Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes restricted this right.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides for freedom of speech, and the country has a free press. There were reports authorities at times used pressure, regulations, and threats to silence critics. Criticism of the central government was regular and generally free from restrictions, but criticism of provincial governments was more constrained, where local officials and power brokers exerted significant influence and authority to intimidate or threaten their critics, both private citizens and journalists. Discussion of a political nature is also more dangerous for those living in contested or Taliban-controlled areas. Government security agencies increased their ability to monitor the internet, including social media platforms. This monitoring did not have a perceptible impact on social media use.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Implementation of the Access to Information Law remained inconsistent and media reported consistent failure by the government to meet the requirements of the law. Government officials often restricted media access to government information or simply ignored requests. UNAMA, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) reported the government did not fully implement the Access to Information Law and that therefore journalists often did not receive access to information they seek.
Journalists faced the threat of harassment and attack by ISIS-K, the Taliban, and government-related figures attempting to influence how they are covered in the news. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 13 journalists were killed in connection to their work in 2018, including nine journalists killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing. Local NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan released findings that violence against journalists declined by 50 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of 2018. In February, two journalists, Shafiq Arya and Rahimullah Rahmani, were shot and killed by unknown assailants at local radio station Radio Hamsada in Takhar Province.
A rapid expansion in the availability of mobile phones, the internet, and social media provided many citizens greater access to diverse views and information. The government publicly supported media freedom and cooperated with initiatives to counter security threats to media.
Journalists reported facing threats of violence from the internal conflict. Politicians, security officials, and others in positions of power at times threatened or harassed journalists because of their coverage. According to RSF, female journalists were especially vulnerable.
Freedom of speech and an independent media were more constrained at the provincial level than in the capital, Kabul. Political and ethnic groups, including those led by former mujahedin leaders, financed many provincial media outlets and used their financial support to control the content. Provincial media is also more susceptible to antigovernment attacks. According to news reports, a Samaa radio station was forced to shut down its operations for the third time since 2015 because of threats from a local Taliban commander.
Print and online media continued to publish independent magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and websites. A wide range of editorials and dailies openly criticized the government. Still, there were concerns that violence and instability threatened journalists’ safety. Due to high levels of illiteracy, most citizens preferred broadcast to print or online media. A greater percentage of the population, including those in distant provinces, had access to radio over other forms of media.
Violence and Harassment: Government officials and private citizens used threats of violence to intimidate independent and opposition journalists, particularly those who spoke out against impunity, crimes, and corruption by powerful local figures. On May 2, Presidential Protective Service guards at the palace physically assaulted a broadcast journalist from 1TV television. In June an NDS employee beat the Ariana News reporter and cameraperson who was covering the controversial closing of an Afghan-Turk school in Kabul.
The Afghan Journalist Safety Committee (AJSC) reported three journalists killed in the first six months of the year. It recorded 45 cases of violence against journalists, which included killing, beating, inflicting injury and humiliation, intimidation, and detention of journalists–a 50 percent decrease from the first six months of 2018. Government-affiliated individuals or security forces were responsible for 18 instances of violence, half as many as in 2018 when 36 cases were attributed to them. Instances of violence attributed to the Taliban and ISIS-K also declined sharply from 2018–from 37 cases to seven cases. The organization insisted the reduction was not due to better protection from the government but rather due to a lower number of suicide attacks by antigovernment forces, as well as media companies’ adaptation to the reality of violence by not sending journalists for live coverage of suicide attacks and other self-imposed safety measures.
The Taliban continued to attack media organizations and warned media would be targeted unless they stopped broadcasting what it called “anti-Taliban statements.” In June the Taliban commission threatened media to stop transmitting “anti-Taliban advertisements” within one week or “reporters and staff members will not remain safe.”
Increased levels of insecurity created a dangerous environment for journalists, even when they were not the specific targets of violence. During the year several journalists reported attacks by unknown gunmen connected, they claimed, to their coverage of powerful individuals. They also reported local governmental authorities were less cooperative in facilitating access to information.
In 2016 the Office of the National Security Council approved a new set of guidelines to address cases of violence against journalists, but these guidelines were not fully implemented. The initiative created a joint national committee in Kabul and separate committees in provincial capitals, a coordination center to investigate and identify perpetrators of violence against journalists, and a support committee run by the NDS to identify threats against journalists. Press freedom organizations reported that, although the committee met and referred cases to the AGO, it did not increase protection for journalists.
Media advocacy groups reported that many female journalists worked under pseudonyms in both print and social media to avoid recognition, harassment, and retaliation. According to the AJSC, there were no female journalists in nine provinces: Farah, Laghman, Logar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, Sar-e Pul, Uruzgan, and Zabul.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media observers claimed journalists reporting on administrative corruption, land embezzlement, and local officials’ involvement in narcotics trafficking engaged in self-censorship due to fear of violent retribution by provincial police officials and powerful families. Journalists and NGOs reported that, although the amended 2018 Access to Information Law provided an excellent regulatory framework, enforcement remained inconsistent and that noncompliant officials rarely were held accountable. A survey by an NGO supporting media freedom showed more than one-half of journalists were dissatisfied with the level of access to government information and found that one-third of government offices did not have dedicated offices for providing information to the public. Most requests for information from journalists who lack influential connections inside the government or international media credentials are disregarded and government officials often refuse to release information, claiming it is classified.
Libel/Slander Laws: The penal code and the mass media law prescribe jail sentences and fines for defamation. Authorities sometimes used defamation as a pretext to suppress criticism of government officials.
National Security: Journalists complained government officials frequently invoked the national interest exception in the Access to Information law to avoid disclosing information.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some reporters acknowledged they avoided criticizing the insurgency and some neighboring countries in their reporting because they feared Taliban retribution. Insurgent groups coerced media agencies in insecure areas to prevent them from broadcasting or publishing advertisements and announcements of the security forces, entertainment programming, music, and women’s voices.
Women in some areas of the country say their freedom of expression in choice of attire was limited by conservative social mores and sometimes enforced by Taliban in insurgent-controlled areas as well as religious leaders.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Media outlets and activists routinely used social media to discuss political developments, and Facebook was widely used in urban areas. The Taliban used the internet and social media to spread its messages. Internet usage remained relatively low due to high prices, a lack of local content, and illiteracy.
There were many reports during the year of Taliban attempts to restrict access to information, often by destroying or shutting down telecommunications antennae and other equipment.
Academic freedom is largely tolerated in government-controlled areas. In addition to public schooling, there has been growth in private education, with new universities enjoying full autonomy from the government. Government security forces and the Taliban have both taken over schools to use as military posts. The expansion of Taliban control in rural areas left an increasing number of public schools outside government control. The Taliban operated an education commission in parallel to the official Ministry of Education. Although their practices varied among areas, some schools under Taliban control reportedly allowed teachers to continue teaching but banned certain subjects and replaced them with Islamic studies. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights; however, the government limited these freedoms in some instances.
The government generally respected citizens’ right to demonstrate peacefully. Numerous public gatherings and protests took place during the year; however, police sometimes fired live ammunition when attempting to break up demonstrations. Protests were also vulnerable to attacks by ISIS-K and the Taliban. In January the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, voted to reject a presidential decree that would have given police broad authority to prevent demonstrations.
The constitution provides for the right to freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. The 2009 law on political parties requires political parties to register with the Ministry of Justice and to pursue objectives consistent with Islam. The law prohibits employees and officials of security and judicial institutions, specifically the Supreme Court, AGO, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, and NDS, from political party membership while government employees. Noncompliant employees are subject to dismissal.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the right to freedom of movement within the borders of the country. Social custom limited women’s freedom of movement without male consent or a male chaperone. The greatest barrier to movement in some parts of the country remained the lack of security. Taxi, truck, and bus drivers reported security forces and insurgents sometimes operated illegal checkpoints and extorted money and goods from travelers. The Taliban regularly blocked highways completely or imposed illegal taxes on those who attempted to travel. In August the Taliban captured Dasht-e-Archi District, Kunduz Province and Pul-i-Khumri District, Baghlan Province, blocking roads leading to the Kabul highway for more than two weeks.
Internal population movements increased during the year because of armed conflict and an historic drought. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported more than 380,289 individuals fled their homes due to conflict from January 1 to November 6. The displacements caused by conflict surpassed by approximately 85,000 the number of those displaced by natural disaster during the year. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) left insecure rural areas and small towns to seek relatively greater safety and government services in larger towns and cities in the same province. All 34 provinces hosted IDP populations.
Limited humanitarian access because of the deteriorating security situation caused delays in identifying, assessing, and providing timely assistance to IDPs, who continued to lack access to basic protection, including personal and physical security and shelter. Many IDPs, especially in households with a female head, faced difficulty obtaining basic services because they did not have identity documents. Many IDPs in urban areas reportedly faced discrimination, lacked adequate sanitation and other basic services, and lived in constant risk of eviction from illegally occupied displacement sites, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Women in IDP camps reported high levels of domestic violence. Limited opportunities to earn a livelihood following the initial displacement often led to secondary displacement, making tracking of vulnerable persons difficult. Even IDPs who had access to local social services sometimes had less access than their non-IDP neighbors, due to distance from the services or other factors.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, and other persons of concern. The government’s ability to assist vulnerable persons, including returnees from Pakistan and Iran, remained limited, and it continued to rely on the international community for assistance.
Access to Asylum: The government had yet to adopt a draft national refugee law or asylum framework. Nonetheless, UNHCR registers, and mitigates protection risks of approximately 500 refugees in urban areas throughout the country. The country also hosts some 76,000 Pakistani refugees who fled Pakistan in 2014; UNHCR registered some 41,000 refugees in Khost Province and verified more than 35,000 refugees in Paktika Province.
Durable Solutions: The government did not officially accept refugees for resettlement, offer naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, or assist in their voluntary return to their homes. The IOM reported undocumented returns from Iran and Pakistan totaled 504,977 from January 1 to December 29, with 485,096 from Iran and 19,881 from Pakistan. Registered refugee returns from Pakistan slowed to historically low levels during the year, with just 2,000 returns as of June 22. In addition to these numbers, there were 23,789 undocumented Afghan returnees from Turkey.
NGOs noted the lack of official birth registration for refugee children as a significant challenge and protection concern, due to the risk of statelessness and potential long-term disadvantage.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained a significant source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, could constrain freedom of expression.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists were killed or subject to physical and cyberattacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) in response to their reporting. This limited media’s ability to investigate and report, since many of the reporters who were killed covered crime, corruption, and local politics. According to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists, as of August 31, 10 journalists had been killed because of their reporting.
Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity. According to the NGO Article 19, as of February the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99 percent. In 2018 there were 544 attacks against journalists, according to Article 19. Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists (FEADLE), a unit in the Attorney General’s Office, secured only 10 convictions for various related crimes, and only one for murder, in the 1,077 cases it investigated. Only 16 percent of the cases FEADLE investigated were taken to court. As of September, FEADLE had not opened any new cases, reportedly in an effort to focus on bringing existing investigations to trial.
Government officials believed organized crime to be behind most of the attacks against journalists, but NGOs asserted there were instances when local government authorities participated in or condoned the acts. According to Article 19, in 2018, 42 percent of physical attacks against journalists originated with public officials. Although 75 percent of those came from state or local officials, federal officials and members of the armed forces were also suspected of being behind 7 percent of attacks against journalists.
There were no developments in the 2017 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent who reported on organized crime and corruption. In March, Undersecretary for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas stated the federal government was “aiding” the state prosecutor in the case, ultimately affirming it would remain with state prosecutors.
In January the UN Human Rights Committee declared the government responsible for violating journalist Lydia Cacho’s human rights, including subjecting her to acts of torture in 2005 after she exposed government corruption and a pedophile ring, and for shortcomings in the investigation. In response, on April 11, FEADLE issued arrest warrants against former Puebla governor Mario Marin Torres, Kamel Nacif, Juan Sanchez Moreno, and Hugo Adolfo Karam for their role as masterminds of the acts of torture against Cacho. As of September all four remained fugitives. In July, two assailants entered Cacho’s home, poisoned her dogs, and stole research material–including 10 hard drives containing information on pedophile rings, both the one she exposed in 2005 and a new case she was working on. Article 19 referred to the incident as “an act of reprisal for her work as a defender of free speech.”
In August, Cacho fled the country due to fear for her safety, declaring herself “in a situation of forced displacement.” Article 19 stated, “Lydia Cacho was forced to leave the country in the face of not receiving the minimal conditions of security to carry out her job and continue the process of seeking justice for her arbitrary detention and torture perpetrated in 2005.”
Between 2012 and September 2019, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received 976 requests for protection for journalists and human rights defenders. Since 2018 five journalists with protective measures from the Mechanism were killed, including two during the year. In January, Rafael Murua, under Mechanism protection, was shot and killed in Baja California Sur. Police arrested three individuals in connection with the case. In May journalist Francisco Romero was beaten, shot, and killed in Quintana Roo. He had received threats–including from local police–after exposing corruption of local authorities. Both victims had government-issued panic buttons. After these killings, the OHCHR representative in Mexico, Jan Jarab, said the Mechanism merited a “deep reflection” and added, “These cases show that violence against human rights defenders and journalists is deeply rooted and structural changes are needed.”
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported some state and local governments censored the media. Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of the media and newsrooms, and threats or retributions against their families, among other reasons. There were reports of journalists practicing self-censorship due to threats from criminal groups and government officials.
In March 2018 Article 19 reported the government, despite reductions in its advertising budgets, continued to have a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies.
Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander; however, eight states have criminal laws on these acts. In Baja California Sur, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, and Yucatan, the crime of defamation is prosecuted, with penalties ranging from three days to five years in prison and fines ranging from five to 500 days of minimum salary for committing defamation or slander, both considered “crimes against honor.” Slander is punishable under the criminal laws of the states of Campeche, Colima, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, Yucatan, and Zacatecas with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison and monetary fines. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.
In May the Supreme Court struck down a law in the state of Nayarit penalizing slander. The court ruled the law violated freedom of expression.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized criminal groups exercised a grave and increasing influence over media outlets and reporters, threatening individuals who published critical views of crime groups. Concerns persisted about the use of physical violence by organized criminal groups in retaliation for information posted online, which exposed journalists, bloggers, and social media users to the same level of violence faced by traditional journalists.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns about illegal surveillance practices in the country and violence against online reporters.
According to Freedom House, the country remained very dangerous for journalists, and at least four digital reporters were killed in 2018. Digital media journalists covering sensitive stories such as crime, corruption, and human rights violations experienced physical and technical violence.
NGOs alleged provisions in secondary laws threatened the privacy of internet users by forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for two years, providing real-time geolocation data to police, and allowing authorities to obtain metadata from private communications companies without a court order. While the Supreme Court upheld the provisions, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access user metadata.
Article 19 noted that according to Google Transparency reports between 2012 and June 2018, the executive and judiciary branches filed 111 requests to remove content from the web, including two instances in which the reason cited was “criticism to government.”
According to Freedom House, “No significant advances were made to investigate” illegal surveillance that took place in 2017 via a sophisticated surveillance software program, Pegasus, presumably targeting human rights defenders, anticorruption activists, and prominent journalists.
In March the Guadalajara-based Jesuit university ITESO released a study detailing “attacks and smear campaigns aimed at journalists and media outlets who have a critical stance against the government.” The study suggested the creators of the attacks and campaigns employed a massive use of bots that created artificial trending topics on Twitter to invite users to defend President Lopez Obrador and attack his critics.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. There were some reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws that restrict public demonstrations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
Federal law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of migrants, including by kidnappings and homicides.
The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights identified 12 incidents of forced internal displacement through June. These episodes took place in the states of Chiapas, Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. The commission attributed the displacement of 10,947 persons in 2018 to armed attacks against civilians in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. Of the 25 episodes in 2018, 20 were caused by violence generated by armed organized groups, such as drug cartels, affecting 6,156 persons. The remaining five episodes were caused by land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, or local political disputes, affecting 5,335 individuals. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of displaced persons.
The OHCHR reported that the approximately 3,500 Tzotziles indigenous individuals who returned to their homes in the state of Chiapas did so only because the conditions at the shelter where they were staying were worse than the danger they faced upon return. During a 2017 border dispute between two municipalities, more than 5,000 Tzotziles indigenous individuals were displaced.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The press and NGOs reported victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials. In September the Migrant Organizations Network (Redodem, a group of NGOs that shelter migrants) reported that in 2018, federal, state, and municipal police, as well as military forces, committed at least 865 crimes against migrants. Redodem registered 542 robberies committed by authorities, 131 cases of abuse of authority, 83 extortions, 46 injuries, 26 acts of intimidation, eight illegal detentions, and six acts of bribery, among others. According to the report, federal police agents committed 297 incidents, followed by municipal police (266), the state police (179), migration agents (102), the army (18), and the navy (four).
Government and civil society sources reported Central American gang presence spread farther into the country and threatened migrants who had fled the same gangs in their home countries. There were media reports that criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from their relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on the groups’ behalf.
The government cooperated with the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: Federal law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection. The government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protections. From January to August 10, the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees received 42,788 petitions, a 230 percent increase over the same period in 2018.
The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to asylum and the asylum procedure, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers, and integration (access to school and work) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. This right, however, was restricted by laws and government actions. For example the government imposed legal restrictions on criticism of the government and monarchy, favored progovernment media organizations in regulatory actions, harassed antigovernment critics, monitored the media and internet, blocked websites, and used criminal defamation laws to limit freedom of expression, including for the press.
Although laws and regulations that could restrict media freedom remained in effect prior to the March election, there was a significant increase in criticism of the junta during the pre-election period, continuing a trend that started in early 2018 when the junta began loosening some civil restrictions. While government stations and pro-junta media had a large presence in the period before the election, neutral and opposition media operated with considerable freedom.
On July 9, Prime Minister Prayut lifted 76 orders instituted under NCPO rule, including ones that effectively prohibited criticism made with “malice” and “false information” intended to “discredit” the NCPO or the military. Press restrictions still in place include orders that give military personnel the authority to prohibit the propagation of any publication that was likely to “cause public alarm” or which “contains false information likely to cause public misunderstanding” that could potentially threaten national security; and that allow authorities to shut down media critical of the military regime.
Freedom of Expression: The lese majeste (“royal insult”) prohibition makes it a crime–punishable by a maximum of 15 years’ imprisonment for each offense–to criticize, insult, or threaten the king, queen, royal heir apparent, or regent. The law also allows citizens to file lese majeste complaints against one other. On June 11, political activist Srisuwan Janya filed a petition asking the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to probe whether Future Forward Party member of parliament and spokesperson Pannika Wanich had posted certain photos to her Facebook page nearly a decade earlier that were insulting towards King Rama IX.
The government continued to conduct lese majeste trials from previous years in secret and prohibited public disclosure of the alleged offenses’ contents. International and domestic human rights organizations and academics expressed concern about the lese majeste prohibition’s negative effect on freedom of expression.
According to the local NGO Internet Dialogue on Law Reform, as of September, 98 lese majeste cases had been filed since the 2014 coup, 67 of which have been concluded. In some of these cases, the accused committed the alleged offense prior to the 2014 coup, but authorities only filed charges afterwards. According to current-year statistics from the Department of Corrections, approximately 65 persons were awaiting trial or imprisoned on lese majeste charges as of August.
Two long-standing lese majeste cases saw new developments during the year. On June 11, the Bangkok Military Court allowed Siraphop Kon-arut, a political activist and writer, to be released on bail after five years’ detention on lese majeste and computer-crime charges. On July 17, former pop singer and actor Thanat Thanawatcharanon, also known as Tom Dundee, was granted a royal pardon after serving a five-year prison sentence for a lese majeste offense.
Human rights activists reported that while lese majeste prosecutions declined, the government increasingly turned to computer-crime and “sedition” legislation to restrict free speech and silence critics. Prosecutors brought a growing number of cases against members of the Organization for Thai Federation, whom authorities accused of trying to alter the country’s current political arrangement. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, local authorities initiated 11 cases against 20 individuals accused of sedition, being members of a secret society, and violating computer-crime and public-assembly laws.
In October the Fourth Army Region of the Internal Security Operations Command covering the southern provinces filed a police complaint against 12 persons–including several opposition-party leaders and academics–accusing them of sedition for their remarks during a September 28 forum on resolving the conflict in the southern part of the country. At the center of the complaint are comments by Chalita Banthuwong, a lecturer at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, who, in discussing possible solutions to the southern insurgency, allegedly proposed amending the section of the 2017 constitution that affirms Thailand as a unitary state. The complaint alleges the panel members violated legislation barring sedition and carrying a jail term of up to seven years. The seven accused opposition-party leaders responded by defending their right to free speech and filing a counter complaint accusing two army officials of defamation and giving false information to the authorities.
New regulations on constitutional court procedures effective as of October empower the court to take legal action against individuals deemed to have unfairly criticized its decisions. The new regulations prohibit distortion of facts, laws, or verdicts related to the court’s adjudication of cases; dishonest criticism; and sarcasm or mockery of the court, according to OHCHR. In August the court summoned an academic to give statements following his criticism of the court’s decision to suspend FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit but not 32 other members of parliament similarly accused of illegal media shareholding. Some human rights activists conveyed concern that the court’s new posture could restrict free speech.
There were numerous reports of security forces harassing citizens who publicly criticized the military government, including by visiting or surveilling their residences or places of employment. Prior to the March election, Pheu Thai Party parliamentary candidates in the country’s northeast claimed that security personnel made visits to their homes, seemingly to intimidate them.
From March through June, three prominent antigovernment critics were physically assaulted in several incidents by unidentified armed assailants. On March 31, two unidentified men broke into the house of Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich and beat him. On May 25, he was attacked again when riding his motorcycle by six assailants who knocked him off his bike, rammed their motorcycles into his back, and beat him with metal bars. Ekachai Hongkangwan was hospitalized May 13 for three days after being beaten by three men as he emerged from a public bus in front of the Bangkok Criminal Court, where he was to give testimony in a sedition case against him for organizing a protest demanding the government hold elections; this was reportedly the tenth time Ekachai was the victim of a physical assault or property crime since March 2018. Sirawith “Ja New” Serithiwat was attacked on June 2 and June 28, with the second ambush seriously injuring his eye and leaving him hospitalized in intensive care. After public outcry by human rights and civil liberties activists over the failure of authorities to make arrests in any of these cases, Prime Minister Prayut called on police to step up their investigations but as of September, the cases remained unsolved.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but faced significant impediments to operating freely. The outgoing NCPO government lifted several orders restricting press freedoms.
On February 12, however, prior to the March election, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) ordered a 15-day shutdown of the opposition television channel Voice TV for airing the “Wake Up News-Tonight Thailand” program. The station carried what the government called biased content that could instigate political unrest.
In April the government invoked an order to waive the terms of all digital television operators’ license payments at a combined cost of 13.6 billion baht (THB) ($453 million). This action raised questions about the government’s subsidy approach, which could be interpreted as a benefit for progovernment media organizations and indirect intervention in freedom of press.
The 2017 constitution requires owners of newspapers and other mass media organizations to be citizens. Government entities owned and controlled most radio and broadcast television stations.
In August writer and academic Sarinee Achavanuntakul was summoned by the Election Cases Division of the Supreme Court after she was accused of contempt of court for publishing an article in the Krungthep Turakij newspaper commenting on the court’s handing of parliamentarians’ media shares. The court dropped the case after Sarinee published a subsequent article clarifying her characterization of the court’s decision, which she acknowledged may have been misleading. Also in August, Kovit Wongsurawat, a Thammasat University political science professor, was summoned to the constitutional court for a tweet criticizing the court for suspending FFP Leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for owning media shares while declining to suspend other parliamentarians who held media shares. He apologized to the court and posted a tweet clarifying his intent before the court found him guilty of contempt, although no penalty or punishment was imposed.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: An NCPO order remains in effect empowering the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) to suspend or revoke the licenses of radio or television operators broadcasting content deemed false, defamatory to the monarchy, harmful to national security, or unnecessarily critical of the government. Authorities monitored media content from all media sources, including international press. Local practice leans toward self-censorship, particularly regarding anything that might be critical of the monarchy or members of the royal family.
The Emergency Decree in the conflict-affected southernmost provinces empowers the government “to prohibit publication and distribution of news and information that may cause the people to panic or with an intention to distort information.” It also authorizes the government to censor news considered a threat to national security.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by a maximum fine of THB 200,000 ($6,660) and two years’ imprisonment. Military and business figures filed criminal defamation and libel cases against political and environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and politicians.
On August 28, poultry firm Thammakaset dropped its civil-defamation case against human rights activist Sutharee “Kratik” Wannasiri, but the company continued pursing criminal-defamation charges against her that carry a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of up to THB 200,000 ($6,670). Thammakaset had demanded THB five million ($167,000) in compensation for comments Sutharee made on Twitter in 2017, arguing her social-media posts damaged the company’s reputation and seeking an apology. Thammakaset dropped the case after Sutharee made a statement in court saying she “felt sorry” if some of the content in the posts was “inaccurate.” Criminal-defamation charges still pending are scheduled for a hearing in February 2020.
National Security: Various NCPO orders issued under the interim constitution, later extended by the 2017 constitution, continue to provide authorities the right to restrict distribution of material deemed to threaten national security even with the new government in place.
The government continued to restrict or disrupt access to the internet and routinely censored online content. There were reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Under the law, the government can impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a THB 100,000 ($3,330) fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and some penalties were too harsh.
In February parliament approved the Cybersecurity Act; it came into force in May. Civil society groups expressed privacy and surveillance concerns about the act, citing its vague language and lack of safeguards. In September human rights groups and information-technology industry advocates called on lawmakers to make numerous amendments to the act to limit the virtually unchecked power they said it conferred on the government to monitor online media.
On November 1, the government’s new “anti-fake news center” began targeting disinformation and misinformation, particularly on social media. The center issued arrest warrants for content deemed to negatively impact society. After identifying an instance of “fake news,” the center, which operates under the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society, urges related ministries and government offices to retract and correct the information. The center tackles four main categories of false information: disasters; economic, banking and equity issues; health issues and illegal health products and services; and news and information with national-security, social and moral risks. Civil society groups have expressed concern that the center might be used as a tool to stifle legitimate political discourse.
The government actively monitored social media and private communications.
As reported by Freedom House, the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) endorsed surveillance policies, including a centralized social media watch center to determine whether social media content is “inappropriate”; the purchase of enhanced surveillance technology; and restricting anonymity on the internet by mandating the collection of biometric data when registering new SIM cards.
Individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, although there were numerous restrictions on content, including lese majeste, gambling, and criticism of the NCPO when it was in power.
Civil society reported the government used prosecution or the threat of prosecution under computer-crimes legislation as a tool to suppress speech online. On October 1, however, the Office of the Attorney General decided not to proceed with charges earlier filed against FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and two party executives for breaching the law by “importing false information into a computer system” when they accused the pro-junta Phalang Pracharath Party of “poaching” members of parliament during a live speech on Facebook in June 2018.
The government closely monitored and blocked thousands of websites critical of the monarchy. Prosecutions of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public-comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The NBTC also lobbied foreign internet content creators and service providers to remove or locally censor lese majeste content. Human rights contacts reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.
Prior to its dissolution in July, the NCPO intervened to disrupt academic discussions on college campuses, intimidated scholars, and arrested student leaders critical of the coup.
During the year university authorities reported the regular presence of military personnel on campus, monitoring lectures and attending student events. There were numerous accounts of authorities arresting students for exercising freedom of speech and expression. Universities reported self-censorship continued after the installation of the new government.
In September, Rajabhat Maha Sarakham University and Khon Kaen University separately reversed earlier agreements to allow FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to speak at their campuses on the topic of constitutional reform, citing a mandate for non-partisanship. Both universities were reportedly pressured by government officials to cancel the events. In August, however, FFP leaders were able to hold similar events at Chiang Mai University and Prince of Songkhla University.
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
The 2017 constitution grants the freedom to assemble peacefully, subject to restrictions enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals, or to protect the rights and liberties of others.” In December 2018 the NCPO government repealed many of these restrictions, including the bans on political gatherings of five or more persons and political party campaigning, in advance of the March national election.
The government continued to prosecute prodemocracy and other human rights activists for peaceful protests prior to the repeal. On September 20, a criminal-court judge acquitted six prodemocracy activists of sedition charges that carried seven-year sentences for organizing a demonstration in February 2018 urging the junta government to hold the overdue national election. The activists behind the “People Who Want Elections” campaign–Sirawith “Ja New” Seritiwat, Arnon Nampha, Chonthicha “Kate” Jangrew, Sukrit Phiansuwan, Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, and Kan Phongpraphaphan–continue, however, to face charges in six other cases stemming from the series of pro-election demonstrations they organized in 2018.
In February, two student activists–Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak of Thammasat University and Tanawat Wongchai of Chulalongkorn University–were charged with violating the law for holding a peaceful protest at Government House urging Prime Minister Prayut to resign after he challenged the public to “oust me if you dare.” The two were charged with violating the law requiring protest organizers to notify authorities 24 hours in advance, and later released after each paid a fine of THB 2,000 ($67).
The 2017 constitution grants individuals the right to free association subject to restrictions by law enacted to “protect public interest, peace and order, or good morals.”
The law prohibits the registration of a political party with the same name or logo as a legally dissolved party.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The 2017 constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation; the government enforced some exceptions which it claimed were for “maintaining the security of the state, public order, public welfare, town and country planning, or youth welfare.”
In-country Movement: The government restricted the internal movement of members of hill tribes and other minority groups who were not citizens but held government-issued identity cards and who were registered as stateless persons. Authorities prohibited holders of such cards from traveling outside their home provinces without permission from the district chief. Offenders are subject to fines or a jail term of 45 to 60 days. Persons without cards may not travel at all. Human rights organizations reported that police at inland checkpoints often asked for bribes in exchange for allowing stateless persons to move from one province to another.
Foreign Travel: Local authorities required resident noncitizens, including thousands of ethnic Shan and other non-hill-tribe minorities, to seek permission from the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior for foreign travel.
Despite the NCPO government’s repeal of most overseas travel bans in December 2018 and the dissolution of that government in July, travel restrictions remained in effect for some individuals as a condition of bail agreements dating back to the NCPO government. Critics maintained these restrictions were politically motivated; the exact number of these cases was unknown.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government usually cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although with some restrictions.
The government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers remained inconsistent. Nevertheless, authorities hosted significant numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, generally provided protection against their expulsion or return, and allowed persons fleeing fighting or other incidents of violence in neighboring countries to cross the border and remain until conflict ceased. Moreover, authorities permitted urban refugees recognized by UNHCR and registered camp-based Burmese refugees to resettle to third countries.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: As of November, 271 Rohingya individuals remained in detention, 108 in IDCs and 163 in shelters. From 2013-2015, including during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015, 64 individuals arrived in the country irregularly. The other 207 individuals arrived in the country irregularly since 2016.
Authorities continued to treat all refugees and asylum seekers who lived in urban areas and who do not have valid visas as illegal migrants. Persons categorized as illegal migrants are legally subject to arrest and detention. Authorities permitted bail only for certain categories of detained refugees and asylum seekers, such as mothers, children, and persons with medical conditions. Authorities applied the criteria for allowing bail inconsistently.
Humanitarian organizations reported concerns that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers faced overcrowded conditions, lack of exercise opportunities, limited freedom of movement, and abusive treatment by authorities in the immigration detention centers (IDCs).
As part of an overall policy to reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country, immigration police in Bangkok sometimes arrested and detained asylum seekers and refugees, including women and children. As of August there were approximately 320 refugees and asylum seekers residing in IDCs, and 49 Uighurs have been detained in the country since 2015.
Refoulement: Persons from Burma, if arrested without refugee status or legal permission to be in the country, were often escorted back to the Burmese border. Authorities sometimes provided preferential treatment to certain Burmese ethnic minorities, such as ethnic Shan individuals, allowing them greater leeway to remain in Thailand without formal authorization. Outside IDCs, government officials did not distinguish between asylum-seeking Burmese and other undocumented Burmese, regarding all as illegal migrants. If caught outside of camps without permission the authorities generally allowed registered and verified Burmese refugees to return to their camp.
Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. One Cambodian UNHCR-recognized person of concern, however, was forcibly returned to Cambodia in February. Human rights NGOs alleged that in January, Thai authorities collaborated with Vietnamese security officials to return forcibly to Vietnam blogger Truong Duy Nhat, who had publicly expressed a desire to register with UNHCR.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government did not establish a system for providing protection to refugees. On December 25, the government published a new regulation (referred to as the “National Screening Mechanism” by UNHCR and NGOs) that provides individuals whom the government determines to be protected persons with temporary protection from deportation, access to health care, and access (for children) to education. The regulation does not provide for work permits to protected persons. The regulation will go into effect 180 days from the publication date.
UNHCR’s ability to provide protection to some groups of refugees outside the official camps remained limited. Its access to asylum seekers in the IDCs to conduct status interviews and monitor new arrivals varied throughout the year. Authorities generally allowed resettlement countries to conduct processing activities in the IDCs, and humanitarian organizations were able to provide health care, nutritional support, and other humanitarian assistance. Access varied, reportedly depending on the preferences of each IDC chief. Authorities at IDC Suan Phlu in Bangkok, for example, restricted access by UNHCR, IOM, and other NGOs during the second half of the year, claiming a need to expand health facilities.
The government allowed UNHCR to monitor the protection status of, and pursue solutions for, approximately 95,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in nine camps along the border with Burma. NGOs funded by the international community provided basic humanitarian assistance in the camps, including health care, food, education, shelter, water, sanitation, vocational training, and other services.
The government facilitated third-country resettlement to five countries for more than 2,200 Burmese refugees from the camps as of August. Refugees residing in the nine camps along the border who are not registered with the government were ineligible for third-country resettlement unless they were included in a 2015 verification process or had serious medical or protection concerns. Separately, the government coordinated with Burmese authorities to document and return to Burma registered camp residents who elected to participate in a voluntary repatriation program. As of August, 1,039 registered refugees had voluntarily returned to Burma in four tranches under the program since 2016.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees residing in the nine refugee camps on the border with Burma had no freedom of movement outside of their camps. A refugee apprehended outside the official camps is subject to possible harassment, fines, detention, deregistration, and deportation. Authorities sometimes allowed camp residents limited travel outside of the camps for activities such as medical care.
Refugees and asylum seekers were not eligible to participate in the official nationality-verification process, which allows migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with verified nationality and passports to travel throughout the country.
Employment: The law prohibits refugees from working in the country. The government allowed undocumented migrant workers from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos to work legally in certain economic sectors if they registered with authorities and followed a prescribed process to document their status (see section 7.d.). The law allows victims of trafficking and witnesses who cooperate with pending court cases to work legally during their trial and up to two years (with possible extensions) after the end of their trial involvement. Work permits must be linked to a specific employer. For certain victims of trafficking, including Rohingya, identifying suitable employment opportunities for the issuance of work permits remained a challenge. Registration, medical check-up, and health-insurance fees remained a deterrent for prospective employers of victims of trafficking.
Access to Basic Services: The international community provided basic services for refugees living inside the nine camps on the border with Burma. For needs beyond primary care, a medical referral system allows refugees to seek other necessary medical services. For the urban-refugee and asylum-seeker population living in Bangkok, access to basic health services was minimal. Three NGOs funded in part by the international community provided or facilitated primary and mental health-care services. A UNHCR-led health panel coordinated referrals of the most urgent medical cases to local hospitals.
Since Burmese refugee children living in the camps generally did not have access to the government education system, NGOs continued to support camp-based community organizations to provide educational opportunities, and some were able to partially coordinate their curriculum with the Ministry of Education. In Bangkok some refugee communities formed their own unofficial schools to provide education for their children. Others sought to learn Thai with support from UNHCR, because the law provides that government schools must admit children of any legal status who can speak, read, and write Thai with some degree of proficiency.
Temporary Protection: Authorities generally did not deport persons of concern holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government continued to protect from deportation the majority of Rohingya migrants detained by authorities, including those who arrived in the country irregularly during the mass movement in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in 2015. During the year, authorities also placed more than 200 Rohingya detained while transiting Thailand into Ministry of Social Development and Human Security-run shelters and protected them from deportation. UNHCR had access to these provincial shelters while authorities conducted formal screenings of the migrants’ eligibility for benefits as victims of trafficking. These Rohingya migrants, however, were in most cases confined to shelters and did not have freedom of movement or access to work permits.
The government continued to identify stateless persons, provide documentation to preclude statelessness, and open paths to citizenship for long-time residents and students. An estimated 470,000 persons, mainly residing in the northern region, were likely stateless or at risk of statelessness, including ethnic minorities registered with civil authorities and previously undocumented minorities. The authorities excluded Muslims from Burma, including individuals whose families had lived in Mae Sot near the Burmese border for multiple generations, from the statelessness recognition process.
A government resolution to end statelessness and provide a pathway to Thai nationality for approximately 80,000 stateless children and young adults covers persons born in the country, whose parents are ethnic minorities, who are registered with the government, and who have resided in the country for a minimum of 15 years. It also applies to stateless youths certified by a state agency to have lived in the country for 10 years whose parentage is unknown. In April the government enacted an amendment to the Civil Registration Act providing a pathway for foundlings to apply for a birth certificate and obtain a Thai national identification card. If the person proves continuous residence in the country for 10 or more years and meets other qualifications, the person is eligible to apply for Thai nationality.
Birth within the country does not automatically confer citizenship. The law bases citizenship on birth to at least one citizen parent, marriage to a male citizen, or naturalization. Individuals may also acquire citizenship by means of special government-designated criteria implemented by the Ministry of Interior with approval from the cabinet or in accordance with nationality law (see section 6, Children). Recent amendments to the law allow ethnic Thai stateless persons and their children, who meet the added definition of “displaced Thai,” to apply for the status of “Thai nationality by birth.”
By law stateless members of hill tribes may not vote or own land, and their travel is restricted. Stateless persons also may not participate in certain occupations reserved for citizens, including farming, although authorities permitted noncitizen members of hill tribes to undertake subsistence agriculture. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing credit and government services, such as health care. Although education was technically accessible for all undocumented and stateless children, it was usually of poor quality. School administrators placed the term “non-Thai citizen” on these students’ high school certificates, which severely limited their economic opportunities. Stateless persons and those considered illegal migrants were not permitted to enroll in tertiary education.
Without legal status, stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse including threat of deportation (see section 6, Children and Indigenous People).