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Bahrain

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government blocked access to some websites from inside the country, including some opposition-linked websites. The government continued blocking Qatar-funded web-based outlets, which it began after cutting relations with Qatar in 2017, and other pan-Arab media outlets that were critical of Bahrain. Access to overseas human rights groups reporting on human rights and political prisoners in Bahrain and opposition-leaning news sites that were critical of the ruling family and the government were blocked within the country. The government restricted internet freedom and monitored individuals’ online activities, including via social media, leading to degradation of internet and mobile phone services for some neighborhoods and to legal action against some internet users.

In May 2019 the Ministry of Interior Cybersecurity Department announced it would use applicable laws to charge social media users who followed accounts that promote hatred and shared their posts. On August 26, the Cybersecurity Department warned against sharing content from Lebanon-based and Iran-based social media accounts that were linked with dissolved political societies al-Wifaq and al-Wafa.

Several reports alleged the government monitored political and human rights activists’ social media accounts and electronic communications.

Defense attorney Abdulla Hashim was charged with misusing social media and publishing “fake news” for eight tweets between 2017 and 2019 highlighting government corruption. At year’s end his case was awaiting an appeal verdict, and he was facing two years in prison for tweets critical of corruption, impunity, and establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Political and human rights activists reported being interrogated by security forces regarding their postings on social media. They sometimes reported repeated interrogations that included threats against their physical safety and that of their families, threats against their livelihood, and threats of denial of social services such as housing and education. Several activists reported shutting down or deciding to cease posting to their social media accounts because of the threats.

Egypt

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The constitution prohibits the government from “arbitrarily” interrupting, disconnecting, or depriving citizens seeking to use all forms of internet communications.

Telecommunications services and internet service providers are regulated by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority under the 2003 Telecommunication Regulation Law. The law does not guarantee the independence of the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. The government centralized the internet infrastructure and fiber-optic cables, allowing considerable state control over internet access, including restricting and disrupting user access and censoring online content. Law enforcement agencies restricted or disrupted individuals’ access to the internet, and the government monitored social media accounts and internet usage, relying on a law that only allows targeted interception of communications under judicial oversight for a limited period and does not permit indiscriminate mass surveillance. The public prosecutor prosecuted individuals accused of posting “insulting” material.

On August 25, a criminal court in a terrorism circuit sentenced in absentia the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey Eldin Hassan, to 15 years in prison for publishing false news and insulting the judiciary. In March Hassan, who lived abroad, learned that a criminal court in a separate case sentenced him in September 2019 in absentia to three years in prison on charges of spreading false news and tweeting phrases that undermined and discredited the judiciary. Hassan criticized the Public Prosecution on Twitter in 2018.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes the use of the internet to “promote ideas or beliefs that call for terrorist acts” or to “broadcast what is intended to mislead security authorities or influence the course of justice in relation to any terrorist crime.” The law also authorizes the public prosecutor and investigators to monitor and record online communications among suspects in terrorism cases for a period of 30 days, renewable in 30-day increments. The law does not specify a maximum period. On October 8, several UN human rights special rapporteurs in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated the country was using “terrorism charges” and “terrorism circuit courts” “to target legitimate human rights activities,” silence dissent, and detain activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cybercrime law states, “The relevant investigating authority may, when the evidence indicates that a website is broadcasting phrases, numbers, pictures, videos, or any promotional material, that constitutes one of the crimes enshrined in this law, and poses a threat to national security or endangers the security or economy of the country, order the blocking of the website.” The government issued implementing regulations for the law on August 27. On May 20, several local human rights organizations accused the government of restricting access to information during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Media reported that authorities arrested a group of women in June and July who posted videos on the TikTok social media app. On July 27, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Haneen Hossam and Mawada Eladhm and three others to two years in prison and fined each for “violating family values” based on the cybercrime law. An appeal was scheduled for January 10, 2021. On August 18, a criminal court upheld an administrative decision to freeze the assets of Hossam and Eladhm.

On August 6, authorities released TikTok influencer Manar Samy on bail pending an appeal. On September 19, a Tanta Economic Court upheld her sentence of three years in prison with hard labor for “inciting debauchery and violating family values” for content she posted on social media. Authorities also arrested members of Samy’s family for resisting authorities. On September 30, a Cairo Economic Court sentenced TikTok influencers Sherifa Rifaat, known as “Sherry Hanim,” and her daughter, Zumoroda, to six years in prison and fined each for assaulting family values and inciting prostitution. A court was scheduled to examine the appeal in January 2021.

There were reports the government temporarily blocked access to internet messaging applications.

The government attempted to disrupt the communications of terrorist groups operating in Sinai by cutting mobile services, internet, and sometimes landlines.

The law obliges internet service providers and mobile operators to allow government access to customer databases, allowing security forces to obtain information regarding activities of specific customers, which observers noted could lead to lack of online anonymity.

There were reports authorities monitored social media and internet dating sites to identify and arrest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals (see section 6, Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity).

On June 25, a local media rights organization reported that since May 2017 the state had blocked at least 547 websites, including at least 127 news websites. The blocked sites included international NGOs, local human rights NGOs, and numerous virtual private network services. Some blockages appeared intended to respond to critical coverage of the government or to disrupt antigovernment political activity or demonstrations. On April 9, authorities blocked the newly established Daarb website run by human rights defender Khaled al Balshy, one month after its launch.

In 2017 the news website Mada Masr sued the government seeking information on why it was blocked. In 2018 the Court of Administrative Justice referred the case for technical review by the Justice Ministry’s Authority of Experts. This review was pending at year’s end.

Ethiopia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government periodically restricted and disrupted access to the internet and blocked social media sites. From January to March, the government completely shut down the internet in the Wellega and Guji zones of Oromia. As of the end of the year, the Guji Zone of Oromia continued to experience periodic internet shutdowns.

From June 30 to July 23, the government shut down the internet nationally after the killing of Hachalu Hundessa and subsequent civil unrest in Oromia and Addis Ababa. On July 15, internet access was partially restored in Addis Ababa and on July 23, restored nationwide.

On November 4, telephone, cell phone, and internet services were shut down in the Tigray Region and as of December 31, the internet was still down, although telephone services improved throughout the region.

The Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation addresses hate speech in social media. The law prohibits dissemination of hate speech or disinformation through broadcasting, print, or social media using text, image, audio, or video. Conviction of a crime described under the law is punishable with imprisonment for no more than two years or a substantial monetary fine. A person convicted of violating the misinformation law may face no more than one year in prison or a substantial monetary fine. If their action results in a person or group being attacked due to hate speech, the punishment for conviction may be between one year and five years of incarceration. If a person is convicted of hate speech or disinformation via broadcasting services, print media, or a social media account of more than 5,000 followers, the violator faces one to three years in prison or a substantial monetary fine. There was one case pending under this law at year’s end.

Iran

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems and maintain monopoly control over internet traffic flowing in and out of the country. The Office of the Supreme Leader also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.

The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that comprise the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access.

The government restricted and disrupted access to the global internet, including fully blocking access for almost one week during nationwide protests in November 2019. There were reports the government again slowed internet access on December 25, approximately 40 days after the protests began, which media and NGO reports noted would correspond to memorial ceremonies for the victims. The Ministry of Information and Communications Technology denied reports of an internet shutdown in December.

Authorities blocked access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms deemed critical of the state, and continued to monitor private online communications and censor online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.

According to Freedom House, authorities employed a centralized filtering system that can effectively block a website within a few hours across the entire network. Private internet service providers (ISPs) were forced to either use the bandwidth provided by the government or route traffic containing site-visit requests through government-issued filtering boxes developed by software companies within the country.

The government continued to implement the National Information Network (NIN, also known as SHOMA). As described by Freedom House, SHOMA enabled the government to reduce foreign internet connection speeds during politically sensitive periods, disconnect the network from global internet content, and disrupt circumvention tools. According to Freedom House, a number of domestically hosted websites such as national online banking services, domestic messaging apps, and hospital networks were able to remain online using the NIN infrastructure while global traffic was disconnected during the November 2019 protests.

Authorities restricted access to tens of thousands of websites, particularly those of international news and information services, the political opposition, ethnic and religious minority groups, and human rights organizations. They continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities, including after shutting down most of the country’s internet access during the November demonstrations. According to Freedom House, websites are blocked if they contradict state doctrine regarding Islam, as well as government narratives on domestic or international politics. News stories that cover friction among political institutions are also frequently censored.

In October 2019 a letter signed by Javad Javidnia, the former deputy prosecutor general responsible for cyberspace, and secretary to the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC), was sent to ISPs asking them to block the official Android app store and the Google Play store “as soon as possible.” The letter stated that the CDICC made the decision “in accordance with Article 749 of the Islamic Penal Code relating to computer crimes.” Article 749 requires all ISPs to filter any content determined by the CDICC as criminal content. Resistance in complying with this article results in the termination of the ISP or in some cases a financial penalty.

Government organizations, including the Basij Cyber Council, the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.

The popular messaging app Telegram remained blocked during the year, although it continued to be accessed using circumvention tools.

According to Freedom House, significant internet disruptions were observed as protests broke out in the aftermath of the military’s January 8 accidental shooting down of airliner Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. Access to the messaging app WhatsApp was also disrupted during this time.

In February extensive network disruptions impacted the country, which the Ministry of Information claimed to be due to a DDoS attack originating from outside the country, although they did not provide information to verify this claim.

In early March as the country was battling outbreaks of COVID-19, reports confirmed that access to Persian Wikipedia had been blocked using the same method used for blocking Telegram and Facebook, although officials did not comment on the incident.

In July further network disruptions were reported following protests against the government’s foreign policy and the continuing economic crisis in Khuzestan Province. The same month, network disruptions were reported for three hours as online users used hashtags on social media to speak out against death sentences handed down to three men who participated in the 2019 protests.

In September the Tehran Province chief justice issued a directive establishing specialized court branches to handle cases against cyberspace businesses, according to a November report by Iran-based technology news website Peyvast. The directive instructed courts to prosecute the users of “user-centric software” for illegal content, rather than the owners of the technology platforms on which the content was published.

Contrary to the directive, in late October, Judge Mohammad Moghisseh of Tehran Revolutionary Court Branch 28 sentenced Aparat CEO Mohammad Javad Shakouri-Moghadam to a total of 12 years in prison for “encouraging corruption,” “publishing vulgar content,” and “propaganda against the regime,” for a 2019 video posted on the platform in which a reporter asked children in Tehran if they knew how they were born. Shakouri-Moghadam appealed the ruling and was freed on bail.

Bloggers, social media users, and online journalists continued to be arrested. In April popular Instagram couple Ahmad Moin-Shirazi, a former world kickboxing champion, and his wife Shabnam Shahrokhi reported they were sentenced in absentia for charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “spreading obscene and vulgar content” related to posts on social media.

In May police confirmed the arrest of parkour athlete Alireza Japalaghy and an unnamed woman for “advocating vice,” after Japalaghy posted photos of them embracing that went viral on social media. Japalaghy was later released and reportedly fled the country. The woman’s whereabouts were unknown.

The government uses an extensive digital propaganda apparatus, backing numerous initiatives to promote blogging among its supporters. Following the January death of IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, a number of Twitter accounts claiming to be located in Iran began tweeting using hashtags such as #hardrevenge and images of Soleimani.

Kazakhstan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government exercised comprehensive control over online content. Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believed the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakh Telecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government.

Media law prohibits citizens from leaving anonymous comments on media outlet websites, which must register all online commenters and make the registration information available to law enforcement agencies on request. As a result most online media outlets chose to shut down public comment platforms.

The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry controlled the registration of .kz internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.

The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandate surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, require visitors to present identification to use the internet, demand internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorize law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users.

In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites.

The cabinet has the power to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. By law and a cabinet decree, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the KNB, and the ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, and Emergency Situations are authorized to suspend communication networks and communication means in emergency situations or when there is a risk of an emergency situation.

Observers continued to rate the country as a “not free” country that practices disruption of mobile internet connections and throttles access to social media. During protest actions access to internet was often blocked to eliminate the potential to livestream and share live updates from the events. Authorities also blocked access to some independent websites.

On May 16, authorities blocked kuresker.org, which reported on the repression of activists and abuse of prisoners’ rights. Kuresker.org is not included in the government’s official list of websites that are blocked based on court decisions. In response to requests for an explanation of the blocking of kuresker.org, authorities denied involvement.

The website panorama.pub was blocked on July 3 after it posted a news story (which appeared to be satire because the website is satirical) that the country was developing a COVID-19 antitoxin serum derived from antibodies extracted from First President Nazarbayev’s blood, claiming that he had recovered from the disease. The Ministry of Information and Social Development rebuffed the news as fake and warned about liability for the dissemination of false information. The ministry stated that relevant agencies were examining the post and taking measures to stop its further dissemination.

International observers remained concerned about authorities’ pressure on journalists and bloggers. In April Jeanne Cavelier, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said the government was harassing journalists and bloggers who strayed from the official line on the COVID-19 pandemic, on the pretext of forestalling panic, and that this exploitation of the state of emergency harmed press freedom in the country.

Government surveillance of the internet was prevalent. According to Freedom House’s report, “the government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored internet traffic and online communications. The report stated, “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”

On February 13, the Almaty city court rejected the appeal of Aset Abishev, who was sentenced in 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for supporting an extremist organization on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote or shared in support of the banned DCK opposition movement. Media reported that Abishev told the court he did not believe it was a crime to express opinions critical of the government. He said, “If the desire for teachers to receive a decent salary or for children to study and be fed for free in schools is extremism, then I am guilty. But I have not committed any illegal or violent actions.” On June 5, the Kapshagay city court declined Abishev’s request for early release on probation.

Pakistan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is responsible for the establishment, operation, and maintenance of telecommunications and has complete control of all content broadcast over telecommunication channels.

The government uses a systematic, nationwide content-monitoring and filtering system to restrict or block “unlawful” content, including material it deems un-Islamic, pornographic, or critical of the state or military forces. The restrictive 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act gives the government sweeping powers to censor content on the internet, which authorities used as a tool for the continued clampdown on civil society.

The government blocked websites because of allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, blasphemous, or extremist content. The PTA’s Web Analysis Division is ultimately responsible for reviewing and reporting blasphemous or offensive content for removal, while the Federal Investigation Agency is responsible for possible criminal prosecution. The PTA closely coordinated with other ministries in its enforcement efforts. There were also reports the government attempted to control or block websites that advocated Baloch independence and that the government used surveillance software. There was poor transparency and accountability surrounding content monitoring, and observers believed the government often used vague criteria without due process.

Authorities, particularly in the military, increasingly sought to restrict online space to silence dissidents and curtail content deemed critical of the military. According to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom of the Net report, authorities disrupted telecommunication services during protests, elections, and religious and national holidays, often citing security concerns.

In November the government published the Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules 2020–formerly referred to as the Citizen’s Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules–that codifies standards and powers given to authorities to remove and block content that the government determines negatively impacts “the glory of Islam; the integrity, security and defense of Pakistan; public order; and decency and morality.” Industry observers contended these standards were poorly defined, opaque, and often arbitrarily used by the PTA or security services, particularly for content they believed critical of the government. Observers noted that proving defamation, for example, was based on clearly defined legal parameters, while the government often demanded removal of content critical of the government or key officials based on its own extrajudicial determination. Under the new regulations, social media and other internet companies must monitor, remove, and block unlawful content as determined by authorities.

The regulations require companies to comply with these demands within 24 hours, or within six hours in emergency cases determined by the PTA according to broad criteria. Furthermore, the regulations require social media companies to implement mechanisms to prevent uploading or live streaming of certain content and to publicize their community guidelines, which include provisions that prohibit users from uploading religiously, culturally, or politically sensitive content. Due to the lack of clarity, social media companies may feel obligated to remove content from their platforms fearing punishment, which includes sanctions and possible bans. The new regulations also require companies to provide law enforcement any data it deems relevant in unencrypted form. Technology firms resisted the requirement to establish a physical presence in Pakistan due to fear their employees could be used as leverage in potential content monitoring disputes.

By law, if an account is under suspicion, the social media company is bound to provide authorities account data. Many social media users were critical of the new law, describing it as “dictatorial” in nature.

The PTA also continued to try to control social media and video-streaming services such as YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. The PTA asked YouTube “to immediately block vulgar, indecent, immoral, nude, and hate speech content for viewing in Pakistan.” Although the PTA claimed its intentions were to stop the spread of pornography and vulgar content, users alleged it was actively targeting critics of government policies, especially those critical of the army. Internet service providers also claimed the PTA wanted to regulate political voices that spread what it deems indecent content. Online users continued to report they feared increasing censorship trends.

In October the PTA banned the Chinese video-sharing application TikTok for failing to monitor and regulate what certain citizens contended was immoral and indecent content. The PTA reinstated TikTok after the company agreed to add control measures to respond more quickly to public and government requests to remove content.

In September the PTA blocked access to five popular dating/live-streaming applications, including Tinder, Tagged, Skout, Grindr, and SayHi, on the pretext they were streaming immoral and indecent content. The law prohibits homosexuality and extramarital relationships. The PTA noted the five companies failed to respond to its directive within the stipulated time frame, the duration of which was unclear. Despite continuing engagement with some of these dating websites, the bans remained in place under the pretense that the applications were only used to facilitate what authorities viewed as immoral activities.

In August and again in September, more than 150 female journalists and several of their male counterparts signed two petitions to raise awareness about the “vile and vicious attacks” by individuals affiliated with the government, political parties, and their social media followers. The statement lamented unfounded accusations by government officials and politicians from all parties that the journalists were peddling fake news. The journalists also noted they were routinely accused of serving political agendas and of being on the payroll of opposition parties. In particular they reported being harassed if they were critical of the government.

In their petitions the journalists alleged that online harassment and vilification campaigns had made it difficult for them to carry out their professional duties. Female journalists complained that frequent harassment was instigated by government officials and then amplified by Twitter accounts believed to be affiliated with the ruling party. The journalists also alleged they encountered coordinated social media campaigns to harass, discredit, and intimidate them. Male journalists whose reports raised questions about the government’s performance and the increasing role of security institutions in matters of state, corruption, and accountability were also subjected to online campaigns by trolls allegedly operated by political parties and powerful state institutions, including the army. Journalists continued to face online threats, organized vilification campaigns, and character assassination, and were commonly portrayed as “anti-Pakistan” or paid agents. In September, three journalists, including former PEMRA chairman Absar Alam, were charged with sedition for allegedly using derogatory language online against the prime minister and the armed forces.

Long-term communications shutdowns were imposed in rural areas of the former FATA as well as Balochistan, where several districts had reportedly had no mobile internet service since 2017. Others insisted connectivity was hampered by lack of infrastructure, poor internet, and slow service, often provided by the military-operated Special Communication Organization (SCO) in certain regions.

According to media reports, some residents of the former FATA did not understand the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic because internet shutdowns had limited relevant news distribution. Journalists claimed that some residents, as of mid-March, had never heard of the coronavirus.

On April 14, the Islamabad High Court ordered the PTA to immediately restore 3G/4G internet service in the former FATA. The decision followed days of protests where students, fearing they would miss online education, demanded providers restore 3G/4G access. Users alleged that despite court orders, SCO enjoyed a monopoly and failed to provide better internet in the area, violating their rights.

On April 24, Prime Minister Khan announced a “track and trace system” for coronavirus cases using a terrorist surveillance system managed through Inter-Services Intelligence, which rights activists worried could lead to increased use and operability of the surveillance system, which was often used to track dissidents. Some medical professionals, however, supported the system’s capacity to track the pandemic’s spread.

On June 8, the PTA issued a public notice requiring individuals to register their virtual private networks with the telecommunications authority. Civil society expressed fears that such registrations would increase authorities’ monitoring capabilities and limit personal privacy.

Rwanda

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The law includes the right of all citizens to “receive, disseminate, or send information through the internet,” including the right to start and maintain a website. All provisions of media law apply to web-based publications. The government restricts the types of online content that users can access, particularly content that strays from the government’s official line, and continued to block websites. The government continued to monitor email and internet chat rooms. Individuals and groups could engage in the peaceful expression of views online, including by email and social media, but were subject to monitoring. In May 2019 the minister of information and communications technology and innovation announced the government planned to impose regulations on social media content to combat misinformation and protect citizens. The government did not announce any further details.

According to a 2010 law relating to electronic messages, signatures, and transactions, intermediaries and service providers are not held liable for content transmitted through their networks. Nonetheless, service providers are required to remove content when handed a takedown notice, and there are no avenues for appeal.

Government-run social media accounts were used to debate and at times intimidate individuals who posted online comments considered critical of the government.

The government blocked access within the country to several websites critical of its policies, including websites of the Rwandan diaspora.

Saudi Arabia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.

The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order.

Multiple rights groups reported that at least six individuals who had anonymous Twitter accounts critical of the government were arrested subsequent to a breach of Twitter user data.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers (ISPs). The government required ISPs to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.

On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through private channels, including official complaint processes.

The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.

The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including sexual content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.

The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by ISPs to block banned sites can result in a substantial fine.

Several voice-over-internet-protocol call services, including WhatsApp, remained blocked and only accessible using a virtual private network.

Authorities blocked websites of some news and advocacy groups deemed critical of the government, including London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the global advocacy organization Avaaz. Authorities also blocked the website of the Islamic Umma Party, which operated underground because political parties are illegal (see section 3).

The government blocked Qatari websites, such as al-Jazeera, since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia. In April the government blocked access to the websites of the Turkish official news agency, Anadolu Agency and the Turkish public broadcaster TRT’s Arabic edition. Writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.

Sudan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

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.

Thailand

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government continued to restrict internet access and penalize those who criticized the monarchy or shared unverified information about the spread of COVID-19. The government also monitored social media and private communications for what it considered false content and “fake news.” There were reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

By law the government may impose a maximum five-year prison sentence and a substantial fine for posting false content on the internet found to undermine public security, cause public panic, or harm others, based on vague definitions. The law also obliges internet service providers to preserve all user records for 90 days in case authorities wish to access them. Any service provider that gives consent to or intentionally supports the publishing of illegal content is also liable to punishment. By law authorities must obtain a court order to ban a website, although officials did not always respect this requirement. Media activists criticized the law, stating it defined offenses too broadly and that some penalties were too harsh.

Although individuals and groups generally were able to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet, there were numerous restrictions on content. Civil society reported the government used prosecution or the threat of prosecution as a tool to suppress speech online. Authorities targeted for prosecution individuals posting a range of social-media commentary, from discussion of COVID-19 dispersion to lese majeste, criticism of the government’s operations, reporting on government scandals, and warning of government surveillance.

In January police arrested Thitima Kongthon and Ritthisak Wongthonglueang for spreading misinformation related to COVID-19 infected individuals; they could face five years in prison. In February officials from the digital economy ministry and provincial authorities raided houses in four provinces and arrested four suspects for posting on social media that COVID-19 had spread to Chiang Mai.

In February a university student from Chonburi Province known as Niranam (anonymous in Thai) was arrested by police and charged for “introducing information of national security concern into a computer system” after posting content deemed insulting towards King Rama X. Seven more counts of cybercrime violations were added to his list of charges after trial was postponed in June. He faced a maximum of 40 years in prison.

In April the Technology Crime Suppression Division announced plans to charge the administrator of a Facebook page, Mam Pho Dum, following her report on a mask-hoarding scandal involving an aide of Thammanat Prompow, deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives. Mam Pho Dum claimed that the information she published was taken from the aide’s own Facebook page before it was deleted.

In August courts fined and sentenced 10 persons to one year in prison for sharing what the government stated was fake news about Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. The offending post accused Prawit of procuring more than 90 billion baht (THB) (three billion dollars) worth of satellite technology to monitor citizens. The punishment was later reduced to two years’ probation.

Also in August the Digital Economy Ministry filed a complaint with police against exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun for creating and serving as administrator of the antimonarchy Facebook page, Royalist Marketplace. The ministry also asked Facebook to take down the website, which Facebook did on August 24. In September, Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta stated his ministry had lodged complaints with police against Facebook and Twitter because those companies had not yet blocked access to some websites as previously requested by the ministry through the courts. The ministry also filed complaints with police against social media users who disseminated messages critical of the monarchy during the antigovernment protest on September 19 and 20, alleging these social media users committed sedition and put false information into a computer system.

The government closely monitored and blocked websites and social media posts and accounts critical of the monarchy. Prosecutions of journalists, political activists, and other internet users for criminal defamation or sedition for posting content online further fostered an environment of self-censorship. Many political online message boards and discussion forums closely monitored discussions and self-censored to avoid being blocked. Newspapers restricted access to their public-comment sections to minimize exposure to possible lese majeste or defamation charges. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission also lobbied foreign internet content creators and service providers to remove or censor locally lese majeste content. The government asked foreign governments to take legal action against Thai dissidents in their countries. Human rights observers reported that police sometimes asked detained political activists to reveal passwords to their social media accounts.

Turkey

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government continued to restrict access to the internet and expanded its blocking of selected online content. The government at times blocked access to cloud-based services and permanently blocked access to many virtual private networks. There was evidence the government monitored private online communications using nontransparent legal authority. The Freedom House report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemics Digital Shadow noted that the government harassed, arrested, and detained journalists, activists, and bloggers for their online activity, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law allows the government to block a website or remove content if there is sufficient suspicion that the site is committing any number of crimes, including insulting the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or insulting the president. The government may also block sites to protect national security and public order. At times authorities blocked some news and information sites that had content criticizing government policies. The law also allows persons who believe a website violated their personal rights to ask the regulatory body to order internet service providers (ISPs) to remove offensive content. Government leaders, including the president, reportedly employed staff to monitor the internet and initiate charges against individuals perceived as insulting them.

The government-operated Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) is empowered to demand that ISPs remove content or block websites with four hours’ notice, as are government ministers. The regulatory body must refer the matter to a judge within 24 hours, who must rule on the matter within 48 hours. If it is not technically possible to remove individual content within the specified time, the entire website may be blocked. ISP administrators may face a penalty of six months to two years in prison or fines ranging from 50,000 to 500,000 lira ($6,400 to $64,000) for conviction of failing to comply with a judicial order. The president appoints the BTK president, vice president, and members of the agency.

In July parliament passed a law regulating online social media providers. According to the law, beginning in October social media companies with more than one million users are required to establish legal in-country representation and to store user data in the country. Failure to establish legal representation is subject to escalating penalties, starting with fines of up to 40 million lira ($5.5 million), a ban on ad placement with the company, and bandwidth restrictions of up to 90 percent. The law also imposes a regulation on content removal, requiring social media companies to respond to content removal requests from individuals within 48 hours and from courts within 24 hours, or face heavy fines. Beginning in June 2021, the law will require social media companies to report and publish on their websites’ statistics on content removal. Opponents of the law asserted it was intended to silence dissent and stifle expression online. There were also concerns that social media company representatives may face criminal charges if companies fail to comply with government requests, and advocates have raised significant data privacy concerns about the new requirement to store data in the country. Prior to the law, the government required content providers to obtain an operating certificate for the country. In November and December, the BTK imposed fines on several social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for noncompliance with the law’s in-country legal representation requirements.

The government has authority to restrict internet freedom with limited parliamentary and judicial oversight. The law provides that government authorities may access internet user records to “protect national security, public order, health, and decency” or to prevent a crime. The law also establishes an ISP union of all internet providers that is responsible for implementing website takedown orders. The judicial system is responsible for informing content providers of ordered blocks.

The government required ISPs, including internet cafes, to use BTK-approved filtering tools that blocked specific content. Additional internet restrictions were in place in government and university buildings. According to the internet freedom NGO EngelliWeb, the government blocked 61,049 domain names during 2019, increasing the total number of blocked sites to 408,494. Of the new domain names that the government blocked, 70 percent were blocked through a BTK decision that did not require judicial approval. According to EngelliWeb reporting, 5,599 news articles were blocked in 2019, and news providers removed 3,528 articles after a block was implemented.

In January the government lifted a ban on Wikipedia following a court ruling in December 2019 that the ban constituted a violation of free expression. The government imposed the ban in 2017 based on “national security concerns.”

According to Twitter’s internal transparency report, during the last six months of 2019 the company received 5,195 court orders and other legal requests from authorities to remove content. The country was responsible for 19 percent of Twitter’s global legal demands.

United Arab Emirates

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The Ministry of Interior lists 10 types of social media activities considered illegal under the cybercrime law: defaming or disrespecting others; violating privacy; filming persons or places and posting these videos without permission; spreading fake news and rumors; manipulating personal information; engaging in blackmail and threats; establishing websites or accounts that violate local regulations; inciting immoral acts; posting work-related confidential information; and establishing or managing websites or accounts to coordinate with terrorist groups.

Based on the cybercrime law, the government restricted access to some websites and conducted widespread surveillance of social media, instant messaging services, and blogs with little to no judicial oversight. Authorities stated they could imprison individuals for misusing the internet. Self-censorship was apparent on social media, and there were reports the Ministry of Interior monitored internet use. There were numerous documented instances of online surveillance used to track dissidents in the country and abroad. This included reports the government had purchased spyware and employed foreign hackers in systematic campaigns to target activists and journalists.

The country’s two internet service providers, both linked to the government, used a proxy server to block materials deemed inconsistent with the country’s values, as defined by the Ministry of Interior and overseen by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. Blocked material included pornographic websites and a wide variety of other sites deemed indecent, such as those dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues; atheism; negative critiques of Islam; testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity; gambling; promotion of illegal drug use; and postings that explained how to circumvent the proxy servers. International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained filtered content. The government also blocked some sites containing content critical of the country and other states in the region. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority was responsible for creating lists of blocked sites with no oversight or transparency. Service providers did not have the authority to remove sites from blocked lists without government approval. The government also blocked most voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) applications and the use of VoIPs through virtual private networks. In 2017 the government blocked Skype and in 2018 reportedly blocked an online petition protesting that move. Voice and video functions on WhatsApp and VoIPs were also blocked from use in country or with telephone numbers registered in the country. Convictions for violations of using VoIPs under cybercrime laws can lead to significant fines, imprisonment, or both. In March the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority approved a set of VoIP applications in an effort to support teleworking and distance learning measures implemented as a result of COVID-19. The authority’s statement noted that the applications were only temporarily available given the exceptional circumstances.

The Federal Public Prosecution for Information Technology Crimes investigated criminal cases involving use of information technology, including the use of the internet with the intent to damage public morals, the promotion of sinful behavior, insults to Islam and God, illegal collections of donations, trafficking in persons, calling for or abetting the breach of laws, and the organization of demonstrations.

The law explicitly criminalizes use of the internet to commit a wide variety of offenses and provides fines and prison terms for internet users who violate political, social, and religious norms. The law provides penalties for using the internet to oppose Islam; proselytize Muslims; abuse a holy shrine or ritual of any religion; insult any religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic group; incite someone to commit sin; or contravene family values by publishing news or photographs pertaining to a person’s private life or family.

The 2012 cybercrime decree and the 2015 antidiscrimination law provide for more severe penalties for violations, including sentences up to life imprisonment and fines depending on severity and seriousness of the crime. The penalties for violating the cybercrime law include a significant fine, while acts of discrimination carry a large fine or a minimum of five years’ imprisonment. These laws add to existing online communication limitations on freedom of speech to include prohibitions on criticism or defamation of the government or its officials; insults based on religion, belief, sect, race, color, or ethnic origin; insults directed at neighboring countries; and calls for protests and demonstrations. In April the Federal Judiciary ordered the arrest and provisional detention of well known TV personality Tariq al-Mehyas for racist comments implying that Asian laborers were inferior to Arabs. In February, Dubai police reported it received 600 criminal tips through its social media accounts and took action in cases where social media users posted content showing them engaging in illegal activity, such as a case involving three men who shared a video on Snapchat in which they appeared to be smoking marijuana.

The NMC requires social media influencers who accept payment in money or high-value goods and services in return for endorsing products to join a social media management agency or obtain an e-commerce license for a small fee and a trade license, for which the price varies by emirate. Unlicensed paid social media influencers face a moderate fine.

Uzbekistan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government generally allowed access to the internet, including news and social media sites. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens began to complain about the government’s response in online social forums, the government restricted access to social media, Facebook in particular, with frequent service interruptions. Users noted that while the government did not block the site, it became extremely difficult to load pages and view content. Users noted improvement of Facebook functionality only in August, once the nationwide quarantine was lifted. The media law defines websites as media outlets, requiring them to register with authorities and provide the names of their founder, chief editor, and staff members. The government blocked the website of Forum 18, a human rights news site.

Several active online forums allowed registered users to post comments and read discussions on a range of social problems. To become a registered user in these forums, individuals must provide personally identifiable information. It was not clear whether the government attempted to collect this information, although provisions of the law require internet cafe proprietors to log customers’ browser history.

In March the government amended the criminal code to include prohibitions against spreading “false” information regarding COVID-19. On March 31, Dr. Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in Karakalpakstan Region, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any coronavirus cases in Karakalpakstan. Five officials then came to the hospital to question Sultonov, known for publicly discussing freedom of religion and belief on his social media pages. The officials asked Sultonov if he had any religious texts on his person. He said he had Muslim texts on his computer, so officials confiscated it. Authorities opened a criminal case against him for allegedly spreading false information on lockdown measures under the new criminal code. On November 23, the court of the Ellikalansky District of Karakalpakstan sentenced him to 14 months’ of restrictions on his freedom of movement, including time served since March, for the “Illegal Manufacturing, Storage, Importation, or Distribution of Materials of Religious Content” as well as for “Distribution of Information about the Dissemination of Quarantine and Other Hazardous Infections.”

A decree requires all websites seeking the “.uz” domain to register with the government’s Agency for Press and Information. The decree generally affected only government-owned or government-controlled websites. Opposition websites and those operated by international NGOs or media outlets tended to have domain names registered outside the country.

The government implemented procedures for restricting access to websites that include “banned information.” Based on these regulations, a website or blog could be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography, or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government has the authority to block websites or blogs without a court order.

Venezuela

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The illegitimate Maduro regime restricted or disrupted access to the internet and censored online content. The illegitimate regime exercised broad control over the internet through the state-run CONATEL. The China National Electronics Import-Export Company provided the regime with cyber support, technical experts, and a suite of software and hardware that was a commercialized version of China’s “Great Firewall” to maintain online censorship, control information, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership. Free Access, an NGO focused on freedom of expression and social justice, reported that CONATEL supported monitoring of private communications and repression of internet users who expressed dissenting opinions online. According to media reports, users of social networks accused CONATEL of monitoring their online activity and passing identifying information to regime intelligence agencies, such as SEBIN. According to Free Access, CONATEL provided information to SEBIN, including internet protocol addresses, which assisted illegitimate Maduro regime authorities in locating users.

The law puts the burden of filtering prohibited electronic messages on service providers, and it allows CONATEL to order service providers to block access to websites that violate these norms and sanctions service providers with fines for distributing prohibited messages. As of September the illegitimate Maduro regime blocked 40 websites and online platforms that contained information regarding COVID-19.

CONATEL’s director, Jorge Elieser Marquez Monsalve, reiterated the claims of his predecessors that CONATEL’s role is to enforce the law and prevent dissemination of illegal information or material unsuitable for children and adolescents. Nevertheless, the illegitimate Maduro regime continued to block internet sites that posted dollar- and euro-to-bolivar currency exchange rates differing from the illegitimate regime’s official rate, as well as cryptocurrency exchanges. The regime-controlled internet service provider CANTV facilitated blockages. According to IPYS and the VE Sin Filtro (VE without Filter) internet monitoring project sponsored by internet freedom watchdog Venezuela Inteligente, the regime blocked websites during events of public interest. Social media and video streaming sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Periscope were blocked during the AN’s January 5 session and also during live speeches made by interim president Guaido throughout the year. In a September 15 televised address, Maduro denounced the news site Monitoreamos.com as an “enemy” and its journalists as “manipulators and bandits.” On September 16, internet service providers blocked access to the site.

Regime-aligned intelligence agencies, which lacked independent oversight, conducted surveillance for political purposes. Courts relied on evidence obtained from anonymous patriotas cooperantes (cooperating patriots) to harass perceived opponents of the illegitimate Maduro regime, and senior regime-aligned officials used personal information gathered by patriotas cooperantes to intimidate regime critics and human rights defenders. Users were arrested and criminally accused of actions such as tweeting information publicly available on webpages.

On August 28, internet providers blocked access to anticensorship tools to prevent health-care workers from accessing the Health Heroes financial assistance program announced by interim president Guaido, according to VE Sin Filtro. The group also found the financial platform used to distribute payments to health workers had been blocked and the illegitimate Maduro regime launched a phishing campaign that redirected users to a malicious site in order to capture their data.

Vietnam

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, imposed criminal sentences for online expression, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On July 7, a court in Lam Dong Province convicted Facebook user Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong of antistate propaganda and sentenced him to eight years in prison. According to state-sponsored media reporting, Nguyen created a Facebook account to post and share numerous articles with “antistate” content on Facebook that reportedly “defamed the party, state, and President Ho Chi Minh.”

The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned internet service providers routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoted political reform.

An administrative regulation compels owners of all websites and social networking sites to cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to prevent the spread of “bad, toxic news.”

Another rule requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also requires such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate government requests for information and must store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.

The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign internet service providers and requires them to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cybercafes, to register the personal information of their customers, store records of internet sites visited by customers, and participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored the internet selectively.

The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. In October 2019 the Ministry of Information and Communications announced Google removed nearly 8,200 video clips; YouTube blocked 19 YouTube channels; and Facebook blocked nearly 2,500 links, 249 fake accounts, and 249 links that defamed the CPV and government. The Ministry of Information and Communications significantly increased pressure on social media platforms to comply with a higher number of political-speech take-down requests, especially for posts critical of senior CPV officials. Authorities reportedly throttled Facebook’s local servers early in the year, significantly slowing down its local traffic, until the company agreed to significantly increase compliance with government censorship requests.

Force 47, a special unit in the Ministry of National Defense, monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.

Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers, such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones from activists and their family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. On June 13, Ho Chi Minh City public security arrested Huynh Anh Khoa and Nguyen Dang Thuong on charges of “abusing democratic freedom” for organizing a Facebook discussion group called Economic-Political Discussion that attracted nearly 50,000 Facebook users, according to an NGO.

Social network and blog users were required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.

On April 15, a government decree went into effect imposing significant fines for using social networks to “provide and spread misinformation.” This includes using social networks to distribute maps inaccurately representing the country’s sovereignty and popularizing fake news to disturb the public. The decree was issued as part of the government’s strategy to contain what it deemed to be misinformation, antigovernment sentiment, and defamation on social networks.

In September the Ministry of Information and Communication fined four newspapers a total of 72 million dong ($3,100) for printing misinformation on the arrest and prosecution of former city officials, on Ho Chi Minh, and on a major infrastructure project.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future