shown in Chinese movie theaters.
While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.
The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.
On June 9, police in Jiuxiangling District summoned Guo Yongfeng, a Christian and former participant of a local democratic movement who lived in Shenzhen, to Xili Police Station in response to his online post about his intention to sue Tencent for banning several of his social media accounts. Police warned Guo against disseminating information online about rights protection and organizing related assemblies, and they did not release him until he wrote a letter of guarantee.
The government continued restrictions on academic and artistic freedom and on political and social discourse at colleges, universities, and research institutes. Restrictive Central Propaganda Department regulations and decisions constrained the flow of ideas and persons.
Many intellectuals and scholars exercised self-censorship, anticipating that books or papers on political topics would be deemed too sensitive to be published. Censorship and self-censorship of artistic works was also common, particularly artworks deemed to involve politically sensitive subjects. Authorities frequently denied Western musicians permission to put on concerts, scrutinized the content of cultural events, and applied pressure to encourage self-censorship of discussions.
The government and the CCP Organization Department continued to control appointments to most leadership positions at universities, including department heads. While CCP membership was not always a requirement to obtain a tenured faculty position, scholars without CCP affiliation often had fewer chances for promotion. Academic subject areas deemed politically sensitive (e.g., civil rights, elite cronyism, civil society, etc.) continued to be off-limits. Some academics self-censored their publications, faced pressure to reach predetermined research results, or were unable to hold conferences with international participants during politically sensitive periods. Foreign academics claimed the government used visa denials, along with blocking access to archives, fieldwork, or interviews, to pressure them to self-censor their work. The use of foreign textbooks in classrooms remained restricted, and domestically produced textbooks continued to be under the editorial control of the CCP.
Undergraduate students, regardless of academic major, must complete political ideology coursework on subjects such as Marxism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping thought, and Xi Jinping thought. In February the CCP’s Central Committee and the State Council made public the government’s Education Modernization Plan 2035, which specified 10 strategic tasks, the first task being to study Xi Jinping thought, implement it throughout the education system, including at primary and secondary education levels, and strengthen political thought education in institutes of higher education.
Multiple media reports cited a tightening of ideological controls on university campuses, with professors dismissed for expressing views not in line with CCP thought. In March Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun was suspended due to a series of essays he wrote criticizing policies of the CCP and Xi Jinping. In August 2018 Professor Yang Shaozheng was expelled from Guizhou University for publishing “politically mistaken speech and politically harmful articles,” including an article that estimated the total cost of maintaining the CCP apparatus. After his expulsion the government stripped his teaching credentials, prevented him from finding new employment, and on June 4, state security officials arrested him for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” He was then released, but authorities detained him again in August and cancelled his health coverage and social benefits. In December Fudan University, Nanjing University, and Shaanxi Normal University revised their charters, adding a pledge to highlight the party’s overall leadership in schoolwork and removing a reference to “freedom of thought.” Students at Fudan University protested the revisions by singing the university’s official anthem, which included a reference to “freedom of thought.”
University professors also continued to come under scrutiny after their students reported them for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate. In some cases the university assigned the students to act as informants. In July a university professor in Chengdu was suspended from teaching for two years after students filed a complaint for remarks deemed to have shown insufficient appreciation for Chinese culture and innovation. Professor Tang Yun of Chongqing University was banned from teaching and demoted for making “politically incorrect statements” while lecturing on Chinese author Lu Xun. Professor Tang had his teaching credentials cancelled after students reported his statements to party representatives at the school.
Crackdowns against student labor activists on university campuses increased early in the year. In January the New York Times reported that more than 20 students at elite Chinese universities had been forced to watch videotaped confessions of detained labor activists to pressure the students to abandon their activism. Additional students and several recent graduates from Peking and Renmin Universities were reportedly detained and held incommunicado after releasing statements decrying police use of coerced confession videos. In May CNN reported six Marxist university students had been disappeared in the lead up to International Labor Day and the 100th anniversary of the May 4 student protests. One of the missing student labor activists, Qiu Zhanxuan, released a video and written testimony detailing abuse at the hands of police, including being strip-searched and forced to listen to a marathon speech by Xi Jinping at high volume.
Foreign universities establishing joint venture academic programs in the country must establish internal CCP committees and grant decision-making power to CCP officials. In August Reuters reported a surge in arrests and deportations of foreign teachers over the past six months as part of a continuing effort to crack down on foreign influence.
During the academic year, schools faced new prohibitions on the use of international curricula. The Ministry of Education forced the suspension of the advanced placement (AP) exams on U.S. history, world history, European history and human geography. The government allowed tests in other subjects, including calculus, biology, and chemistry, to continue.
Authorities on some occasions blocked entry into the country of individuals deemed politically sensitive and, in some cases, refused to issue passports to citizens selected for international exchange programs who were considered “politically unreliable,” singling out Tibetans, Uighurs, and individuals from other minority areas. A number of other foreign government-sponsored exchange selectees who already had passports, including some academics, encountered difficulties gaining approval to travel to participate in their programs. Academics reported having to request permission to travel overseas and, in some cases, said they were limited in the number of foreign trips they could take per year.
The CCP’s reach increasingly extended beyond the country’s physical borders. In multiple instances overseas Chinese students monitored and pushed back against on-campus speech or activity considered to be critical of China, oftentimes in coordination with the government. In February the Washington Post reported a group of Chinese students at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, sought guidance from the PRC embassy and filmed the presentation of Uighur activist Rukiye Turdush about China’s mass internment of Muslims. In August the Times of London reported that China aimed to manipulate United Kingdom media and influence public officials through British universities, citing training provided by a University of Westminster media research center with links to the Chinese government on how to handle the British media, and the targeting of United Kingdom government officials, academics, and business executives by Leeds University’s Business Confucius Institute. In August Australia established a University Foreign Interference Task Force to increase consultation between its schools and government to protect national interests out of growing concern about foreign influence on Australian campuses. On November 14, the task force released a set of guidelines designed to protect against such foreign interference by safeguarding the reputation of Australian universities, protecting academic freedom, and ensuring academic institutions and the Australian economy can maximize the benefits of research endeavors.
Authorities in Xinjiang disappeared or detained several prominent Uighur academics and intellectuals. Some officials and academics were charged with being “two-faced,” a euphemism referring to members of minority groups serving state and party occupations who harbor “separatist” or “antiofficial” tendencies, including disagreeing with official restrictions on minority culture, language, and religion. Those disappeared and believed to be held in the camps or otherwise detained included Rahile Dawut, an internationally known folklorist; Abdukerim Rahman, literature professor; Azat Sultan, Xinjiang University professor; Gheyretjan Osman, literature professor; Arslan Abdulla, language professor; Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, poet; and Yalqun Rozi, writer. Rahile Dawut’s Han Chinese student Feng Siyu was also detained. Authorities detained former director of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau Satar Sawut and removed Kashgar University president Erkin Omer and vice president Muhter Abdughopur; all were disappeared at year’s end. Courts delivered a suspended death sentence for “separatism” to Halmurat Ghopur, former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital. Religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulnehed Mehsum died in the camps, according to reports during the year from international organizations. Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained detained on charges of “separatism,” and some human rights groups reported he had been sentenced to death. Economist Ilham Tohti remained in prison, where he was serving a life sentence after his conviction on separatism-related charges in 2014.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government severely restricted this right. The law stipulates such activities may not challenge “party leadership” or infringe upon the “interests of the state.” Protests against the political system or national leaders were prohibited. Authorities denied permits and quickly suppressed demonstrations involving expression of dissenting political views.
Citizens throughout the country continued to gather publicly to protest evictions, forced relocations, and inadequate compensation, often resulting in conflict with authorities or formal charges. Media reported thousands of protests took place during the year across the country. Although peaceful protests are legal, public security officials rarely granted permits to demonstrate. Despite restrictions, many demonstrations occurred, but authorities quickly broke up those motivated by broad political or social grievances, sometimes with excessive force.
In July residents from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, protested a planned waste incineration plant in the city’s Yangluo District. Media had reported in 2013 that five such plants in Wuhan were substandard and emitted dangerous pollutants. Protests grew over several days, involving up to 10,000 demonstrators, until the local government dispersed them.
On December 26, police from Shandong coordinated with other police nationwide to arrest human rights activists and participants who gathered in Xiamen, Fujian, in early December to organize civil society and plan nonviolent social movements in the country. Suspected charges included “incitement to subvert state power” and “subversion of state power”; the latter crime carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence if convicted. At the end of the year, police held at least four activists in “residential surveillance at a designated location”: organizer Ding Jiaxi and activists Zhang Zhongshun, Li Yingjun, and Dai Zhenya. Their families had no information on their whereabouts. Some human rights activists or those indirectly connected to the meeting participants fled the country or went into hiding inside the country. Several others involved in the meeting, including human rights lawyers, were held for several days in police custody in various jurisdictions for questioning and investigation.
Concerts, sports events, exercise classes, or other meetings of more than 200 persons require approval from public security authorities. Large numbers of public gatherings in Beijing and elsewhere were canceled at the last minute or denied government permits, ostensibly to ensure public safety.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. CCP policy and government regulations require that all professional, social, and economic organizations officially register with and receive approval from the government. These regulations prevented the formation of autonomous political, human rights, religious, spiritual, labor, and other organizations that the government believed might challenge its authority in any area. The government maintained tight controls over civil society organizations and in some cases detained or harassed NGO workers.
The regulatory system for NGOs was highly restrictive, but specific requirements varied depending on whether an organization was foreign or domestic. Domestic NGOs were governed by the Charity Law and a host of related regulations. Domestic NGOs could register in one of three categories: a social group, a social organization, or a foundation. All domestic NGOs are required to register under the Ministry of Civil Affairs and find an officially sanctioned sponsor to serve as their “professional supervisory unit.” Finding a sponsor was often challenging, since the sponsor could be held civilly or criminally responsible for the NGO’s activities. All organizations are also required to report their sources of funding, including foreign funding. Domestic NGOs continued to adjust to this new regulatory framework.
In 2016 the CCP Central Committee issued a directive mandating the establishment of CCP cells within all domestic NGOs by 2020. According to authorities, these CCP organizations operating inside domestic NGOs would “strengthen guidance” of NGOs in areas such as “decision making for important projects, important professional activities, major expenditures and funds, acceptance of large donations, and activities involving foreigners.” The directive also mandates authorities to conduct annual “spot checks” to ensure compliance on “ideological political work, party building, financial and personnel management, study sessions, foreign exchange, acceptance of foreign donations and assistance, and conducting activities according to their charter.”
In 2017 the Law on the Management of Foreign NGOs’ Activities in Mainland China (Foreign NGO Management Law) came into effect. The law requires foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Public Security and to find a state-sanctioned sponsor for their operations. NGOs that fail to comply face possible civil or criminal penalties. The law provides no appeal process for NGOs denied registration, and it stipulates NGOs found to have violated certain provisions could be banned from operating in the country. The law also states domestic groups cooperating with unregistered foreign NGOs will be punished and possibly banned. On November 25, the Foreign Ministry publicly confirmed for the first time that public security authorities had investigated and penalized a foreign NGO, in this case the New York-based Asia Catalyst, for carrying out unauthorized activities.
Some international NGOs reported it was more difficult to work with local partners, including universities, government agencies, and other domestic NGOs, as the law codified the CCP’s perception that foreign NGOs were a “national security” threat. Finding an official sponsor was difficult for most foreign NGOs, as sponsors could be held responsible for the NGOs’ conduct and had to undertake burdensome reporting requirements. After the Ministry of Public Security published a list of sponsors, NGOs reported most government agencies still had no unit responsible for sponsoring foreign NGOs. Professional supervisory units reported they had little understanding of how to implement the law and what authorities would expect of them. The vague definition of an NGO, as well as of what activities constituted “political” and therefore illegal activities, left many business organizations and alumni associations uncertain whether they fell within the purview of the law. The lack of clear communication from the government, coupled with harassment by security authorities, caused some foreign NGOs to suspend or cease operations in the country. As of December 31, approximately 510 foreign NGO representative offices (representing 420 distinct organizations) had registered under the Foreign NGO Management Law, with nearly half of those focusing on industry or trade promotion activities.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, by the end of 2017, there were more than 800,000 registered social organizations, public institutions, and foundations. Many experts believed the actual number of domestic NGOs to be much higher. Domestic NGOs reported foreign funding continued to drop, as many domestic NGOs sought to avoid such funding due to fear of being labeled as “subversive” in the face of growing restrictions imposed by new laws. NGOs existed under a variety of formal and informal guises, including national mass organizations created and funded by the CCP that are organizationally prohibited from exercising any independence, known as government-operated NGOs, or GONGOs.
For donations to a domestic organization from a foreign NGO, the Foreign NGO Management Law requires foreign NGOs to maintain a representative office in the country to receive funds, or to use the bank account of a domestic NGO when conducting temporary activities. By law foreign NGOs are prohibited from using any other method to send and receive funds, and such funding must be reported to the Ministry of Public Security. Foreign NGOs are prohibited from fundraising and “for-profit activities” under the law.
Although all registered organizations came under some degree of government control, some NGOs, primarily service-oriented GONGOs, were able to operate with less day-to-day scrutiny. Authorities supported the growth of some NGOs that focused on social problems, such as poverty alleviation and disaster relief. Law and regulations explicitly prohibit organizations from conducting political or religious activities, and organizations that refused to comply faced criminal penalties.
Authorities continued to restrict and evict local NGOs that received foreign funding and international NGOs that provided assistance to Tibetan communities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Almost all were forced to curtail their activities altogether due to travel restrictions, official intimidation of staff members, and the failure of local partners to renew project agreements.
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 at times did not respect these rights.
The government increasingly silenced activists by denying them permission to travel, both internationally and domestically, or keeping them under unofficial house arrest.
In-country Movement: Authorities continued to maintain tight restrictions on freedom of movement, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries, visits by foreign dignitaries, or major political events, as well as to forestall demonstrations. Freedom of movement for Tibetans continued to be very limited in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. Uighurs faced draconian restrictions on movement within Xinjiang and outside the region. Although the use of “domestic passports” that called for local official approval before traveling to another area was discontinued in 2016, identification checks remained in place when entering or leaving cities and on public roads. In Xinjiang, security officials set up checkpoints managing entry into public places, including markets and mosques, that required Uighurs to scan their national identity card, undergo a facial recognition check, and put any baggage through airport-style security screening. Such restrictions were not applied to Han Chinese in these areas.
The government maintained restrictions on the freedom to change one’s workplace or residence, the national household registration system (hukou) continued to change, and the ability of most citizens to move within the country to work and live continued to expand. While many rural residents migrated to the cities, where the per capita disposable income was approximately three times the rural per capita income, they often could not change their official residence or workplace within the country. Most cities had annual quotas for the number of new temporary residence permits they could issue, and all workers, including university graduates, had to compete for a limited number of such permits. It was particularly difficult for rural residents to obtain household registration in more economically developed urban areas.
The household registration system added to the difficulties faced by rural residents, even after they relocated to urban areas and found employment. According to the Statistical Communique of the People’s Republic of China on 2019 National Economic and Social Development, published in February by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 286 million individuals lived outside the jurisdiction of their household registration. Migrant workers and their families faced numerous obstacles with regard to working conditions and labor rights. Many were unable to access public services, such as public education for their children or social insurance, in the cities where they lived and worked because they were not legally registered urban residents.
From May to July, non-Beijing residents applied for a Beijing hukou under the special municipality’s new points-based system. Under the new policy enacted in 2018, nonnatives of the city under the legal retirement age who have held a Beijing temporary residence permit with the city’s social insurance records for seven consecutive years and were without a criminal record were eligible to accumulate points for the hukou. Those with “good employment, stable homes in Beijing, strong educational background, and achievements in innovation and establishing start-ups in Beijing” were reportedly likely to obtain high scores in the point-based competition.
Under the “staying at prison employment” system applicable to recidivists incarcerated in administrative detention, authorities denied certain persons permission to return to their homes after serving their sentences. Some released or paroled prisoners returned home but did not have freedom of movement.
Foreign Travel: The government permitted legal emigration and foreign travel for most citizens. Government employees and retirees, especially from the military, continued to face foreign travel restrictions. The government expanded the use of exit controls for departing passengers at airports and other border crossings to deny foreign travel to some dissidents and persons employed in government posts. Throughout the year many lawyers, artists, authors, and other activists were at times prevented from exiting the country. Authorities also blocked the travel of some family members of rights activists and of suspected corrupt officials and businesspersons, including foreign family members.
Border officials and police sometimes cited threats to “national security” as the reason for refusing permission to leave the country, although often authorities provided no reason for such exit bans. Authorities stopped most such persons at the airport at the time of their attempted travel.
Most citizens could obtain passports, although individuals the government deemed potential political threats, including religious leaders, political dissidents, petitioners, and ethnic minorities, routinely reported being refused passports or otherwise prevented from traveling overseas.
Uighurs, particularly those residing in Xinjiang, reported great difficulty in getting passport applications approved at the local level. They were frequently denied passports to travel abroad, particularly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, to other Muslim countries, or to Western countries for academic purposes. Since 2016 authorities ordered Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports or told residents no new passports were available. Foreign national family members of Uighur activists living overseas were also denied visas to enter the country. The government continued its concerted efforts to compel Uighurs studying abroad to return to China, often pressuring relatives in Xinjiang to ask their overseas relatives to return. Authorities also refused to renew passports for Uighurs living abroad, compelling them to either return to China or pursue ways to maintain legal status in other countries. Upon return, many of these Uighurs, or persons connected with the Xinjiang residents, were detained or disappeared.
Tibetans faced significant hurdles in acquiring passports, and for Buddhist monks and nuns, it was virtually impossible. Authorities’ unwillingness to issue or even renew old passports for Tibetans created, in effect, a ban on foreign travel for the Tibetan population. Han Chinese residents of Tibetan areas did not experience the same difficulties.
The government continued to try to prevent many Tibetans and Uighurs from leaving the country and detained many when they attempted to leave. Some family members of rights activists who tried to emigrate were unable to do so.
Exile: The law neither provides for a citizen’s right to repatriate nor addresses exile. The government continued to refuse re-entry to numerous citizens considered dissidents, Falun Gong activists, or “troublemakers.” Although authorities allowed some dissidents living abroad to return, dissidents released on medical parole and allowed to leave the country often were effectively exiled.
Chen Xiaoya, author of the History of Civil Rights Movement 1989, was turned away by Guangxi customs officials when she tried to travel abroad on January 10. Customs officers told her that she was banned from leaving the country because she might jeopardize national security.
Fuzhou-based human rights activist Zhuang Lei attempted to visit Hong Kong on June 6 but was stopped by Shenzhen enforcement officers at the border. Zhuang, who claimed to have no criminal record, was referred to Fuzhou’s domestic security police by the Shenzhen officers. Zhuang believed he was prevented from traveling to Hong Kong due to concerns that he might participate in the Hong Kong protests against an extradition bill on June 9.
Families of “709” lawyers faced difficulties applying for passports or were barred from leaving the country.
Foshan dissident Chen Qitang was released from Sihui Prison on May 24, after serving four and one-half years in jail for “subversion of state power.” After his release, he was prevented from returning home.
On June 1, police in Guilin and Liuzhou summoned internet users who had discussed on social media their plans to travel to Hong Kong to participate in the annual gathering in Victoria Park commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and ordered them not to go to Hong Kong. In April the 1990s Cantonese pop song “Ren Jian Dao” was banned nationwide, including on Apple Music, because the lyrics were believed to be making a reference to the 1989 massacre.
Although restricting access to border areas, the government regularly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which maintained an office in Beijing.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: There were reports North Korean agents operated clandestinely within the country to repatriate North Korean citizens against their will. In addition, North Koreans detained by PRC authorities faced repatriation unless they could pay bribes to secure their release. North Korean refugees were either detained in holding facilities or placed under house arrest at undisclosed locations. Family members wanting to prevent forced returns of their North Korean relatives were required to pay fees to Chinese authorities purportedly to cover expenses incurred while in detention. While detained North Koreans were occasionally released, they were rarely given the necessary permissions for safe passage to a third country.
Refoulement: The government continued to consider North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” rather than refugees or asylum seekers and refouled many of them to North Korea. Missionaries in China involved in helping North Koreans reach safe destinations said that Chinese authorities’ crackdown on North Korean defectors had intensified since Kim Jong Un took power.
In April Chinese authorities apprehended three North Korean women, three men, and a 10-year-old girl who fled from North Korea. RFA reported in August that China had detained 60 North Korean defectors and had refouled them to North Korea where they faced harsh punishments including torture, forced abortions, forced labor, sexual violence, or death.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of refugee or asylum status. The government did not have a system for providing protection to refugees but generally recognized UNHCR-registered refugees in China. Asylum applicants and refugees remained in the country without access to education or social services and were subject to deportation at any time.
North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, particularly young women living on the margins of society, were vulnerable to trafficking and forced marriages as a result of their unrecognized status. Authorities continued to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees and asylum seekers, including trafficking victims, generally treating them as illegal economic migrants. The government detained and deported them to North Korea, where they faced severe punishment or death, including in North Korean forced-labor camps. The government did not provide North Korean trafficking victims with legal alternatives to repatriation.
UNHCR reported that Chinese officials continued to restrict its access to border areas. Authorities sometimes detained and prosecuted citizens who assisted North Korean refugees, as well as those who facilitated illegal border crossings.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees, including North Korean asylum seekers in the country seeking economic opportunities generally did not have access to health care, public education, or other social services due to lack of legal status.
Durable Solutions: The government largely cooperated with UNHCR when dealing with the local settlement in China of Han Chinese or ethnic minorities from Vietnam and Laos living in the country since the Vietnam War era. The government and UNHCR continued discussions concerning the granting of citizenship to these long-term residents and their children, many of whom were born in China.
International media reported as many as 30,000 children born to North Korean women in China, most of whom were trafficked and married to Chinese spouses, had not been registered because their North Korean parent was undocumented, leaving the children de facto stateless. These children were denied access to public services, including education and health care, despite provisions in the law that provide citizenship to children with at least one PRC citizen parent. Chinese fathers reportedly sometimes do not register their children to avoid exposing the illegal status of their North Korean partners.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and an unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters. During the year, however, some SAR and central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were some legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Police arrested several individuals for damaging the national flag, which is illegal. For example, in May police arrested a proindependence activist for damaging the Chinese national flag during a protest against the controversial extradition bill. In October, media reported police asked Facebook to remove user posts about police handling of protests. Facebook reportedly declined to do so.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China in order to run for office. The commission disqualified one candidate, democracy activist Joshua Wong, from running in the November district council election. The government determined that Wong could not “possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting ‘self-determination’ is contrary to the content of the declaration” candidates are required to sign.
In 2017 the government disqualified six legislators-elect from taking office because they took their oaths in ways that did not conform to a 2016 NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law to demonstrate “sincerity” and “solemnity” when taking an oath.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. An April Hong Kong Journalists Association poll found, however, that 81 percent of journalists said press freedom in the SAR had worsened since 2018.
Violence and Harassment: In September unknown persons threw firebombs at the home of Jimmy Lai, owner of the prodemocracy Apple Daily newspaper. Also in September, four unknown assailants attacked an Apple Daily reporter who was covering protests. In November protesters smashed windows and vandalized the offices of China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Several journalists alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them while covering protests. In October the Foreign Correspondent’s Club condemned the arrest of a photojournalist who was covering a protest. Police reportedly ordered her and other journalists to remove their gas masks despite previous government assurances that the mask ban did not apply to those using masks to perform their professional duties.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. The April Hong Kong Journalists Association survey showed that one in five journalists surveyed said their superiors had pressured them to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence. Many media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship.
The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use.
There were reports of suspected politically motivated cyberattacks against private persons and organizations. In June the creator of the encrypted messaging app Telegram said the app, frequently used by protesters in Hong Kong, was the target of a massive cyberattack, apparently originating from mainland China. In August a similar attack briefly disabled the LIHKG online-chat forum, also frequently used by protesters to organize activities.
There were some restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events. A museum dedicated to memorializing the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square reopened in a new location in May after previously closing due to pressure from the museum’s prior landlord. In October Hong Kong Community College assigned Chan Wai-keung, a lecturer, to nonteaching duties after dozens of antigovernment protesters surrounded him and insulted him inside his classroom after Chan publicly called for stiffer penalties against violent protesters. In November the Education Bureau warned students in all government-run schools not to participate in “political activities” while at school.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government allowed most public gatherings to proceed, but government actions, including prosecutions of activists and refusals to grant approval for some assemblies, infringed on the right of peaceful protest.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. Before violence erupted at some protests, the police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and Chinese central government. After violence began occurring at some protests, however, the police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches. The police also revoked permission for some gatherings after they started. Police on each occasion said they feared the gatherings would result in violence. Police frequently warned participants in unapproved protests that they were participating in unlawful assemblies. As of year’s end, police confirmed more than 6,000 arrests on varying charges in connection with the protests.
Media reports indicated that on several occasions police arrested onlookers not involved in protests. Police also fired thousands of rounds of tear gas to disperse crowds. Several human rights organizations repeated longstanding concerns that the SAR’s legal definitions of illegal assembly and rioting, charges frequently brought against protesters, were overly broad.
On several occasions the MTR Corporation, the operator of Hong Kong’s subway system, suspended services before and during protests. For example, on August 24, the MTR suspended services to Kwun Tong Station, the site of a police-approved protest. Critics claimed the MTR Corporation was acting to suppress peaceful protest in response to mainland state media criticism that the rail operator was facilitating protest. The Hong Kong government owns a majority stake in the MTR Corporation.
In October Chief Executive Lam, through executive fiat under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), banned the wearing of masks. Protesters frequently wore masks to protect themselves from tear gas and to hide their identity from police and from employers who might be pressured to punish employees who support the protests. In November a Hong Kong court ruled the government’s use of the ERO to implement the mask ban unconstitutional.
Continuing government prosecutions of peaceful protesters led to concerns the government was using the law to suppress political dissent. For example, in April and June, a court sentenced Benny Tai and eight other leaders of the 2014 “Occupy Central” protests following their convictions for actions related to peaceful protests. The court sentenced four of the nine to jail for eight to 16 months; the remaining five received community service or were given suspended sentences. All nine defendants have appealed their convictions.
On several occasions progovernment vigilantes, whom the international NGO Freedom House described in some cases as having “probable ties to the Chinese government,” violently attacked protesters and protest organizers. The largest vigilante attack occurred on July 21. On that day a group of more than 100 men, which police sources told the South China Morning Post included persons with organized crime connections, beat protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long subway station, resulting in at least 45 injuries. In August, two unknown men attacked Jimmy Sham, the leader of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), with baseball bats the day before the CHRF was scheduled to lead a large protest march. In October unknown men used hammers to attack Jimmy Sham again. The CHRF was the organizer of the year’s largest protests. On several occasions, prodemocracy protesters also physically attacked allegedly progovernment individuals. For example, in November, one protester lit a man who was heckling him on fire.
SAR law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. In February, however, the Executive Council upheld the ban on the proindependence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP). The ban came after repeated SAR and Chinese central government warnings that advocacy for Hong Kong independence “crosses a red line.”
Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a fine of HK$100,000 ($12,800) and a maximum of three years in prison. Those 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, and the government generally respected these rights.
Reports that the Immigration Department refused entry to a small number of persons traveling to the SAR for political reasons continued. In May Immigration Department authorities denied entry to former Philippine supreme court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, who previously accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity, according to media reports. Activists and other observers contended that refusals, usually of persons holding, or suspected of holding, views critical of the Chinese central government, were made at the behest of mainland authorities.
Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government, although Chinese central government authorities in the past did not permit some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators to visit the mainland. There were reports of mainland security officials harassing and questioning Hong Kong residents suspected of participating in protests when they traveled to the mainland. In August central government officials detained an employee of the United Kingdom’s consulate in Hong Kong while he was returning from the mainland to his home in Hong Kong. He was released after more than two weeks in detention and later told media that mainland authorities tortured him.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were the frequent target of generalizations by some political parties and media organizations.
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 used 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 entry. 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, less than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice which 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. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to legally work in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking.
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. 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. 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. Some such persons have waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Tibet
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Freedom of Expression: Tibetans who spoke to foreigners or foreign reporters, attempted to provide information to persons outside the country, or communicated information regarding protests or other expressions of discontent including via mobile phones and internet-based communications, were subject to harassment or detention under “crimes of undermining social stability and inciting separatism.” During the year authorities in the TAR and other Tibetan areas sought to strengthen control over electronic media and to punish individuals for the vaguely defined crime of “creating and spreading rumors.” Supporting the CCP, criticizing the Dalai Lama, and “not creating and spreading rumors” were some of the major requirements Tibetans had to fulfill to apply for jobs and receive access to government benefits.
Media reports in October noted that advertisements for teaching positions within the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Foreign journalists may visit the TAR only after obtaining a special travel permit from the government, and authorities rarely granted this permission.
Authorities tightly controlled journalists who worked for the domestic press and could hire and fire them based on assessments of their political reliability. In April the Shannan Newspaper, a daily newspaper in Lhoka City, TAR, included in a listing for new positions the requirement that employees “resolutely implement the party’s line, principles, policies, and political stance, fight against separatism, and safeguard the motherland’s unity and ethnic unity.” CCP propaganda authorities remained in charge of journalist accreditation in the TAR and required journalists working in the TAR to display “loyalty to the party and motherland.” The deputy head of the TAR Propaganda Department simultaneously holds a prominent position in the TAR Journalist Association, a state-controlled professional association to which local journalists must belong.
Violence and Harassment: PRC authorities arrested and sentenced many Tibetan writers, intellectuals, and singers for “inciting separatism.” Numerous prominent Tibetan political writers, including Jangtse Donkho, Kelsang Jinpa, Buddha, Tashi Rabten, Arik Dolma Kyab, Gangkye Drupa Kyab, and Shojkhang (also known as Druklo), reported security officers closely monitored them following their releases from prison between 2013 and 2019 and often ordered them to return to police stations for further interrogation. In addition, authorities banned some writers from publishing and prohibited them from receiving services and benefits such as government jobs, bank loans, passports, and membership in formal organizations.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Authorities prohibited domestic journalists from reporting on repression in Tibetan areas. Authorities promptly censored the postings of bloggers and users of WeChat who did so, and the authors sometimes faced punishment.
The TAR Internet and Information Office maintained tight control of a full range of social media platforms. According to multiple observers, security officials often cancelled WeChat accounts carrying “sensitive information,” such as discussions about Tibetan-language education, and interrogated the account owners. Many sources also reported it was almost impossible to register with the government, as required by law, websites promoting Tibetan culture and language in the TAR.
The PRC continued to disrupt radio broadcasts of Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan- and Mandarin-language services in Tibetan areas, as well as those of the Voice of Tibet, an independent radio station based in Norway.
In addition to maintaining strict censorship of print and online content in Tibetan areas, PRC authorities sought to censor the expression of views or distribution of information related to Tibet in countries and regions outside mainland China.
As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.
In February, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and win the online antiseparatist battle.”
Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.
As in recent years, authorities in many Tibetan areas required professors and students at institutions of higher education to attend regular political education sessions, particularly during politically sensitive months, to prevent “separatist” political and religious activities on campus. Authorities frequently encouraged Tibetan academics to participate in government propaganda efforts, both domestically and overseas, such as making public speeches supporting government policies. Academics who refused to cooperate with such efforts faced diminished prospects for promotion and research grants.
Academics in the PRC who publicly criticized CCP policies on Tibetan affairs faced official reprisal. The government controlled curricula, texts, and other course materials as well as the publication of historically or politically sensitive academic books. Authorities frequently denied Tibetan academics permission to travel overseas for conferences and academic or cultural exchanges the party had not organized or approved. Authorities in Tibetan areas regularly banned the sale and distribution of music they deemed to have sensitive political content.
The state-run TAR Academy of Social Science continued to encourage scholars to maintain “a correct political and academic direction” in its March conference to “improve scholars’ political ideology” and “fight against separatists” under the guidance of Xi Jinping.
In May police detained Sonam Lhundrub, a Tibetan university student in Lanzhou City, Gansu, after he wrote an essay criticizing the government. His essay noted the lack of government job positions available to Tibetans in the province and the difficulty of competing with Han Chinese applicants for jobs.
In accordance with government guidance on ethnic assimilation, state policies continued to disrupt traditional Tibetan living patterns and customs and accelerated forced assimilation through promoting the influx of non-Tibetans to traditionally Tibetan areas, expanding the domestic tourism industry, forcibly resettling and urbanizing nomads and farmers, and weakening Tibetan-language education in public schools and religious education in monasteries.
Tibetan and Mandarin Chinese are the official languages of the TAR. Both languages appeared on some, but not all, public and commercial signs. Official buildings and businesses, including banks, post offices, and hospitals, frequently lacked signage in Tibetan. In many instances forms and documents were available only in Mandarin. Mandarin was used for most official communications and was the predominant language of instruction in public schools in many Tibetan areas. To print in the Tibetan language, private printing businesses in Chengdu needed special government approval, which was often difficult to obtain.
Financial and subsistence aid is sometimes tied to a reeducation program called “Unity and Love for the Motherland,” a program that continued to expand since its inception in 2017. In areas where this program was in place, state subsidies and incentives were given only to Tibetans who could demonstrate support and knowledge of CCP leaders and ideology, often requiring them to memorize party slogans and phrases of past CCP leaders and to sing the national anthem. These tests were carried out in Chinese, disadvantaging Tibetans who could not speak or read Chinese.
According to multiple sources, monasteries throughout Tibetan areas of China were required to integrate CCP members into their governance structure, with party members exercising control over monastic admission, education, security, and finances. This requirement included geographic residency limitations on who can attend each monastery. In August monks from prominent Tibetan monasteries attending a government training were told to “lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society” and that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama “would not be affected by the Dalai Lama’s separatist clique.”
PRC law states “schools (classes and grades) and other institutions of education where most of the students come from minority nationalities shall, whenever possible, use textbooks in their own languages and use their languages as the media of instruction.” Despite guarantees of cultural and linguistic rights, many primary, middle, high school, and college students had limited access to officially approved Tibetan-language instruction and textbooks, particularly in the areas of “modern-day education,” which refers to nontraditional, nonreligious education, particularly computers, physical education, arts, and other “modern” subjects.
The country’s most prestigious universities provided no instruction in Tibetan or other ethnic minority languages, although classes teaching the Tibetan language were available at a small number of universities. “Nationalities” universities, established to serve ethnic minority students and Han Chinese students interested in ethnic minority subjects, offered Tibetan language instruction only in courses focused on the study of the Tibetan language or culture. Mandarin was used in courses for jobs that required technical skills and qualifications.
Even in areas officially designated as “autonomous,” Tibetans generally lacked the right to organize and play a meaningful role in the protection of their cultural heritage and unique natural environment. Tibetans often faced government intimidation and arrest if they protested official policies or practices.
In March and July, local observers noted that many monasteries and rural villages in the TAR and Tibetan areas in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu received official warnings not to organize certain gatherings, including the celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
PRC law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the government severely restricted travel and freedom of movement for Tibetans, particularly Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay persons whom the government considered to have “poor political records.”
In-country Movement: The People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus set up roadblocks and checkpoints in Tibetan areas on major roads, in cities, and on the outskirts of cities and monasteries, particularly around sensitive dates. Tibetans traveling in monastic attire were subject to extra scrutiny by police at roadside checkpoints and at airports. Tibetans without local residency were turned away from many Tibetan areas deemed sensitive by the government.
Authorities sometimes banned Tibetans, particularly monks and nuns, from leaving the TAR and from traveling to the TAR without first obtaining special permission from multiple government offices. Some Tibetans reported encountering difficulties in obtaining the required permissions. Such restrictions not only made it difficult for Tibetans to make pilgrimages to sacred religious sites in the TAR, but they also made it difficult to visit family, conduct business, or travel for leisure. Tibetans from outside the TAR who traveled to Lhasa also reported that authorities there required them to surrender their national identification cards and notify authorities of their plans in detail on a daily basis. These requirements were not applied to Han Chinese visitors to the TAR.
Even outside the TAR, many Tibetan monks and nuns reported it remained difficult to travel beyond their home monasteries for religious and traditional Tibetan education, with officials frequently denying permission for visiting monks to stay at a monastery for religious education. Implementation of this restriction was especially rigorous in the TAR, and it undermined the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice of seeking advanced teachings from a select number of senior teachers based at major monasteries scattered across the Tibetan Plateau.
Foreign Travel: Many Tibetans continued to report difficulties in obtaining new or renewing existing passports. Sources reported that Tibetans and certain other ethnic minorities had to provide far more extensive documentation than other citizens when applying for a PRC passport. For Tibetans, the passport application process sometimes required years and frequently ended in rejection. Some Tibetans reported they were able to obtain passports only after paying substantial bribes and offering written promises to conduct only apolitical or nonsensitive international travel.
Tibetans continued to encounter significant obstacles in traveling to India for religious, educational, and other purposes. In some instances the government refused to issue passports to Tibetans. Many Tibetans who possessed passports were concerned authorities would place them on the government’s blacklist and therefore did not travel. Tibetans who had traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sources reported that explicit punishments included placing family members on a blacklist, which could lead to the loss of a government job or difficulty in finding employment; expulsion of children from the public education system; and revocation of national identification cards, thereby preventing access to other social services, such as health care and government aid.
The government restricted the movement of Tibetans in the period before and during sensitive anniversaries and events and increased controls over border areas at these times. According to local observers, travel agents in the cities of Chengdu, Xining, and Kunming were forbidden to sell overseas package tours to Tibetans for the months of March and July, the periods around Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) and the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6). Travel restrictions also increased around Chinese National Day (October 1).
The government strictly regulated travel of international visitors to the TAR, a restriction not applied to any other provincial-level entity of the PRC. In accordance with a 1989 regulation, international visitors had to obtain an official confirmation letter issued by the TAR government before entering the TAR. Most foreign tourists obtained such letters by booking tours through officially registered travel agencies. In the TAR a government-designated tour guide had to accompany international tourists at all times. It was rare for foreigners to obtain permission to enter the TAR by road. As in prior years, authorities banned many international tourists from the TAR in the period before and during the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising as well as during other periods the PRC government deemed politically sensitive. International tourists sometimes also faced restrictions traveling to Tibetan areas outside the TAR during such times.
The 2018 Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act defines open access to Tibet as meeting the following two criteria: that U.S. diplomats, journalists, and citizens can access Tibetan areas in the same way as other areas in China, and that no special permits or procedures are required to access Tibetan areas. During the year the PRC did not provide open access to Tibet based on either criterion. PRC authorities repeatedly denied requests for international journalists to visit the TAR and other Tibetan areas (see Freedom of Expression section). The TAR government also frequently denied foreign diplomats’ requests for official travel. Although foreign officials were able to travel more freely in Tibetan areas outside the TAR, the People’s Armed Police and local public security bureaus often subjected them to multiple checkpoints. Local government officials routinely limited diplomatic travel within Sichuan Province.
From February to April, the local government reportedly banned foreign tourists from visiting the TAR in advance of Tibet Uprising Day and the convening of the PRC’s national legislature.
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live in exile throughout the world. Tibetans live outside of China for many reasons, although policies enacted by the PRC government in Tibetan areas were frequently cited as the primary factor. Among those living outside of China are the 14th Dalai Lama and several other senior religious leaders who are not approved by the PRC government. These leaders were often unable to meet directly with their home monasteries and students.
The Tibetan overseas community is often subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. Individuals reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China.
In September media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the phones of several leaders in the Central Tibetan Administration, the governance organization of the overseas Tibetan community, as well as officials in the Office of the Dalai Lama.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, on condition that it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. The government passed two additional laws further criminalizing freedom of expression: Decree 349, which came into effect in December 2018, institutionalizes censorship of independent art and culture and establishes violations for art that was not regulated or recognized by the official cultural institutions. The decree also allows “supervising inspectors” to review cultural events and empowers them to immediately close any exhibition they deem violates the law and confiscate the business license of any business hosting the offending event. The National Symbols Law criminalizes the way the national flag may be displayed or used in other creative contexts.
Police arrested several persons who protested these laws during the year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting cultural independence, who was arrested at least 18 times in 2018 and 2019, with the last arrest occurring on December 10, International Human Rights Day. On August 9, police arrested him in front of his privately owned Museum of Dissidence for his performance art protest against the National Symbols Law. His performance consisted of wearing a national flag draped over his shoulders. He was also arrested on September 12, when three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers beat him and took him away in an unmarked vehicle, holding him incommunicado for more than 72 hours. On September 13, he was charged with violating the National Symbols Law and then released on the condition that he not leave his home after midnight, drink alcohol in a public place, or frequent public places. Several other members of the San Isidro Movement were assaulted, arrested, and fined during the year.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The fora’s organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.
In contrast with 2018, some religious groups reported increased restrictions to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings. Most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations in the country.
On October 10, 19 independent media outlets published a joint declaration on the state of independent journalism in the country. They denounced the 183 documented incidents of state aggression against journalists since January 2018, part of a broader wave of repression of independent journalism, and demanded the state respect a more open, transparent, and diverse independent media.
On April 22, journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones was arrested and assaulted while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Quinones was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors who were facing a court sentence because they wanted to homeschool their children when police officers approached to arrest him. Quinones asked why he was being arrested. Rather than answer, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck 65-year-old Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, he was sentenced to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience,” and on September 11, he was taken to prison, after authorities processed and then denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter saying he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, Quinones was reportedly punished and threatened with “disciplinary action.”
Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content–interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health–was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Among many blocked websites, in September the government blocked Change.org after several petitions critical of the government appeared on the website. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.
The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons for the ambiguous crime of “contempt of authority.”
Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
The government restricted access to the internet, and there were reports the government monitored without appropriate legal authority citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small but increasing number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and extralegal surveillance to censor information critical to the regime and to silence its critics.
Internet access was limited to a national network that offered only government-run email and government-generated websites, at a fraction of the price of internet available to the public. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers. The government selectively granted highly censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.
During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots, and in December 2018 it launched third generation (3G) mobile service that allowed persons for the first time to access the internet on their cell phones without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi, but the cost was beyond the means of most citizens. In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of websites blocked fluctuated, with approximately 20 websites blocked on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CubaNet and Marti Noticias and websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government also blocked voice ports used by the Session Initiation Protocol, one of the most common protocols used in voice, video, and messaging applications, and any webpage that the government considered contrary to its interests. Public reports revealed that the government used the Avila Link program to route connections to a proxy server, allowing the government to monitor citizens’ internet use and retaliate.
The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a system of user-owned and -operated grassroots wireless community networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. On July 29, new regulations came into effect designed to bring these independent networks under state regulation by transferring SNet services and content to Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A (ETECSA), the government-monopoly internet service provider. Users who protested the decision or merely resisted it were surveilled, threatened, and arrested by state security agents. Ariel Maceo Tellez, one of the SNet coordinators, was arrested on August 16.
While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that would provide uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in August.
The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also illegal. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure challenges, a growing number of citizens maintained blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from foreign supporters, who often built and maintained the blog sites overseas. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition, a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media to report independently on developments in the country, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse.
Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected service for human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, on September 6-7, the internet access of several UNPACU members was suspended ahead of a planned march, and on October 3, the government suspended the internet access of UNPACU national committee member Katherine Mojena Hernandez after she repeatedly tweeted about a government crackdown on the group.
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval and, at times, the presence of a government monitor. Those permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives back home. During the year the government allowed some religious educational centers greater latitude to operate.
Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, at least 30 professors were expelled from universities from 1991 to 2019, and academics and their students faced increased ideological discrimination during the year. For example, on August 20, Martha del Carmen Mesa Valenciano, vice minister of higher education, published an open letter announcing, “Whoever does not feel they are an activist of our Party’s revolutionary politics, an advocate of our ideology, our morality, our political convictions, must resign their position as a university professor.” This statement attempted to justify the firing of university professor Omara Ruiz Urquiola. While it was unclear if the open letter was written government policy, it acknowledged a longstanding practice of firing university professors for their ideology. During a September 16 appearance on Mesa Redonda (Roundtable), a popular program on state television, State Minister of Higher Education Jose Ramon Saborido Loidi confirmed that public universities censored and expelled professors and students who contradicted the CCP or its leaders.
The increasingly public hostility toward dissent had a chilling effect on academic discourse and led some institutions to go even farther, such as Universidad de Oriente, which published a long article on October 2 justifying the termination of law professor Rene Fidel Gonzalez Garcia. The university faulted him for a series of “controversial, contradictory, and disrespectful” articles written from 2012 to 2016 that assumed hypothetical positions in order to examine their intellectual merit. The university alleged the articles “caused teachers, students, and citizens in general to question the contents or sometimes sympathized with the positions in their confusion” and generally generated debate. University officials took offense when Gonzales asserted his free speech rights under the constitution and declared he “did not understand the limits of this right.” They subsequently suspended him from teaching duties and expelled him from the CCP.
During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.
Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so could carry a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials. Some reported they received warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.
Independent activists, as well as political parties other than the CCP, faced greater obstacles, and state security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrators or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.
On May 11, authorities violently halted an independent march by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists, beating and detaining several participants. In another instance the government suppressed marches planned for September 8, the feast day of the country’s patron saint, organized by UNPACU. The march, named the Sunflower March in honor of the flower that represents the patron saint, prompted the government to ban sales of sunflowers in cities in the days leading up to the march. Several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7, and on September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested. In total, the government arrested at least 130 individuals after raiding several UNPACU offices and homes of UNPACU members as well as accosting others already in the streets, many of whom were beaten during their arrest. Most persons arrested were released within a few days, often after paying a fine, but one organizer, Ovidio Martin Castellano, was sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to pay a 2,000 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($80) fine. On September 10, the government followed up by raiding UNPACU headquarters again. Several UNPACU leaders and their family members were arrested and held incommunicado for days. The government routinely barred independent meetings related to animal rights, gender violence, and other forms of civil society activism not officially sanctioned by the state.
The government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those assembled peacefully. The targets of this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims or respond to victims’ complaints and instead frequently orchestrated the activities or took direct part in physical assaults.
The government routinely denied citizens freedom of association and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings. For example, on August 31, state security agents raided a meeting of the Pena del Jucaro Martiano, a group of intellectuals who met to study and celebrate the life of national writer Jose Marti. Officials prevented persons from entering the house where the meeting was held, entered the house on the pretense of an “electrical meter check,” threatened and photographed persons who arrived, and arrested and then interrogated one member, Alenmichel Aguilo, for several hours.
Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the party’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities and exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons.
Groups must register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities continued to ignore applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups as well as women’s rights and gay rights organizations, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.
The government continued to afford preferential treatment to those who took an active part in CCP activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government, especially when awarding valued public benefits, such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
There continued to be restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government also controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting persons in Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that they were critical of the government or for having “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors or defected athletes. Chess master Jennifer Perez was denied a passport at least four times because, as Cuban authorities in Ecuador told her, she was considered a deserter for deciding to reside abroad to take advantage of better job opportunities.
Some family members of former government employees who emigrated from the island lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of 500 CUP ($20) for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were becoming infrequent. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.
Under the terms of the 1994-1995 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally if they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.
In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, changes of residence to Havana were restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization from these bodies and send them back to their legally authorized place of residence. There were reports authorities limited social services to illegal Havana residents. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.
The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces or detained and returned them to their homes, even though they had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to require several professional and social categories of individuals to obtain permission for emigrant travel, including highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists. It also used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad. According to the NGO Patmos Institute, as of October there were at least 202 citizens whom authorities designated as regulados, meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and in an October 1 interview with the Associated Press, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because citizens are prohibited from leaving without explanation or justification, and the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance, pending third-country resettlement. In addition, the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved. In June, however, 142 Congolese medical students protesting unpaid stipends at their embassy in Havana for several months were arrested and deported to the Republic of the Congo, despite several of them expressing fears for their safety if returned.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”
The Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication; however, it has not been implemented.
The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.
Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament. A July UN report noted “increasing restrictions” on freedom of expression.
The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and for insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.
In June and August, two dozen civil society activists circulated two separate letters calling on the supreme leader to step down and begin a process to develop a new constitution. Authorities arrested nearly all of the signatories to these letters and charged them with “propaganda against the state” and “collusion against national security.” Their trials continued before a revolutionary court.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.” According to the Washington Post, the ministry temporarily stopped issuing permits to any foreign correspondents during the summer.
Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials (approximately $2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, conducted periodic campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.
Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the Audiovisual Policy Agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.
Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.
In June, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, presiding over Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 28, sentenced Masoud Kazemi, editor in chief of the monthly political magazine Sedaye Parsi, to four and one-half years in prison followed by a two-year ban from working as a journalist for national security charges of spreading misinformation and insulting the supreme leader. In November 2018 authorities arrested Kazemi for reporting on corruption in the Ministry of Industry.
Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.
According to information provided by Journalism is not a Crime, an organization devoted to documenting freedom of the press in the country, at least 38 journalists or citizen-journalists were imprisoned as of December.
Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering demonstrations throughout the year in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them. On May 4, authorities arrested Marzieh Amiri, a journalist for Shargh, a leading reformist newspaper, at a protest outside the parliament building in Tehran. In reaction to Amiri’s arrest, member of parliament Mohammad-Ali Pourmokhtar reportedly said to state media, “[J]ournalists don’t have the right to report on anything they want. They are the problem.” Pourmokhtar noted there was nothing wrong with Amiri’s arrest since she had been exposing important information to enemy states. Amiri posted bail of one billion rials ($23,000) and was released from Evin Prison in late October.
In July, Amnesty International called for the release of three reporters for Gam (Step), a Telegram app news channel covering labor issues. According to Amnesty International’s report and other reporting from human rights organizations, authorities arrested Amirhossein Mohammadifard, Gam’s editor in chief; his wife Sanaz Allahyari, a reporter; and Amir Amirgholi, a Gam staff reporter, in January. The journalists reportedly faced national security charges connected to their reporting on workers’ rights protests in Khuzestan Province. Authorities released the journalists on bail in late October.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.
In July the Huffington Post reported that the government had set conditions for the BBC not to share reporting materials it gathered inside the country with BBC Persian, its Persian language channel. According to the report, the agreement was made in exchange for the government to allow a BBC correspondent into the country.
Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. The Islamic Republic News Agency determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are in the country, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.
National Security: Authorities routinely cited laws on protecting national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or to deter criticism of government policies or officials. In January authorities charged three members of the Iran Writer’s Association with national-security-related crimes, reportedly for publishing information opposing censorship of art and literature, according to CHRI.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to approximately 40 days after the protests began, when the government may be concerned that families of those killed would organize new protests surrounding memorial ceremonies for the victims. Authorities also monitored private online communications and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.
The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems. The Supreme Leader’s Office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.
The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to widespread media and NGO reports, the government shut down nearly all internet access in the country for five days following the outbreak of protests over fuel price increases on November 15. The BBC noted that authorities controlled the country’s two internet connections to the outside world, the state telecommunications firm and the Institute for Physics and Mathematics. Oracle’s internet-monitoring service called it “the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran.” Access to mobile networks in parts of the country remained heavily restricted for several weeks after the demonstrations began to diminish.
NGOs reported the government filtered content on the internet throughout the year to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.
Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations.
Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.
The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.
Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April authorities warned citizens they could be prosecuted for posting pictures of major flooding in the country’s southwest under the charge of “disturbing public opinion.” On October 5, authorities reportedly arrested Instagram user Sahar Tabar for “blasphemy” and “encouraging youths to corruption” for posts on her account depicting results of her numerous plastic surgeries. Several weeks later, she appeared to express regret for her actions in a state television broadcast that observers described as a “forced confession.” CHRI reported in August that authorities detained at least 14 Instagram “celebrities” in the previous three months and ordered them to stop their online activities.
The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.
In April, according to a CHRI report, the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council’s Committee for the Islamization of Universities passed an amendment to the country’s academic disciplinary regulations, according to which university students could be punished for engaging in online activities deemed as “unethical.” Jamasb Nozari, director of the state-run Academic Affairs Organization, stated in an interview with Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), “Publishing unethical photos or committing immoral acts in cyberspace and on information-sharing networks will result in disciplinary action against students.”
Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. According to a HRANA report in September, authorities denied university admission to at least 22 Bahai students solely based on their religious affiliation despite they passed the national admissions test (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
The government maintained control over cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.
According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, consisting of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.
In July, CHRI reported that a court sentenced filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof to one year in prison for the content of his films. According to Rasoulof, the accusations made against him in court focused on films he made examining the government’s persecution of members of the Bahai faith. Since 2017 authorities have banned Rasoulof from leaving the country and making films. Similarly, film director Jafar Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.
In July a revolutionary court sentenced in absentia Nikan Khosravi and Arash Ilkhani of the metal band Confess to more than 14 years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting the sanctity of Islam,” among other charges.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The constitution permits assemblies and marches of unarmed persons, “provided they do not violate the principles of Islam.” To prevent activities it considered antiregime, the government restricted this right and closely monitored gatherings such as public entertainment and lectures, student and women’s meetings and protests, meetings and worship services of minority religious groups, labor protests, online gatherings and networking, funeral processions, and Friday prayer gatherings.
According to activists, the government arbitrarily applied rules governing permits to assemble, as proregime groups rarely experienced difficulty, while groups viewed as critical of the regime experienced harassment regardless of whether authorities issued a permit.
Protests against government corruption and economic mismanagement continued throughout the year, as did labor-sector protests. Protests against the country’s compulsory hijab laws also increased.
On May 13, Basij militia and progovernment plainclothes vigilante groups forcibly dispersed a student demonstration at the University of Tehran, in which hundreds of students peacefully protested the country’s mandatory hijab laws. Videos showed clerics, vigilante groups, and Basij members chanting Islamic slogans, calling for the students to respect the law or leave the university. The vigilante groups later reportedly physically attacked the students after they had retreated to the university auditorium.
On November 14, the government announced a fuel subsidy cut that substantially increased the cost of gasoline. The cut sparked days of protests in nearly three-quarters of the country’s provinces and increasingly included broader expressions of frustration regarding the country’s leadership, according to media and NGO reports. Security forces responded with lethal force, killing approximately 1,500 protesters, according to international media reports (see section 1.a.). Authorities also arrested 8,600 demonstrators. Government officials described the protesters as “rioters” and did not indicate any intent to investigate protester deaths, calling the casualty figures “disinformation.”
There were no government investigations into the killings of at least 20 demonstrators during protests in 2017-18, nor were there any government investigations into the forcible dispersal of February 2018 protests by the Gonabadi Sufi dervish community, during which security forces killed numerous dervishes. Between March 9 and 12, an appeals court upheld convictions of 23 dervishes arrested at the 2018 demonstrations and confirmed sentences ranging from six to 26 years in prison, lashings, social media bans, and travel bans. Dozens of members of the Gonabadi Sufi community remained imprisoned at year’s end.
The constitution provides for the establishment of political parties, professional and political associations, and Islamic and recognized religious minority organizations, as long as such groups do not violate the principles of freedom, sovereignty, national unity, or Islamic criteria, or question Islam as the basis of the country’s system of government. The government limited the freedom of association through threats, intimidation, the imposition of arbitrary requirements on organizations, and the arrests of group leaders and members (see section 7). The government continued to broaden arbitrarily the areas of civil society work it deemed unacceptable, to include conservation and environmental efforts (see section 1.d.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions, particularly concerning migrants and women. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with regard to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
In-country Movement: Judicial sentences sometimes included internal exile after release from prison, which prevented individuals from traveling to certain provinces. Women often required the supervision of a male guardian or chaperone to travel and faced official and societal harassment for traveling alone.
Foreign Travel: The government required exit permits for foreign travel for all citizens. Citizens who were educated at government expense or received scholarships had either to repay the scholarship or receive a temporary permit to exit the country. The government restricted the foreign travel of some religious leaders, members of religious minorities, and scientists in sensitive fields.
Numerous journalists, academics, opposition politicians, human and women’s rights activists, and artists remained subject to foreign travel bans and had their passports confiscated during the year. Married women were not allowed to travel outside the country without prior permission from their husbands.
According to UNHCR, the government granted registration to 951,142 Afghans under a system known as Amayesh, through which authorities provide refugees with cards identifying them as de facto refugees. The cards enable refugees to access basic services and facilitate the issuance of work permits. The most recent Amayesh XIV renewal exercise started on May 28. In addition to registered refugees, the government hosted some 450,000 Afghans who hold Afghan passports and Iranian visas and an estimated 1.5 to 2.0 million undocumented Afghans. The country also hosted 28,268 Iraqi refugees.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: HRW and other groups reported the government continued its mistreatment of many Afghans, including physical abuse by security forces, deportations, forced recruitment to fight in Syria, detention in unsanitary and inhuman conditions, forced payment for transportation to and accommodation in deportation camps, forced labor, forced separation from families, restricted movement within the country, and restricted access to education or jobs.
Refoulement: According to activist groups and NGOs, authorities routinely arrested Afghans without Amayesh cards and sometimes threatened them with deportation. According to the International Organization for Migration, from the beginning of the year to August, more than 219,254 undocumented Afghans returned to Afghanistan, with many claiming they were pressured to leave. More than 273,089 were deported there throughout the year.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status to qualified applicants. While the government reportedly has a system for providing protection to refugees, UNHCR did not have information regarding how the country made asylum determinations. According to HRW, the government continued to block many Afghans from registering to obtain refugee status.
Afghans not registered under the Amayesh system who had migrated during past decades of conflict in their home country continued to be denied access to an asylum system or access to register with the United Nations as refugees. NGOs reported many of these displaced asylum seekers believed they were pressured to leave the country but could not return to Afghanistan because of the security situation in their home provinces.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees faced certain restrictions on in-country movement and faced restrictions from entering certain provinces, according to UNHCR. They can apply for laissez-passer documents allowing them to move between those provinces where Afghans were allowed to go.
Employment: Only refugees with government-issued work permits were able to work. NGO sources reported Amayesh cards were difficult to renew and were often prohibitively expensive for refugees to maintain, due to steep annual renewal fees.
Access to Basic Services: Amayesh cardholders had access to education and health care, including vaccinations, prenatal care, maternal and child health, and family planning from the Ministry of Health. All registered refugees can enroll in a basic health insurance package similar to the package afforded to citizens, which covered hospitalization and paraclinical services (medicine, doctor’s visits, radiology, etc.). During the year UNHCR covered the insurance premium for 92,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees who suffer from special diseases and their families. The remaining refugee population can enroll in health insurance by paying the premium themselves during four enrollment windows throughout the year.
The government claimed to grant Afghan children access to schools. More than 480,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools, in addition to 103,000 undocumented Afghan children. According to media reporting, however, Afghans continued to have difficulty gaining access to education.
Most provinces’ residency limitations on refugees effectively denied them access to public services, such as public housing, in the restricted areas of those provinces.
There were no accurate numbers on how many stateless persons resided in the country. Stateless persons included those without birth documents or refugee identification cards. They were subjected to inconsistent government policies and relied on charities, principally domestic, to obtain medical care and schooling. Authorities prohibited stateless persons from receiving formal government support or travel documents.
In October the Guardian Council approved an amendment to the civil code granting Iranian citizenship to the children of Iranian women married to foreign men. Previously, female citizens were not able to transmit citizenship to their children or to noncitizen spouses, and their dependents could not apply for citizenship until they lived in Iran for at least 18 years. The children and spouses of Iranian men were granted citizenship automatically. Under the new law, women must still apply for nationality for their children, and children who turn 18 can apply for nationality themselves. Human rights activists noted concern that the amended law requires the Intelligence Ministry and the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC to certify that no “security problem” exists before approving citizenship for these specific applications, and this vaguely defined security provision could be used arbitrarily to disqualify applicants if they or their parents are seen as critical of the government. According to media reports, between 400,000 and one million persons lacked Iranian nationality despite having an Iranian citizen mother, due to prior limitations on citizenship transmission (see section 6, Children).
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government prohibited the exercise of these rights.
Freedom of Expression: There were numerous instances of persons interrogated or arrested for saying something construed as negative towards the government. Australian citizen Alek Sigley was detained in June and later deported after the government cited “antistate incitement” in articles Sigley published in international publications. In its September report entitled North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department: The Control Tower of Human Rights Denial, HRNK asserts that all citizens are required to participate in monitored political meetings and regular self-criticism sessions in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kim family, and that failure to participate enthusiastically can be punished including through forced labor, internal exile, detention, or denial of food and medical attention.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government sought to control virtually all information; independent media do not exist. Domestic journalists had no freedom to investigate stories or report freely. The government tightly controlled print media, broadcast media, book publishing, and online media through the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Within the department, the Publication and Broadcasting Department controls all media content, including content used on television, in newspapers, and on the radio. The law allows for up to one-year sentences to a labor camp for North Koreans who access or disseminate unapproved broadcasts or content, and up to five years for multiple offenses.
The government carefully managed visits by foreigners, especially journalists, and has expelled or denied entry to foreign journalists. During visits by foreign leaders, authorities permitted groups of foreign journalists to accompany official delegations and file reports. In all cases the state strictly monitored journalists. Government officials generally prevented journalists from talking to officials or to persons on the street.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Strict enforcement of domestic media censorship continued, with no toleration for deviation from official messages. The government prohibited listening to foreign media broadcasts except by the political elite, and violators were subjected to severe punishment. Radios and television sets, unless altered, received only domestic programming; radios obtained from abroad were altered for the same end. Elite citizens and facilities for foreigners, such as hotels, had access to international television broadcasts via satellite. The government continued attempts to jam all foreign radio broadcasts, but HRNK’s Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, released in December, noted that a proliferation of foreign broadcaster transmitters has in recent years begun to overwhelm the jamming effort. Officials imprisoned and punished citizens for listening to foreign radio or watching foreign television broadcasts and, in some cases, for simply owning radio or television sets able to receive nongovernment broadcasts.
National Security: Defector and NGO reports included accounts of North Koreans detained and punished, including by execution, for antistate crimes including criticism of the government and Kim Jong Un.
Internet access was limited to high-ranking officials and other designated elites, including selected university students. According to HRNK’s Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Information Counter-Offensive, the government maintains complete visibility of all network traffic. The Korea Computer Center, which acts as the North Korean gatekeeper to the internet, granted access only to information it deemed acceptable, and employees constantly monitored users’ screens.
A tightly controlled and regulated “intranet” was reportedly available to a growing group of users centered in Pyongyang, including an elite grade school; selected research institutions, universities, and factories; and a few individuals. The NGO Reporters without Borders reported some email access existed through this internal network. Government employees sometimes had limited, closely monitored access to email accounts. While the cell phone network was 3G-capable most users’ data access was limited to a few state sanctioned functions through intranet, such as reading the government newspaper. HRNK reported that the government installed monitoring programs on every smartphone and tablet that, among other things, log every webpage visited and randomly take undeletable screenshots.
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled artistic works. School curricula were highly controlled by the state. The government severely restricted academic travel. The primary function of plays, movies, operas, children’s performances, and books was to buttress the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and support of the regime.
Foreign government and NGO workers in the DPRK reported the continuation of the Mass Games, which required much of the youth population to prepare synchronized gymnastics and dance performances for long hours at heightened risk of injury and exhaustion and with no medical attention.
The state carried out systematic indoctrination through the mass media, schools, and worker and neighborhood associations. Such indoctrination involved mass marches, rallies, and staged performances, sometimes including hundreds of thousands of persons.
The government continued its attempt to limit foreign influence on its citizens. Individuals accused of viewing or possessing foreign films were reportedly subjected to imprisonment and possibly execution. According to KINU’s white paper for 2018, defectors reported widely disseminated proclamations stating that those caught watching South Korean movies or listening to South Korean music would be sentenced to death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2017, the number of people executed for watching or distributing South Korean video content increased during the last few years, with additional reports of correctional labor punishment. In December, HRNK reported the government’s introduction of a file watermarking system on Android smartphones and on personal computers that adds a user- or device-specific data string to the end of the filename of any media file each time it is shared.
Based on defector interviews conducted in 2015, InterMedia estimated as many as 29 percent of defectors listened to foreign radio broadcasts while inside North Korea and that approximately 92 percent of defectors interviewed had seen foreign DVDs in North Korea. HRNK notes in Digital Trenches: North Korea’s Digital Counter-Offensive that younger North Koreans prefer foreign digital video content over foreign radio broadcasts.
The government maintained efforts to prevent the import of South Korean popular culture, especially television dramas. According to media and NGO reports, police could search homes to enforce restrictions on foreign films. According to InterMedia, the government added a software-based censorship program known as the “signature system” to all domestic mobile telephones. This system makes it impossible to view foreign media on the phones. Mobile telephones are randomly inspected physically for illegal media, and a history of all activity on the device is available for export upon inspection through monitoring software called “TraceViewer.” NW News reported in October that Kim Jong Un created a special police unit to restrict and control the flow of outside information into the country.
The government severely restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.
While the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this provision and continued to prohibit public meetings not previously authorized and not under government control.
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government failed to respect this provision. There were no known organizations other than those created by the government. Professional associations existed primarily to facilitate government monitoring and control over organization members.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for the “freedom to reside in or travel to any place;” however, the government did not respect this right.
In-country Movement: The government restricted freedom of movement for those lawfully within the state. Those who violated travel regulations were subject to warnings, fines, or forced labor. Only members of a very small elite class and those with access to remittances from overseas reportedly had access to personal vehicles. Security checkpoints on main roads at entry and exit points from every town hampered movement. KINU’s white paper for 2019 reported that individuals were able to move more freely within their own province as the use of bribery as a means to circumvent the law became more widespread. An increasing number of people traveled without a permit, only to pay a bribe when caught.
The government strictly controlled permission to reside in, or even to enter, Pyongyang, where food availability, housing, health, and general living conditions were much better than in the rest of the country. Foreign officials visiting the country observed checkpoints on the highway leading into Pyongyang.
Foreign Travel: The government restricted foreign travel. The government limited issuance of exit visas for foreign travel to officials and trusted businesspersons, artists, athletes, academics, and workers. Short-term exit papers were available on a very limited basis for some residents to visit relatives, undertake short-term work opportunities, or to engage in small-scale trade.
The government did not allow emigration, and reports stated that it continued to tighten security on the border during the year, dramatically limiting the flow of persons crossing into China without required permits. NGOs reported strict patrols and surveillance of residents of border areas and a crackdown on border guards who may have been aiding border crossers in return for bribes.
The law criminalizes defection and attempted defection. Individuals, including children, who cross the border with the purpose of defecting or seeking asylum in a third country are subject to a minimum of five years of “labor correction.” In “serious” cases, the state subjects asylum seekers to indefinite terms of imprisonment and forced labor, confiscation of property, or death. According to KINU’s white paper for 2018, most repatriated defectors are detained at kyohwasos in Jeongeori, North Hamgyeong Province, or Gaechon, South Pyeongan Province.
Many would-be refugees who returned involuntarily from foreign states received imprisonment under harsh conditions. Some sources indicated authorities reserved particularly harsh treatment for those who had extensive contact with foreigners, including those with family members resettled in South Korea.
Media reported in May 2018 that Kim Jong Un ordered government agencies to exert greater pressure on family members of defectors to pressure them to return home. Defectors reported that family members in North Korea contacted them to urge their return, apparently under pressure from North Korean officials. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the number of North Korean defectors remained nearly the same from 2017 to 2018, and projected numbers were similar for 2019, according to a November Yonhap report.
Past reports from refugees noted the government differentiated between persons who crossed the border in search of food (who may be sentenced only to a few months of forced labor or in some cases merely issued a warning), and persons who crossed repeatedly for “political” purposes (who were sometimes sentenced to harsher punishment), including those who had alleged contact with religious organizations based near the Chinese border. The law stipulates a sentence of up to two years of “labor correction” for illegally crossing the border.
Exile: The government reportedly forced the internal exile of some citizens. In the past it forcibly resettled tens of thousands of persons from Pyongyang to the countryside. Sometimes this occurred as punishment for offenses and included those judged to be politically unreliable based on the social status of their family members.
The government did not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection for refugees. The government did not grant refugee status or asylum. The government had no known policy or provision for refugees or asylum seekers and did not participate in international refugee fora.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the combination of laws and regulations governing libel and media content as well as legal harassment, physical intimidation of individuals and media, and executive influence on the judiciary resulted in significant repression of these freedoms. National and international groups, such as the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Inter American Press Association, Reporters without Borders, and Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned former regime efforts throughout the year to restrict press freedom and create a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: The law makes insulting the president punishable by six to 30 months in prison without bail, with lesser penalties for insulting lower-ranking officials. In 2017 the illegitimate ANC gave final approval to the Constitutional Law against Hate, for Political Coexistence and Tolerance, which stipulates prison sentences of up to 20 years. While the former regime stated the purpose of the law was to “promote peace and tolerance,” NGOs observed the vaguely written law could be used to silence political parties, activists, and civil society leaders as well as media outlets and journalists. Comments exposing another person to public contempt or hatred are punishable by prison sentences of one to three years and fines. In April Espacio Publico reported 24 persons were arrested in 2018 for online criticism of the regime.
On June 1, members of the DGCIM arrested Karen Palacios Perez, a clarinetist, for “instigating hate.” Palacios posted tweets critical of the regime after losing her position with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for signing a petition in opposition to Maduro. On July 16, Palacios was released from prison, one month after a judge ordered her immediate release.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law provides that inaccurate reporting that disturbs the public peace is punishable by prison terms of two to five years. The requirement that media disseminate only “true” information was undefined and open to politically motivated interpretation.
The law prohibits all media from disseminating messages that incite or promote hate or intolerance for religious, political, gender-related, racial, or xenophobic reasons; incite, promote, or condone criminal acts; constitute war propaganda; foment anxiety in the population or affect public order; do not recognize legitimate government authorities; incite homicide; or incite or promote disobedience of the established legal order. Penalties range from fines to the revocation of licenses. The threat of nonrenewal of operating licenses systematically led to self-censorship on the part of several media outlets.
Despite such laws, Maduro and the regime-aligned United Socialist Party (PSUV) used the nearly 600 former regime-owned or -controlled media outlets to insult and intimidate the political opposition throughout the year. ANC president Diosdado Cabello continued to use his weekly television program to denounce individual journalists and media outlets.
The law declares telecommunications a “public interest service,” thereby giving the government authority to regulate the content and structure of radio, television, and audiovisual production sectors. The law provides that the government may suspend or revoke licenses when it judges such actions necessary in the interests of the nation, public order, or security. The law empowers the government to impose heavy fines and cancel broadcasts for violations of its norms; the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) oversees the law’s application.
The former Maduro regime continued legal actions against high-profile independent media outlets Tal Cual, El Nacional, El Nuevo Pais, La Patilla, El Pitazo, and Globovision. In June the TSJ ordered La Patilla to pay 30 billion bolivares ($1.4 million) to ANC president Cabello for “moral damage and injury” for reprinting an article by the Spanish newspaper ABC that indicated Cabello was under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking.
Espacio Publico reported 522 violations of freedom of expression between January and April, a 314 percent increase compared with the same period in 2018 and the second highest figure since the organization began tracking cases in 2002. The most common violations were aggressions against journalists and censorship. The former Maduro regime-owned and -influenced media provided almost continuous proregime programming. In addition, private and public radio and television stations were required to transmit mandatory nationwide broadcasts (cadenas) throughout the year, including a daily 15-minute news broadcast that provided reports and summaries of former regime activities. Media reported the GNB regularly barred journalists from accessing the AN to cover the legislative body’s debates and activities. NGOs noted that state regime-owned internet service provider CANTV also routinely blocked commercial streaming and web searches during Interim President Guaido’s speeches and during weekly AN sessions.
The former regime detained 39 journalists in the first three months of the year, up from 22 detentions during all of 2018, according to NGO Institute for Press and Society (IPYS). On March 11, SEBIN agents detained journalist Luis Carlos Diaz and confiscated equipment, following his reporting on nationwide blackouts that struck the country in early March, according to media reports. On his weekly television program, ANC president Cabello accused Diaz of being involved in a conspiracy to sabotage the country’s electrical system. After being charged with “instigating crimes,” Diaz was released, although he was prohibited from leaving the country or making public statements.
The law requires practicing journalists to have journalism degrees and be members of the National College of Journalists, and it prescribes jail terms of three to six months for those practicing the profession illegally. These requirements are waived for foreigners and opinion columnists.
Violence and Harassment: Senior national and state leaders of the former Maduro regime continued to harass and intimidate privately owned and opposition-oriented television stations, media outlets, and journalists by using threats, property seizures, administrative and criminal investigations, and prosecutions. The national journalists’ union reported 244 attacks on journalists from January to June. Former president Maduro and regime-aligned officials used regime-controlled media outlets to accuse private media owners, directors, and reporters of fomenting antiregime destabilization campaigns and coup attempts. Former Maduro regime officials also harassed foreign journalists working in the country.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: NGOs noted the former Maduro regime’s preference for using legal proceedings, financial sanctions, and administrative actions against unfavorable news outlets instead of shutting them down outright. Members of the independent media stated they regularly engaged in self-censorship due to fear of regime reprisals. This resulted in many journalists posting articles to their personal blogs and websites instead of publishing them in traditional media.
The former regime also exercised control over content through licensing and broadcasting requirements. CONATEL acted selectively on applications from private radio and television broadcasters for renewal of their broadcast frequencies. According to Nelson Belfort, former president of the Venezuelan Radio Chamber, and NGO reports, approximately 80 percent of radio stations were in “illegal” status throughout the country due to CONATEL’s not having renewed licenses for most radio stations since 2007.
According to the local journalists’ union (SNTP), print news outlets closed due to the former Maduro regime’s economic policies, which made it difficult for independent newspapers to access foreign currency, preventing many from purchasing critical supplies and equipment necessary for day-to-day business operations. National and regional newspapers went out of print for lack of supplies, especially newsprint, including national newspaper El Nacional, El Regional of Zulia, El Aragueno of Aragua, El Luchador of Bolivar, and Panorama of Zulia.
The former Maduro regime controlled a large portion of the country’s businesses and paid for advertising only with regime-owned or regime-friendly media.
Libel/Slander Laws: Regime-aligned officials engaged in reprisals against individuals who publicly expressed criticism of Maduro or regime policy. Maduro did not act on his 2017 announcement that he would use slander law to “defend his honor” in court against opposition leaders’ allegations that he was responsible for protest-related deaths.
National Security: The law allows the government to suspend or revoke licenses when it determines such actions necessary in the interests of public order or security. The former Maduro regime exercised control over the press through a public entity, the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Homeland (CESPPA), established in 2013, which is similar to the governmental entity Center for National Situational Studies (CESNA) established in 2010. CESNA and CESPPA have similar mandates and are responsible for “compiling, processing, analyzing, and classifying” both regime-released and other public information with the objective of “protecting the interests and objectives of the state.”
During the year former President Maduro renewed four times the “state of exception” he first invoked in 2016, citing a continuing economic emergency, and granted himself the power to restrict rights otherwise provided for in the constitution. The 60-day emergency decree, which by law is renewable only once and requires AN endorsement to be effective, allows the president to block any action he deems could “undermine national security” or could “obstruct the continuity of the implementation of economic measures for the urgent reactivation of the national economy.” The AN continued systematically to refuse to ratify each renewal, and the Supreme Court annulled each refusal, reasoning that the assembly’s “contempt” status made its failure to endorse the renewal “unconstitutional.” According to Human Rights Watch, the “state of exception” negatively affected the rights to freedom of association and expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Widespread violence in the country made it difficult to determine whether attacks on journalists resulted from common criminal activity or whether criminals or others targeted media members.
The former Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The former regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted former Maduro regime authorities in locating users.
The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. IPYS reported that in the first six months of the year, private and regime-controlled internet providers following CONATEL orders blocked access to 48 webpages. Seventy percent of the censored domains during this period belonged to social media platforms and news outlets, including NTN24, VIVOplay, El Pitazo, VPItv, El Nacional, Aporrea, and Noticia al dia.
CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the former Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the former regime’s official rate. The former regime-owned internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. According to Reporters Without Borders, on January 21, shortly after an attempted uprising by a military unit in Zulia State that was widely covered on social networks and by online media outlets, there were several internet cuts in the region, affecting YouTube and Google Search users in particular, combined with restrictions on access to Twitter and Instagram. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Periscope services were all temporarily blocked, according to NetBlocks.
Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the former regime, and senior former Maduro regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused for actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.
In February proregime Twitter accounts published a database of opposition sympathizers’ personal data, which was the result of a former regime-linked phishing operation.
There were no substantiated reports of former Maduro regime restrictions on cultural events, but the former regime imposed restrictions on academic freedom. Aula Abierta (Open Classroom), a local human rights NGO focused on academic freedom, reported the former regime retaliated against opposition-oriented autonomous universities by providing insufficient funding and failing to adjust budgetary allocations to inflation. According to media reports, universities ran deep deficits, receiving less than 10 percent of the funds they budgeted to cover operating costs. In 2017 the National University Council, the government’s regulating body for university education, relinquished its functions to the ANC, disregarding the law requiring university autonomy.
The former Maduro regime continued to increase its control over local universities, including the admissions process.
In August the TSJ ordered the Central University of Venezuela to hold university elections in six months. The ruling, which applied to eight other public and private universities as well, stipulates that the elected candidate must win in at least three of the five electoral sectors (teachers, students, graduates, administrative staff, and laborers) and must receive an absolute majority of votes. Students and university leaders called the ruling an attack on university autonomy, in violation of the constitution, and said it would lead to the installation of regime-aligned sympathizers at the heads of universities.
The former regime continued its practice, announced in 2018, of educational financial incentives for holders of the carnet de la patria (homeland card), a regime-issued social benefits card provided primarily to regime supporters (see section 3, Political Parties and Political Participation).
The constitution provides for this right, but the former Maduro regime generally repressed or suspended it. The law regulates the right to assembly. Human rights groups continued to criticize the law as enabling the former regime to charge protesters with serious crimes for participating in peaceful demonstrations. Ambiguous language in the law also allowed the former regime to criminalize organizations that were critical of it. Protests and marches require authorization from the former regime in advance and are forbidden within designated “security zones.” Citizens organized sporadic and often spontaneous small-scale protests throughout the year to demand basic goods and services such as water, gasoline, and electricity. The political opposition and civil society organized marches to support Interim President Juan Guaido and demand a transitional government and new presidential elections. The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict documented 10,477 protests in the first six months of the year, more than double the number in the same period of 2018. According to the OHCHR, between January and May, a total of 66 persons died during protests; some of these incidents were marked by an alleged excessive use of force by FAES, the GNB, PNB, and armed colectivos. Security forces detained more than 1,300 persons during protests between January and May, according to Foro Penal.
During a July 2 protest in Tachira State, 16-year-old Rufo Chacon was blinded after police forces fired 52 rubber pellets at his face. According to media reports, a police investigation found that security forces moved to repress the protest without warning when they fired rubber bullets into the crowd. Former Maduro regime attorney general Tarek William Saab announced that authorities charged two police officers with cruel treatment in the case.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and freedom from political discrimination, but the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights. Although professional and academic associations generally operated without interference, a number of associations complained that the TSJ and the National Electoral Council (CNE), which is responsible for convoking all elections and establishing electoral dates and procedures, repeatedly interfered with their attempts to hold internal elections.
A 2016 presidential decree called on the Foreign Ministry to suspend international funding to NGOs when “it is presumed” that the funding is used with “political purposes or for destabilization.”
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; however, the former Maduro regime did not respect these rights.
On February 22, the former regime closed its borders with Aruba, Brazil, and Colombia to prevent the entry of international aid. Media reported the borders with Aruba and Brazil were reopened on May 10 and partially reopened with Colombia one month later.
In July the former Maduro regime announced the deployment of a special migration police unit in Tachira State, on the border with Colombia. Although some NGOs expressed concern the former regime would use the unit to restrict international travel of select individuals, the former regime asserted the force would essentially be customs and border patrol units. The former regime declared the migration police would provide citizen security at migration points and established 72 points of control to monitor the border situation and dispel what it called myths regarding a supposed in-country migration crisis.
Security forces often used excessive force to control residents in states along the border with Colombia, with particular violence perpetrated by colectivos against Tachira State citizens in late February.
While no official statistics were available, a women’s shelter reported recurring problems with gender-based violence and trafficking of refugee women. NGOs reported Venezuelans crossing through informal border crossings controlled by armed groups faced significant protection risks, including gender-based violence. Individuals were often forced to pay a form of taxation at the informal border crossing or be indebted to those controlling them, exposing them to risks of exploitation, harassment, and sexual violence, as well as recruitment into drug trafficking and other armed groups.
See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
In-country Movement: The former regime restricted the movement of certain opposition leaders, preventing them from traveling on former regime-controlled airlines and refusing to allow them to board some domestic flights.
Foreign Travel: Obtaining a passport became increasingly difficult during the year. Prospective applicants waited overnight in lines and often did not receive passports after years of delays. Some applicants reportedly paid several thousands of U.S. dollars to obtain a passport. The former regime repeatedly seized passports from journalists, members of the opposition, and AN deputies at ports of entry without explanation as they attempted to depart the country.
Exile: In contrast with 2018, there were no cases of citizens denied the right to return.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: With the refugee status determination process centralized at the National Refugee Commission (CONARE) headquarters in Caracas, asylum seekers often waited for years to obtain a final decision. During this period they had to continue renewing their documentation every three months to stay in the country and avoid arrest and deportation. While traveling to the commission, particularly vulnerable groups, such as women with young children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, faced increased personal risks, such as arrest and deportation, extortion, exploitation, and sexual abuse by authorities at checkpoints and other locations.
The former regime did not cooperate with the Office of 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.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees. According to UNHCR, the vast majority of asylum seekers came from Colombia. The majority of such persons remained without any protection. Most of the Colombians had not accessed procedures for refugee status determination due to the inefficiency of the process. UNHCR reported that few persons in need of international protection were legally recognized as refugees.
Access to Basic Services: Colombian asylum seekers without legal residency permits had limited access to the job market, education, and health systems. The lack of documentation created significant difficulties to achieving sufficient protection and long-term integration. Former regime authorities permitted Colombian children to attend school but inconsistently granted them diplomas or certificates of completion without residency documentation, resulting in high dropout rates for Colombian children. In June CONARE announced the creation of a new border migration control card for refugees present in the country, similar to the carnet de la patria.