Belize

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. An independent press, an effective judicial system, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. In May, Belize Telemedia Limited, the state-owned telecommunications provider, stopped advertising with all KREMANDALA companies, one of the most popular media conglomerates in the country. The provider explained it was a general cut on all advertising, but it did not reduce advertising with other media firms. KREMANDALA was known to be critical of the government and was owned by the family of a prominent opposition politician.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 47 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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. A state of public emergency was declared on September 4 for 30 days in two areas of Belize City as a result of gang violence, which limited assembly in the areas.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. Although the government committed to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, persons at risk of becoming stateless, or other persons of concern under the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, the Belize Refugees Act, and the UN Convention for Statelessness, the government severely restricted approval of asylum applications after reinstating the Refugee Eligibility Committee in 2015.

Citizenship: The government continued to enforce a moratorium on the issuance of Belize citizenship to Guatemalan citizens that started in 2012. The moratorium began in response to complaints that the constitution does not allow for Belizean nationality to be awarded to Guatemalans if they do not renounce their previous nationality first. Guatemala does not have a formal nationality renunciation process, so Guatemalan nationals cannot technically qualify for Belizean citizenship. As a result, several Guatemalan nationals who met the criteria to become Belize citizens found themselves in limbo.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government does not distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers, as the law itself does not reference asylum seekers–only refugees and recognized refugees. During the year the government granted asylum status to 28 persons of the more than 3,000 applicants. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Help for Progress, UNHCR’s implementing partner in the country, continued to assist by providing limited basic services, including shelter, clothing, and food to refugees and asylum seekers.

Employment: Persons awaiting adjudication of their refugee applications were unable to work legally in the country.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees were able to use the education system and the socialized medical system, but the government offered no assistance with housing or food except in extreme cases that involved children and pregnant women.

Temporary Protection: The Immigration Department issued renewable special residency permits for periods of 60 to 90 days to those who applied for refugee status within the 14-day deadline.

Canada

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: According to Supreme Court rulings, the government may limit speech to counter discrimination, foster social harmony, or promote gender equality. The court ruled that the benefits of limiting hate speech and promoting equality are sufficient to outweigh the freedom of speech clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the country’s constitutional bill of rights.

The criminal code prohibits public incitement and willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group in any medium. Inciting hatred (in certain cases) or genocide is a criminal offense, but the Supreme Court sets a high threshold for such cases, specifying that these acts must be proven to be willful and public. Provincial-level film censorship, broadcast licensing procedures, broadcasters’ voluntary codes curbing graphic violence, and laws against hate literature and pornography impose some restrictions on the media.

On August 9, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the appeal of a Quebec superior court ruling in March that ordered a Radio Canada journalist to reveal confidential sources the journalist used involving a former deputy premier of the province. On November 30, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior rulings that the government may compel media organizations to produce evidence in relation to criminal investigations. In its decision the court declined to address whether the press enjoys distinct and independent constitutional protection, noting the matter was not considered by the lower courts. The court also noted that the 2017 Journalistic Sources Protection Act did not apply, because the case arose before the law took effect.

The trial of a Mississauga, Ontario, man charged in 2017 with one count of willful promotion of hatred for posting abusive videos and materials against Muslims and other groups on his website and other social media platforms remained pending as of October 1.

In December 2017 a Quebec government commission presented its findings after investigating reports that Quebec law enforcement agencies surveilled eight journalists between 2008 and 2016 as part of internal police investigations into sources of leaked information in a political corruption case. Although the police had a warrant from a Quebec court for each case, testimony suggested police might have based warrant applications on unsubstantiated allegations. The commission found no conclusive proof of political interference with police investigations but recommended legislation to establish a legal firewall between police and politicians and to protect journalistic sources, as well as improve police training to ensure freedom of the press.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Approximately 99 percent of households could access broadband services. According to International Telecommunication Union data, 93 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement from third countries and facilitated local integration (including naturalization), particularly of refugees in protracted situations. The government assisted the safe, voluntary return of refugees to their homes.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection (in the form of temporary residence permits) to persons who may not qualify as refugees.

Costa Rica

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private communications without appropriate legal authority. The International Telecommunication Union reported that 72 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has an established system for providing protection to refugees. The law requires authorities to process the claims within three months of receipt, but decisions took an average of 14 months and an additional 12 months for the appeals process.

The number of persons seeking asylum increased significantly. The Immigration Office handled a growing number of migrants requesting refugee status, the majority from Nicaragua. According to immigration authorities, from April to September, Nicaraguans filed 8,000 claims and authorities gave migrants more than 15,000 more appointments to file their requests, up from fewer than 100 applications from Nicaraguans in all of 2017. The government leased additional office space and opened a call center to process appointments and disseminate information better.

As of August the Appeals Tribunal, which adjudicates all migration appeals, had a backlog of 476 asylum cases. UNHCR provided support to the Refugee Unit and the Appeals Tribunal to hire additional legal and administrative personnel to assist with reduction of the backlog.

Employment: Refugee regulations provide asylum seekers an opportunity to obtain work permits if they have to wait beyond the three months the law allows for a decision on their asylum claim (which occurs in virtually all cases). On August 10, the Labor Ministry, the Chamber of Commerce, and UNHCR launched a program to assist asylum seekers and refugees to find jobs.

Access to Basic Services: By law asylum seekers and refugees have access to public services and social welfare programs, but access was often hampered by lack of knowledge about their status in the country and feelings of xenophobia among some service providers. For example, asylum seekers without employers (who constituted the majority of asylum seekers) faced restrictions when enrolling voluntarily as independent workers in the public health system.

Asylum seekers received provisional refugee status documents legalizing their status after appearing for an interview with the General Directorate of Immigration, for which the estimated wait time was eight months. Provisional refugee ID cards do not resemble other national identity documents, so while government authorities generally accepted them, many private citizens did not. Upon receiving refugee status, which typically took another nine months, refugees could obtain an identity document similar to those used by nationals at a cost of 39,000 colones ($68), renewable every two years.

Durable Solutions: The government continued to implement a “Protection Transfer Arrangement” in coordination with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration for refugee resettlement in third countries. The government was committed to local integration of refugees both legally and socially and to facilitating their naturalization process. In partnership with UNHCR, on April 23, the government awarded “Living Integration” certifications to 20 public and private organizations to help refugees and asylum seekers earn a livelihood.

Temporary Protection: There were no programs for temporary protection beyond refugee status. Due to low recognition rates (approximately 8 percent of applicants received asylum during the first six months of the year), UNHCR had to consider a number of rejected asylum seekers as persons in need of international protection. UNHCR provided support and access to integration programs to individuals still pursuing adjudication and appeals. The individuals requesting refugee status were mainly from Nicaragua, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Colombia; the majority were male adults and extended families.

STATELESS PERSONS

There continued to be problems of statelessness of indigenous children and children of seasonal workers in the border areas with Panama and Nicaragua derived from the difficulties linked to birth registrations. Members of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous group from Panama often worked on Costa Rican farms and occasionally gave birth there. In these cases parents did not register Ngobe-Bugle children as Costa Rican citizens at birth because they did not think it necessary, although the children lacked registration in Panama as well. Approximately 1,200 children were affected. Government authorities worked together with UNHCR on a program of birth registration and provision of identification documents to stateless persons known as “Chiriticos.” Mobile teams went to remote coffee-growing areas for case identification and registration. The National Civil Registry appointed a permanent officer in the regional offices of Coto Brus, Talamanca, and Tarrazu to provide follow-up services. From May 27 to June 3, authorities from Costa Rica and Panama collaborated to register citizens from the southern area of Punta Burica as part of the Chiriticos project. UNHCR and the National Civil Registry continued a project along the northern border for individuals of Nicaraguan origin to facilitate procedures for late birth registration.

El Salvador

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take over all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Press and Media Freedom: There continued to be allegations that the government retaliated against members of the press for criticizing its policies. There were reports the Ministry of Labor conducted arbitrary labor inspections and financial audits of news organizations.

Both the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) parties steered funding, including public funds, to journalists in exchange for positive coverage. The online news outlet El Faro reported during the year that former president Antonio Saca funneled $665,000 (currency is the U.S. dollar) to media contacts in exchange for positive coverage from 2004 until 2009, while former president Mauricio Funes continued the practice of using a secret fund to corrupt journalists from 2009 through 2014.

Violence and Harassment: On May 22, the Salvadoran Journalist Association (APES) reported that former youth secretary Carlos Aleman threatened El Faro journalist Gabriel Labrador after he published a report that accused Aleman of benefiting from illegal salary increases during the Saca administration. APES also reported that journalist Milagro Vallecillos received a call asking him where he would like a body disposed after he criticized the police investigation into the killing of journalist Karla Turcios.

In relation to reporting on the March 4 municipal and legislative assembly elections, APES recorded 15 complaints against civil servants, mayors, unions, and gang members. The incidents included three verbal threats, two physical assaults, one property damage claim, and three suspicious incidents. On March 19, online news outlet Diario 1 journalist Miguel Lemus was physically attacked by members of the San Salvador city employees’ union.

Minister of Defense Munguia reportedly visited media offices unannounced and accompanied by armed soldiers.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government advertising accounted for a significant portion of press advertising income. According to APES, media practiced self-censorship, especially in reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking.

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists reporting on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

The International Telecommunication Union reported 31 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not guarantee freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity. As of July 31, the PDDH received two complaints of restrictions from freedom of movement, one against the PNC and the other against a court in Jiquilisco. Both cases involved subjects being detained without charge. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled their own territory. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s controlled area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or not allowed to enter the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

On July 13, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the constitution by not recognizing forced displacement or providing sufficient aid to IDPs. The ruling followed several lawsuits brought by victims, including members of the PNC. The court ordered the Legislative Assembly to pass legislation addressing internal displacement and officially recognize internal displacement. The court also called on the government to retake control of gang territories, develop protection protocols for victims, and uphold international standards for protecting victims.

As of July the PDDH reported 69 complaints of forced displacement from January to May. Nearly all of the complaints were from gang-controlled territories, with 51 cases from San Salvador. As of October the government acknowledged that 1.1 percent of the general population was internally displaced. UNHCR estimated there were 280,000 IDPs. UNHCR reported the causes of internal displacement included abuse, extortion, discrimination, and threats.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, including an established system for providing protection to refugees. As of July 31, four petitions had been submitted, with three resulting in denial and one still under consideration.

Guatemala

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of and violence against journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.

Freedom of Expression: Following President Morales’ August 31 press conference announcing he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, several prominent human rights defenders and activists reported the PNC visited them ostensibly to inquire about their protection measures. Several journalists also reported suspected surveillance of their homes and offices in the days following the August 31 press conference. The activists and journalists interpreted these actions as an effort to intimidate them from criticizing the administration’s measures with respect to CICIG.

Press and Media Freedom: There were no legal restrictions on the editorial independence of the media. Reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Since August 31, public security forces have imposed more stringent identification checks on journalists covering government events and activities.

Violence and Harassment: Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets increased throughout the year. These included hacking of journalists’ private accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press. Members of the press continued to report threats and violence from public officials and criminal organizations, which impaired the practice of free and open journalism. The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a voluntary commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.

According to the Public Ministry, 54 complaints were filed for attacks or threats against journalists, and two journalists were killed from January through the end of August, compared with 116 complaints and three killings in all of 2017.

In November 2017 the Supreme Court lifted the parliamentary immunity of Congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez based on allegations from the Public Ministry and CICIG that he ordered the killing of journalist Danilo Efrain Zapon Lopez in 2015 in Mazatenango, Suchitepequez. Journalist Federico Benjamin Salazar Geronimo was also killed in the attack and reporter Marvin Tunches was injured. At year’s end the case was at the intermediary public trial phase.

The Public Ministry employed a unit dedicated to the investigation of threats and attacks against journalists, but the NGO Center for Reporting in Guatemala noted it had few prosecutions.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials regarding the content of their reporting. Some owners and members of media accused the government of following a discriminatory advertising policy that penalized or rewarded print and broadcast media based on whether the government perceived the news or commentary as supportive or critical. Significant self-censorship occurred as a result.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The daily newspaper elPeriodico experienced a two-day denial of service attack and another three-day attack starting on September 1. The source of the attacks remained unknown.

A local newspaper reported former president Otto Perez Molina’s administration created a surveillance network in 2012 to access social media accounts of diplomats, government officials, politicians, journalists, students, and academics.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 41 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, with a few exceptions.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.

On September 12, the congressional spokesperson reported that more than 2,100 police were present at Congress during a commemoration of the country’s independence, led by President Morales. A protest scheduled to converge at Congress on the same day was not able to approach the perimeters of Congress. The heavy police presence ostensibly serving as presidential security and crowd control received widespread criticism and media as a form of intimidation against the protesters. Civil society groups expressed concern over the presence of Kaibiles, military special forces who were implicated in war crimes during the country’s internal armed conflict from 1960-96.

On September 14, when President Morales and his cabinet attended a ceremony at the cathedral on the central plaza, NGOs and journalists accused the government of using excessive security measures to intimidate citizens and restrict their right to assemble. Observers stated security measures included the deployment of antiriot military police; the registration of all pedestrians entering the plaza, including children; and excessive security checks. On September 14, a Public Ministry prosecutor stated publicly he would investigate for possible violations of freedom of movement.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. There were reports, however, of significant barriers to organizing in the labor sector (see section 7.a.).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

An immigration law in effect since 2017 overhauled the country’s migration system and defined the term “refugee” as well as listing refugees’ rights in accordance with international instruments. The preparation of regulations to implement the law, including on the refugee application process and refugee rights, was underway at year’s end. Government agencies made limited progress in implementing the Protection Council mandated by the new migration code, which would support the protection, reception, and reintegration of returned children.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, including during the mid-October surge of Central American migrants that passed through the country.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The country does not have laws in place to protect IDPs in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. UNHCR expressed concern regarding violence against IDPs and strengthened its efforts to monitor the problem and provide assistance to the displaced. The country does not officially recognize the existence of IDPs within its borders, with the exception of those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights characterized as IDPs 400 farmers the government evicted from the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2017. Media and civil society groups reported the evictees did not receive government assistance in a timely manner.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR, however, reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate. Both migration and police authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported access to education for refugees was challenging due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin.

Honduras

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected this right. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.

Freedom of Expression: The law includes a provision to punish persons who directly, or through public media, incite discrimination, hate, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.

In September congress repealed Article 335-B of the law, which criminalized hate speech and language inciting terrorism, due to concern that this article could be used to target journalists and members of civil society for expressing views critical of the government. Media associations and NGOs praised the congressional action.

Violence and Harassment: There were continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists, media figures, and bloggers. NGO Peace Brigades International registered a significant increase in reports of harassment against journalists and social communicators since 2017. They registered 41 security incidents involving journalists and social commentators between January and August, nearly twice the number of complaints registered during the same period in 2017. Reports linked most of these instances of harassment and threats to organized criminal elements and gangs.

Government officials at all levels publicly denounced violence and threats of violence against media members and social communicators. UNAH’s Violence Observatory reported no killings of journalists and social communicators during the first six months of the year, as compared with two such killings in 2017. There were many reports of intimidation and threats against media members and their families, including from members of the security forces and organized crime. It was usually unclear whether violence and threats against journalists were linked to their work or were products of generalized violence.

Human rights defenders, including indigenous and environmental rights activists, political activists, labor activists, and representatives of civil society working to combat corruption, reported threats and acts of violence. Civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, and indigenous rights groups, criticized the government and its officials for allegedly criminalizing and stigmatizing social protest. Members of the Police Purge Commission, National Anticorruption Council (CNA), and Public Ministry’s anticorruption unit (UFECIC) all reported receiving threats. The Agroindustrial Worker’s Federation, a labor syndicate, reported two cases of threats against union leaders (see section 7.a.).

The government allocated a budget of nearly 25 million lempiras ($1.04 million) for the operation of its protection mechanism. By August it had 34 permanent and contract staff. The mechanism approved 219 protection cases, including 131 human rights defenders, 39 journalists, 30 social commentators, and 19 justice-sector workers. As of August 31, the mechanism had received 122 new requests for protection, of which 104 met legal requirements and were accepted. Of the 104 accepted cases, eight were closed during the year. The remaining 96 cases included 52 human rights defenders, 14 journalists, 21 social commentators, and 9 justice-sector workers. Some NGOs continued to express concern about weak implementation of the law and limited resources available to operate the government’s protection mechanism for human rights defenders. Civil society organizations continued to criticize the government’s failure to investigate threats against activists and journalists adequately.

The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including judges, journalists, human rights activists, and members of the LGBTI community. As of November the task force had submitted 19 cases to the Public Ministry, arrested 42 persons, and obtained six convictions.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media members and NGOs stated the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized crime or corrupt government officials.

Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, may initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander.

National Security: The Organization of American States (OAS) Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) continued to raise concerns regarding the law for the classification of public documents related to defense and national security (the Secrets Law). MACCIH called on the government either to amend the law or pass a new one. According to MACCIH representatives, the law prohibits authorities from fully investigating government contracts and funds, enabling government institutions to misuse an overly broad classification system under the guise of “national security” to hide potential illicit activity in such areas as the security tax fund, water authority, and social security administration. Civil society organizations supported MACCIH’s calls to reform the law.

Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized crime. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism. Several anonymous social media sites, possibly linked to political parties, criticized activists, civil society organizations, and journalists who were critical of the government or opposition party policies.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but there were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2017 approximately 32 percent of the population used the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires a judge to issue an eviction order for individuals occupying public and private property if security forces had not evicted the individuals within a specified period of the occupation. Some local and international civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, political parties, and indigenous rights groups, alleged that members of the security forces used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The IACHR reported that the government at times used a policy of arbitrary detentions or arrests to inhibit protest.

Law enforcement evictions of protesters, land rights activists, and others were generally conducted peacefully, although injuries to both protesters and law enforcement officers were occasionally reported. The NGO Peace Brigades International reported several instances of threats and intimidation by security forces, including a heavy military presence in disputed areas. Conversely, media sources reported in October that two soldiers were ambushed and killed near Tocoa, Colon, as they sought peacefully to remove protesters from blocking a road. No suspects were arrested, and it is unclear if the shooters were related to the protesters or linked with illicit groups.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits illicit association, defined as gatherings by persons bearing arms, explosive devices, or dangerous objects with the purpose of committing a crime, and prescribes prison terms of two to four years and a fine of 30,000 to 60,000 lempiras ($1,250 to $2,500) for anyone who convokes or directs an illicit meeting or demonstration. There were no reports of such cases during the year, although authorities charged some protesters with sedition. Public-sector unions expressed concern over some officials refusing to honor bargaining agreements and firing union leaders. The law prohibits police from unionizing (see section 7.a.).

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Transiting migrants were vulnerable to abuse by criminal organizations.

In-country Movement: There were areas where authorities could not assure freedom of movement because of criminal activity and a lack of significant government presence.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

In 2017 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated there were approximately 190,000 IDPs in the country. In 2017 the National Human Rights Commission identified 339 cases of forced displacement and 349 cases of individuals at risk of forced displacement. Internal displacement was generally caused by violence, national and transnational gang activity, and human trafficking. Official data on forced internal displacement was limited in part because gangs controlled many of the neighborhoods that were sources of internal displacement (see section 6, Displaced Children).

The government maintained the Interinstitutional Commission for the Protection of People Displaced by Violence, and within the newly created Ministry of Human Rights, the government created the Directorate for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence. Both the ministry and the commission focused on developing policies to address IDPs. Following up on the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework conference that the government hosted in October 2017, the participants, including governments from across the region, agreed to the Regional Integral Framework for Protection and Solutions. Under the framework the government pledged to strengthen its capacity to provide services to key population groups, including refugees and returned migrants, through 14 commitments and 28 specific actions between 2018 and 2020.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law allows for the granting of asylum or refugee status. The government has established a system to provide protection to refugees, but at times there were significant delays in processing provisional permits for asylum applicants.

Mexico

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, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained the main 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 murdered or subject to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) due 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 Article 19, as of December 5, nine journalists had been killed because of their reporting.

Perpetrators of violence against journalists acted with impunity. According to Article 19, as of August the impunity rate for crimes against journalists was 99.7 percent. In 2017 there were 507 attacks against journalists, according to Article 19. Since its creation in 2010, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists (FEADLE), a PGR unit, won only eight convictions, and none for murder, in the more than 2,000 cases it investigated. On August 25, FEADLE won its first conviction in the new justice system, obtaining a sentence against Tabasco state police officers for illegally detaining a journalist because of his reporting.

Government officials believed organized crime to be behind most of these attacks, but NGOs asserted there were instances when local government authorities participated in or condoned the acts. According to Article 19, in the last five years, 48 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 attacks against journalists.

In April 2017 the government of Quintana Roo offered a public apology to journalist Pedro Canche, who was falsely accused by state authorities of sabotage and was detained for nine months in prison. In May the PGR detained a police officer, Tila Patricia Leon, and a former judge, Javier Ruiz, for undermining Canche’s freedom of expression through arbitrary detention in retaliation for his critical reporting about state government authorities.

There were no developments in the March 2017 killing of Miroslava Breach, a prominent newspaper correspondent.

In March, two police officers, Luigi Heriberto Bonilla Zavaleta and Jose Francisco Garcia, were sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of Moises Sanchez, a newspaper owner and journalist in Veracruz. Sanchez was kidnapped in 2015 and found dead three weeks after his disappearance. The local mayor, accused of ordering the murder, remained a fugitive.

In 2005 journalist Lydia Cacho wrote a book exposing a pedophile ring in Cancun. She was arrested in December 2005 and driven 20 hours to Puebla, during which time police threatened her and forced a gun down her throat. On August 8, a federal court in Quintana Roo upheld the October 2017 decision that found Puebla state police officer Jose Montano Quiroz guilty of torture. In the 2017 sentence, the judge recognized Cacho was tortured psychologically and physically and that the torture inflicted was in retaliation for her reporting.

Between 2012 and June 2018, the National Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists received 301 requests for protection for journalists. According to Article 19, there had been 62 requests as of October.

On July 24, Playa Del Carmen-based journalist Ruben Pat became the third journalist killed while under protection of the mechanism. Pat had been arrested, threatened, and allegedly tortured by municipal police in Quintana Roo on June 25, according to the OHCHR. Pat was the second journalist killed from the Seminario Playa news outlet in one month. His colleague Jose Guadalupe Chan Dzib was killed on June 29.

A June joint report from IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Edison Lanza and UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye stated journalists in Mexico lived in a “catastrophic” situation given the number of journalists killed since 2010. The report claimed vast regions of the country were “zones of silence” where exercising freedom of expression was dangerous. Observers noted that journalists were often required to publish messages at the behest of organized criminal groups.

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, especially in the states of Tamaulipas and Sinaloa.

According to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report, the federal government and some state governments used advertising expenditures to influence the editorial policies of media outlets. Article 19 reported in March the government had 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, but there are state criminal laws in eight states. In Guanajuato, Nuevo Leon, Baja California Sur, Nayarit, Michoacan, 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 five hundred 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 Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Nuevo Leon, Baja California Sur, Sonora, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Colima, Michoacan, Campeche, and Yucatan, 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.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2017 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.

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 those mechanisms, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access users’ metadata.

There were no developments in the criminal investigation the government stated in 2017 that it had opened to determine whether prominent journalists, human rights defenders, and anticorruption activists were subjected to illegal surveillance via a sophisticated surveillance program, “Pegasus.” PGR officials acknowledged purchasing Pegasus but claimed to have used it only to monitor criminals. In May a Mexico City district judge ordered the victims’ evidence be accepted in the PGR’s ongoing investigation. According to a November report by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, 24 individuals were targeted with Pegasus spyware.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 64 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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 www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

The government and press reports noted a marked increase in refugee and asylum applications during the year. According to UNHCR statistics, there were 9,900 asylum applications during the first half of the year, compared with a total of 14,596 applications in all of 2017.

At the Iztapalapa detention center near Mexico City, the Twenty-First Century detention center in Chiapas, and other detention facilities, men were separated from women and children, and there were special living quarters for LGBTI individuals. Migrants had access to medical, psychological, and dental services, and the Iztapalapa center had agreements with local hospitals to care for any urgent cases free of charge. Individuals from countries with consular representation also had access to consular services. Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) and CNDH representatives visited daily, and other established civil society groups were able to visit the detention facilities on specific days and hours. Victims of trafficking and other crimes were housed in specially designated shelters. Human rights pamphlets were available in many different languages. In addition approximately 35 centers cooperated with UNHCR and allowed it to display posters and provide other information on how to access asylum for those in need of international protection.

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. Government and civil society sources reported the Central American gang presence spread farther into the country and threatened migrants who had fled the same gangs in their home countries. An August 2017 report by the independent INM Citizens’ Council found incidents in which immigration agents had been known to threaten and abuse migrants to force them to accept voluntary deportation and discourage them from seeking asylum. The council team visited 17 detention centers across the country and reported threats, violence, and excessive force against undocumented migrants. The INM responded to these allegations by asserting it treated all migrants with “absolute respect.”

There were media reports that criminal groups kidnapped undocumented migrants to extort money from migrants’ relatives or force them into committing criminal acts on their behalf.

A November 2017 Amnesty International report highlighted the dangers Central American LGBTI migrants faced in Mexico. Citing UNHCR data, the report stated two-thirds of LGBTI migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who applied for refugee status reported having been victims of sexual violence in Mexico.

According to a July 2017 report from the NGO Washington Office on Latin America, of the 5,824 reported crimes against migrants that occurred in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco, Sonora, Coahuila, and at the federal level, 99 percent of the crimes were unresolved.

In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of migrants, including by kidnappings and homicides.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)

The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) attributed the displacement of 10,947 people in 2018 to violence by government forces against civilians in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Sinaloa. Land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, local political disputes, religiously motivated violence, extractive industry operations, and natural disasters were other causes. The CMDPDH found 74 percent of displaced persons in 2017 came from the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Sinaloa. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

During an October 2017 border dispute between two municipalities in the state of Chiapas, 5,323 Tzotziles indigenous individuals were displaced. Violence between the communities resulted in women, children, and the elderly abandoning their homes. By January, 3,858 had returned, and the rest remained in shelters.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary protection, and the government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protection to refugees. At the end of 2017, the Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) had received 14,596 petitions, of which 2,400 were abandoned, 7,719 were pending, and 4,475 were resolved. The number of applicants withdrawing from the process dropped to 16 percent during the year, down from 36 percent in 2014. The refusal rate decreased from 61 percent to 37 percent over that same period. NGOs reported bribes sometimes influenced the adjudication of asylum petitions and requests for transit visas.

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. In October, the government announced the “You Are at Home” (“Estas en tu casa”) program to address the flow of migrants in so-called caravans from Central America transiting the country to seek asylum in the United States. The program offered migrants the opportunity to stay legally in the country with access to health care, employment, and education for children. Press reports indicated that 546 migrants had registered for the program as of November 11.

Nicaragua

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for the press. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against radio and television stations through raids, arson, blocking transmissions, and violence against journalists.

Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. There were a number of incidents throughout the year in which public officials, including at the ministerial, congressional, and local government levels, were reportedly ousted for expressing their opinions through the independent media or on social media.

Independent media experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, and fear of criminal defamation charges. The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Further attempts to intimidate came through continued financial audits performed by the Directorate General of Revenue, which resulted in referral of cases to the Customs and Administrative Tax Court. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted.

The government restricted symbolic speech. On May 5, a group of protesters changed the FSLN red and black colors at the base of a statue of Augusto Cesar Sandino at the entrance of the town of Niquinohomo to white and blue, the national flag colors. FSLN members responded violently and changed the colors back to red and black, which led to clashes between the groups. Starting on September 1, protesters started releasing white and blue balloons on city streets as a form of protest and to celebrate independence days (September 14 and 15). NNP officers arrested two boys for carrying a large bag full of white and blue balloons. On September 12, during a celebration of Central American independence, men in a vehicle with FSLN paraphernalia stopped a high school student who was wearing a white and blue bandana and carrying an Independence and Peace Torch and ordered her to remove the bandana or give the torch to someone else. The girl eventually took the bandana off and continued running with the torch.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence. In May the entire news team of Channel 10, which was owned by a foreigner close to the FSLN party, threatened to resign after the station refused to cover the protests. When the station relented, allowing coverage to take place, the head of government station Channel 8’s news desk attempted to install himself as the news director of Channel 10. The Financial Analysis Unit launched a money-laundering investigation against Nicaraguan-Honduran general manager Carlos Pastora, reportedly blocking him from leaving the country and forcing him into refuge on August 22. On December 3, Pastora left the country and went into exile. Many observers alleged the timing of the investigation was in reprisal for the editorial line of the station’s news show.

Significant state influence, ownership, and control over media continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Generally, media stations owned by the presidential family limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at a disadvantage.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. On April 20, two arsonists died while setting a fire that destroyed Radio Dario in Leon. The station’s owner attributed the attack to an FSLN National Assembly representative and a local FSLN leader. International human rights organizations believed the fires were set in retaliation for coverage of protests against social security reforms and subsequent government repression of such protests. A local Jinotepe radio station, Stereo Romance, was vandalized with graffiti calling for its journalists to be killed. FSLN-controlled Radio Ya and government-owned Radio Nicaragua were both victims of fires of unknown origin, with minimal damage. Beginning on November 30, police detained 100% Noticias owner Miguel Mora and his wife and threatened them on six different occasions; government sympathizers also made accusations to prosecutors that Mora committed murders during the political crisis. Television anchor Jaime Arellano went into self-imposed exile on November 25 after police repeatedly stopped his vehicle over the course of several days and personnel remained present outside his house. On December 3, the NNP forced the closure of two radio stations in the department of Leon and intimidated several high-profile journalists. On December 22, the NNP raided the 100% Noticias television studio and took apart their broadcasting equipment, while the Nicaraguan Telecommunications Regulator (TELCOR) ordered all cable stations to remove the television’s signal from their programming. The NNP detained the network’s owner and its editor in chief, Lucia Pineda, who were later charged with provoking, proposing, and conspiring to commit terrorism. Most of the staff of the station went into hiding or self-imposed exile, including talk show host Luis Galeano.

Progovernment sympathizers and Sandinista Youth destroyed cameras and stole television equipment during coverage of antigovernment protests that started on April 19. Sandinista Youth, parapolice forces, and NNP officers actively targeted and pursued independent journalists to intimidate and harass them. Members of the NNP raided and ransacked the offices of newspaper Confidencial with no warrant. The crackdown happened during the raid of nine civil society organizations by the police despite the newspaper’s lack of ties to the organizations. One of the largest daily newspapers, independent La Prensa, claimed government officials and supporters regularly intimidated its journalists, actively hindered investigations, and failed to respond to questions of general public interest, particularly those involving the constitution, rule of law, and corruption.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology; however, it did not do this according to specific guidelines.

On April 19, TELCOR cut the signal of five channels that were covering antigovernment protests. The four smaller stations affected reestablished their signal within a day, but independent 24-hour news channel 100% Noticias remained off the air until April 24. Owner Miguel Mora said he refused TELCOR’s request to stop covering the antigovernment protests, and its coverage was uninterrupted on Facebook. On October 27, TELCOR ordered that 100% Noticias be relocated from its position at the top of the local television dial–where it was referred to by virtually everyone as “Channel 15”–to a much less prominent slot at channel 63.

To control printing presses, the government continued to enforce the controversial Law 528, or “Ley Arce,” which established high tariffs and bureaucratic delays on the importation of ink, paper, machinery, and other printing necessities, despite constitutional provisions protecting the media’s right to freedom from such tariffs. In late December, national print media, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, reported the government was delaying their import of ink and paper, which by late January 2019 would effectively end their already weakened ability to print newspapers.

Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented the media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government, however, granted licenses in a discretionary manner and extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result, independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.

Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. Additionally, media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.

Libel/Slander Laws: Although during the year the government did not use libel laws, independent media reported engaging in self-censorship due to the government’s previous use of libel laws. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.

National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law was a basis for the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.”

An NNP regulation under the guise of protecting national security restricts criticism of government policies and officials.

INTERNET FREEDOM

There were credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority, and in some cases restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content.

Several NGOs claimed the government monitored their email and online activity without appropriate legal authority. Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Government and banking websites associated with the FSLN faced politically motivated cyberattacks, as did opposition media. Paid government supporters used social media and website commentary spaces to harass prominent members of civil society, human rights defenders, and a well known journalist.

The government disclosed personally identifiable information to penalize the expression of opinions. As part of a continuing social media campaign against antigovernment protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Civil society members alleged government offices provided the information. Government supporters also used the personally identifiable information to mark the houses of civil society members with either derogatory slurs or threats, then published photographs of the marked houses on social media.

The International Telecommunication Union reported approximately 30 percent of citizens used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

There were government restrictions on academic freedom, and many academics and researchers reported pressure to censor themselves.

UNAN fired more than 50 staff members without cause between August 13 and August 20. Many of those fired claimed the firings were in retaliation for expressing support for or otherwise agreeing with antigovernment protests.

Human rights NGOs and civil society groups reported authorities required students in elementary and secondary public schools to participate in progovernment rallies while schools were in session. Political propaganda for the ruling party was posted inside public schools. Teacher organizations and NGOs alleged continuing FSLN interference in the school system through the use of school facilities as FSLN campaign headquarters, favoritism shown to members of FSLN youth groups or to children of FSLN members, politicized issuance of scholarships, and the use of pro-FSLN education materials.

Combined NNP and parapolice forces shot live ammunition and forced their way into various public universities during student protests in violation of university autonomy.

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Antigovernment marches and protests were allowed at times, but in several instances, the NNP and parapolice shot live ammunition at protesters. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations. On July 12-13, when student protesters sought refuge inside a Catholic church in Managua, NNP and parapolice shot live ammunition at the church.

Through various press releases and arrests, the NNP claimed protesters were responsible for destruction of public and private buildings, setting of fires, homicides, and looting. While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some turned violent as they responded to NNP and parapolice provocations and use of force by throwing stones and employing homemade mortars and weapons to defend their positions. Protesters sometimes tore down “Trees of Life,” giant, illuminated, tree-like sculptures Vice President Murillo had ordered installed along major thoroughfares. The OHCHR August 29 report noted “abuses committed by individuals who took part in the protests, including the killing and injuring of police officers and members of the Sandinista party and the destruction of public infrastructure.”

On September 28, the NNP issued a press release stating: “The NNP reiterates that the people and organizations that call for these illegal movements from which criminal and destructive activity has been promoted will be found responsible and face justice for any alteration and/or threat to the tranquility, work, life, and rights of people, families, and communities.” Civil society took the statement as effectively outlawing peaceful protests.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or employ workers licitly. In late November and early December, the FSLN wielded its supermajority in the National Assembly to strip legal status from nine civil society organizations that work on transparency, democracy, environmental issues, and human rights.

For more information, see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending cases; authorities used this authority against individuals involved in the protest movement. The law requires exit visas for minors. Beginning on April 19, there were periods in which demand for exit visas and other migration services overwhelmed the government’s capacity, in effect impeding the ability of families to leave the country.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees had not met since 2015.

Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons for refugee status in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available.

Panama

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Nevertheless, journalists and media outlets noted an increase in criminal and civil libel/slander lawsuits, which they considered a threat to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Libel/Slander Laws: Former and sitting government public figures increased the use of libel/slander lawsuits against journalists and media. According to local media contacts, both criminal and civil lawsuits were filed. The amount of lawsuits and the figures of financial compensation by plaintiffs increased substantially during the year, according to media groups. In September the daily newspaper La Estrella de Panama reported that lawsuits against journalists and media outlets for libel/slander reparations reached $12 million. The major media corporation Corprensa reported lawsuits against its two daily publications, La Prensa and Mi Diario, totaled $61.7 million. Corprensa representatives added they had been sued 15 times for libel/slander since 2017, once more than the previous 10 years combined (14 lawsuits filed in 2006-16).

On August 21, five journalists from La Prensa appeared at a family court hearing in response to former first lady Marta de Martinelli’s lawsuit seeking “protection” for “family image.” She sought a court order for “media, print, television, radio and social media, and especially the newspaper La Prensa,” to stop publishing the names and surnames of her family, who were under investigation for alleged corruption.

On August 25, former president Martinelli, in prison and on trial for illegal wiretapping, filed a slander lawsuit for two million dollars against political opinion radio-show hostesses Annette Planells and Mariela Ledezma.

On September 5, journalists, journalism organizations, and students demonstrated against the lawsuits, claiming such lawsuits were attacks against freedom of speech and the press.

Violence and Harassment: In August and September, National Assembly Deputy Sergio Galvez verbally harassed television journalists Alvaro Alvarado, Castalia Pascual, and Icard Reyes, and National Assembly Deputy Carlos Afu publicly threatened to sue La Prensa for $20 million. Both deputies made their statements on the National Assembly floor; according to the constitution, deputies may not held liable for these actions.

Press and Media Freedom: With the enactment of the 2017 electoral reforms regulating the 2019 general elections, there was to be a blackout period for the publication of voter polling 20 days before the national elections, scheduled for May 2019. TVN Media, one of the country’s largest media groups, challenged the law in the Supreme Court, arguing the blackout would hinder the public’s access to information because political parties would continue to carry out private surveys.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 58 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

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. The government provided permits for organized groups to conduct peaceful marches. Police at times used force to disperse demonstrators, especially when highways or streets were blocked. The law provides for six to 24 months’ imprisonment for anyone who, through use of violence, impedes the transit of vehicles on public roads or causes damage to public or private property.

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation and the government generally respected these rights. The government generally cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, persons under temporary humanitarian protection, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern.

PROTECTION OF REFUGEES

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. In January the Ministry of Government issued an executive decree to regulate the protection of refugees, abolishing the previous decree from 1998. The National Office for the Attention of Refugees (ONPAR) declared the reforms were positive and necessary. The decree increases the frequency of the approval board meetings and reduces wait times for final decisions through improved processing and the implementation of a computerized application process. International organizations and NGOs criticized the new decree because it did not include the Cartagena Declaration definition of refugee, nor did it provide applicants with work permits. The new decree also stipulates a six-month waiting period after entering the country before applying for refugee status, and it establishes a summary proceeding to deny refugees who have “manifestly unfounded claims” as determined by ONPAR. In August the government issued a resolution detailing which claims will be considered “manifestly unfounded.” NGOs believed this would further limit access to refugee status and leave more persons in need of international protection. The process of obtaining refugee status generally took one to two years, during which asylum seekers did not have the right to work and encountered difficulties accessing basic services.

In March the government and UNHCR signed a cooperation agreement to train border personnel in identification and referral of persons needing international protection. The government also signed two protocols for the protection of children who migrate: a protocol for identification, referral, and attention for minors requiring international protection, and an institutional protocol for protecting minors who migrate.

In June the government announced it would deport 70 Cuban migrants sheltered in Darien, on the border with Colombia, and in July the government reported that 37 Cubans were placed in the shelter located on the border with Costa Rica. The government continued to manage camps in the Darien region to provide food, shelter, and medical assistance to the migrants. The government reported continued migrations of persons from South Asia, India, and Africa.

According to UNHCR and its NGO implementing partners, thousands of persons living in the country might be in need of international protection. These included persons in the refugee process, persons denied refugee status, and persons who did not apply for refugee status due to lack of knowledge or fear of deportation.

Employment: Refugees recognized by authorities have the right to work, but recognized refugees complained that they faced discriminatory hiring practices. In an effort to prevent this discriminatory practice, ONPAR removed the word “refugee” from recognized refugees’ identification cards. By law individuals in the process of applying for asylum do not have the right to work.

All foreigners seeking a work contract must initiate the process through a lawyer and pay a government fee of 700 balboas to obtain a work permit that expires upon termination of the labor contract or after one year, whichever comes first.

Access to Basic Services: Education authorities sometimes denied refugees access to education and refused to issue diplomas to others if they could not present school records from their country of origin. The Ministry of Education continued to enforce the government’s 2015 decree requiring schools to accept students in the asylum process at the grade level commensurate with the applicants’ prior studies.

Durable Solutions: The law allows persons legally recognized as refugees or with asylum status who have lived in the country for more than three years to seek permanent residency.

STATELESS PERSONS

The government continued to work with Colombia to recognize approximately 200 stateless persons on the border. The governments of Panama and Costa Rica, with the cooperation of UNHCR, continued to use a mobile registry office on the border with Costa Rica to register indigenous Ngabe and Bugle seasonal workers who travel between Costa Rica and Panama and who had not registered their births in either country.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future