Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but these “may be limited by the respect for the freedoms and rights of others, and by the imperative of safeguarding public order, national dignity, and state security.” The government sometimes restricted these rights. The communication code includes a number of provisions limiting freedom of speech and expression. The code also grants broad powers to the government to deny media licenses to political opponents, seize equipment, and impose fines.
The government arrested journalists and activists who had publicly denounced misbehaviors of public authorities. The government often used unrelated charges to prosecute them.
Freedom of Expression: Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech, the communication code restricts such speech when it infringes on the freedoms or rights of others, endangers public order, or is believed to undermine national dignity or the security of the state. The law restricts individuals’ ability to criticize the government publicly.
On June 24, the Court of Toamasina sentenced environmental activist Clovis Razafimalala to five years’ imprisonment (suspended) and fined him and three persons accused with him 50 million ariary ($15,500). He was held in pretrial detention since September 2016 for incitement to rebellion and looting, accused of having called for a riot against suspected rosewood trafficker Eric Besoa, a local power broker. Razafimalala announced during a press conference in Antananarivo on August 11 that he planned to submit an appeal to the Court of Cassation. He reiterated to press the absence of any evidence of his alleged participation in destruction of public files and property. Fellow activists and Amnesty International called the judgement intimidation meant to silence Razafimalala.
Press and Media Freedom: The communications code contains several articles limiting press and media freedoms. For example, Article 85 requires the owner of a media company to be the chief publisher. This article may permit the harassment of potential opposition presidential candidates, many of whom were also media owners.
Although defamation is not a criminal offense in the communications code, a separate cyber criminality law allows for the charge of criminal defamation for anything published online. It is unclear whether the cyber criminality law, which includes prison sentences for online defamation, has precedence over the 2015 communications code, as all newspapers are also published online. The fines allowed for offenses under the new communications code are many times higher than the average journalist’s annual salary.
The new code gives the communications ministry far-reaching powers to suspend media licenses and seize property of media outlets if one of their journalists commits two infractions of the code. Finally, the new code allows only state-owned radio and television stations the right to broadcast nationally, although this limitation was not always enforced.
The country had numerous independent newspapers. More than 300 radio and television stations operated in the country, although many shifted to live call-in shows in recent years to distance themselves from editorial responsibility for content. Many of them continued to have a national audience, in spite of the legal limitations set by the new code. Nevertheless, limitations on private media existed. In May 2016 Joel Ralaivaohita, vice president of the Association for Cyber Journalists, stated that reporters were expected to reflect the views of media owners. He also stated that new television or radio channels could open only if they expressed political views supporting the government.
Violence and Harassment: On May 5, under the order of the Court of Ihosy, gendarmes from Fianarantsoa arrested journalist Fernand Cello in Antananarivo. Cello was sued for check theft, forgery, and falsification of documents by the electricity company in Ilakaka, whose owner was reputed to be close to local authorities. A few days earlier, Cello had taken part in a press conference in Antananarivo denouncing illicit sapphire mining in Ilakaka and alleged the involvement of local authorities. On May 8, the Court of Ihosy placed Cello under committal order and refused a request for temporary release submitted by his lawyers for poor health. On September 27, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, suspended, and fined 720,000 ariary ($220). His trial on the defamation charge was pending.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists practiced self-censorship, and authors generally published books of a political nature abroad.
An online media outlet reported that, on February 27, on the way back from the airport in Mahajanga, a vehicle used by the security detail of President Rajaonarimampianina collided with a bus, causing five injuries. Other elements of the security detail reportedly forced local journalists to erase all of their photos and footage, but journalists still decided to cover the stories. A private television used third party footage to illustrate its account.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were several reports of government authorities using libel, slander, or defamation laws to restrict public discussion.
On June 22, Antananarivo police questioned the publication manager and chief editor of the private newspaper Freenews after Senate President Honore Rakotomanana accused him of defamation. A few days before the police hearing, the newspaper issued an article accusing the president of the Senate of building a very expensive villa in a suburb of the capital city. Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy, owner of the newspaper and losing mayoral candidate in Antananarivo, claimed procedural irregularities in the investigation, asserting that a press offense, not qualified as a crime in the communications code, could not be handled by the criminal police. Rakotondrazafy was well known for her criticism of the ruling party.
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.
A 2014 cybercrime law prohibits insulting or defaming a government official online. According to Reporters without Borders, “the law’s failure to define what is meant by ‘insult’ or ‘defamation’ leaves room for very broad interpretation and major abuses.” The law provides for punishment of two to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of two million to 100 million ariary ($618 to $30,900) for defamation. Following criticism from the media and international community, the government promised to revise the law, but kept it unchanged in the new communications code.
Public access to the internet was limited mainly to urban areas. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 4.7 percent of the population used the internet in 2015.
Political groups, parties, and activists used the internet extensively to advance their agendas, share news, and criticize other parties. Observers generally considered the internet among the more reliable sources of information.
On March 7, the Court of Antananarivo sentenced Hiary Rapanoelina, an artist and administrator of a Facebook “gossip” page, to one year in prison. Based on an anonymous threat posted on the page, a parliamentarian and several artists sued Rapanoelina for defamation and for threatening to kidnap the child of the parliamentarian. The case was prosecuted under the cybercrime law, and Rapanoelina served six months in prison despite the complainants’ having withdrawn charges. On September 8, the court of appeal suspended the remainder of his one-year sentence and Rapanoelina was released.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but authorities often restricted this right. The government required all public demonstrations to have official authorization from the municipalities and police prefectures, but rarely gave authorization to opposition parties. Security forces regularly impeded opposition gatherings throughout the country and used excessive force to disperse demonstrators.
Several times during the year, security forces used tear gas to disperse demonstrations by university students, supporters of political opponents, and other groups. Students generally retaliated by throwing stones at security forces, which often resulted in injuries and arrests.
The national government refused requests by the Tiako i Madagasikara (I Love Madagascar, or TIM) party, founded and chaired by former president and future candidate Marc Ravalomanana, to celebrate its 15th anniversary in Antananarivo in July and in Toamasina in August. On July 3, the prefect of Antananarivo announced the cancellation of a previously granted authorization for the party to celebrate its anniversary just four days before the event’s planned date. Despite the Administrative Court of Antananarivo’s decision to overturn the denial, party leaders and supporters instead headed to Antananarivo’s Independence Avenue, where police deployed tear gas to scatter the crowd. No injuries or arrests were reported. On July 28, the prefect of Antananarivo refused the request for another celebration on the next day, and leaders of the party abided by the decision. On August 9, the prefect of Toamasina refused a request by the party to celebrate its 15th anniversary on August 12 in his city. The prefect further declared that political meetings, rallies, and demonstrations were forbidden in the city until further notice to preserve the public security. One day prior to the planned event in Toamasina, security force elements surrounded the planned venue for the event.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution and law provide for the right of association, but the government did not always respect this right. Opposition parties were regularly restricted from conducting public demonstrations.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian agencies in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
More than 70,000 persons were displaced in March by Tropical Cyclone Enawo and were temporarily housed in common shelters in several regions of the country. The government, through the National Office in Charge of Risk and Disaster Management or BNGRC, coordinated with private and international donors to provide humanitarian assistance and to assist the majority of them to return home.
More than 18,000 persons had migrated from the deep south of the country between 2009 and July, according to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration in 10 communes. To escape the drought, 51 percent of them left their homes. A portion of these IDPs had returned to their homes when climate conditions improved; others decided to resettle elsewhere. The BNGRC also coordinated with private partners and international donors to assist those displaced persons.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: On March 1, 13 Turkish nationals who were teachers in a Turkish-founded school were charged by the Court of Antananarivo for having committed fraud to obtain their visas and for working illegally. They appealed to UNHCR and several embassies for assistance, claiming they were being targeted under false charges due to their school’s alleged ties to Fethullah Gulen and in the wake of Turkish President Erdogan’s January visit to the country. Several days later they were given 48 hours to leave the country. While in custody, they reportedly requested political asylum to stay in the country. A newspaper reported they finally went back to Turkey under the protection of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, without mention of whether Madagascar had granted asylum.
Access to Asylum: The law does not include provisions for granting asylum or refugee status, but the government provides protection to refugees. Authorities cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in assisting the small number of refugees in the country.
On January 25, the president promulgated a nationality code amending the 1960 nationality ordinance, giving men and women equal rights to pass their nationality to their children and giving more protection to women and children against losing their nationality. Its main reform grants Malagasy women the right to transmit nationality to their children regardless of a woman’s marital status.
The new code provides for a minor’s right to obtain Malagasy citizenship if one of his or her parents, regardless of their marital status, obtains Malagasy citizenship. The old code provided this right based on the father’s naturalization or the mother’s if she were a widow. The loss of Malagasy citizenship for any reason mentioned in the present law does not affect the spouse and the children of the deprived person. The previous code stipulated that such loss affected the wife and the children of the deprived person if they were of foreign origin.
The provisions of the old code of nationality resulted in a large number of stateless persons in the minority Muslim community, many belonging to families living in the country for generations. Muslim leaders estimated the laws affected as much as 5 percent of the approximately two million Muslims in the country.
Birth to a citizen parent transmits citizenship. Birth in the country does not automatically result in citizenship. Some members of the community of Indo-Pakistani origin–who failed to register for Indian, Malagasy, or French citizenship following India’s independence in 1947 and Madagascar’s independence in 1960–were no longer eligible for any of the three citizenships; this circumstance applied to their descendants as well. Members of the wider Muslim community suggested a Muslim-sounding name alone could delay one’s citizenship application indefinitely. All stateless persons may apply for a foreign resident card, which precludes the right to vote, own property, or apply for a passport, thus limiting international travel. Stateless women may obtain nationality by marrying a Malagasy citizen and may request citizenship before the wedding date. Stateless persons had difficulty accessing education and health care, could not get jobs or buy land, and lived in fear of arrest.