a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could criticize the government publicly and privately without reprisal.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of speech including for members of the press. Defamation can carry criminal penalties, and citizens were cautious in their expression, especially as it related to criticism of the royal family or government practices.
Press and Media Freedom: The media law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information. The media law also prohibits media outlets from supporting political parties. Media sources suggested that while there was commitment to media freedom at the highest levels, some media professionals continued to find bureaucrats unwilling to share information, especially on issues of corruption and violations of the law. Independent media outlets relied heavily on government advertisements for revenue, and most news outlets struggled to generate sufficient revenue to operate.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House reported that a 2015 survey of 119 current and former Bhutanese journalists revealed general concerns about press freedom and access to information. Local contacts reported increased use of social media to raise complaints of official misconduct or abuse.
The government generally permitted individuals and groups to engage in peaceful expression of views via the internet. Government officials stated the government did not block access, restrict content, or censor websites. Freedom House reported the government occasionally blocked access to websites containing pornography or information deemed offensive to the state. Such blocked information typically did not extend to political content. The Annual Statistics 2017 of the Ministry of Information and Communications estimated the number of internet users at 72 percent of the population.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom and cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited/restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and/or association.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
While the constitution provides for the right to assemble peacefully, the government restricted this right. The 1992 National Security Act permits the government to control the public’s right to assembly “to avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and declaring curfew. The penal code prohibits “promotion of civil unrest” as an act that is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony among different nationalities, racial groups, castes, or religious groups.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, and the government permitted the registration of some political parties and organizations that were deemed “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.” Many of the NGOs in the country maintained formal or informal connections to members of the royal family. In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House stated the government did not permit the operation of NGOs working on the status of Nepali-speaking refugees. Under the law, all NGOs must register with the government. To register an NGO, an individual must be a Bhutanese citizen, disclose his or her family income and assets, disclose his or her educational qualifications, and disclose any criminal records.
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, but the government limited freedom of movement and repatriation. Freedom of movement was sometimes restricted based on location of permanent residence. Rules established differences in citizenship categories and determined whether a person may be granted a “route permit” to travel internally or obtain a passport for international travel. (Bhutanese citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.)
Foreign Travel: The law establishes different categories of citizenship under which foreign travel is restricted. NGOs reported these restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father also were affected.
Exile: The law does not address forced exile, and there were no reported cases of forced exile during the year. In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for Bhutanese citizenship.
In its Freedom in the World 2016 report, Freedom House stated that 18,000 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in Nepal as of late 2015. The government claimed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) failed to screen individuals who originally entered these camps to determine whether they had any ties to Bhutan. As of September 2016, after years of international efforts resulting in the resettlement of thousands of refugees, approximately 8,000 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in two refugee camps in Nepal administered by UNHCR.
There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese citizenship by refugees in Nepal.
Citizenship: Under the constitution, only children whose parents can both be proven to be citizens of Bhutan can apply for citizenship up to their first birthday, after which a petition must be filed with the king to be granted citizenship. Civil society groups noted disproportionate barriers to citizenship faced by Lhotshampa communities and the wives of non-Bhutanese citizens.
NGOs reported that approximately 9,000 applicants have received citizenship since 2006. In June the king granted 137 persons citizenship at a ceremony in Tashichhodzong. The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. The government can restore citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reported that since the 1960s, the country had sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. The government reported that the Tibetans had successfully integrated into society and that approximately 1,600 had applied for and received citizenship. As of July, Department of Immigration records showed 2,583 Tibetan refugees in Bhutan. No current records indicate any of these refugees hold work permits. The CTA did not have an official presence in the country and did not provide social and economic assistance to Tibetans in Bhutan. Authorities keep the country’s border with China closed, and Tibetans generally did not transit the country en route to India. The Tibetan population is decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopt Bhutanese citizenship according to the Department of Immigration.
Employment: Reports suggested that some Tibetan refugees and some Nepali-speaking Bhutanese citizens could not obtain security clearances for government jobs, enroll in higher education, or obtain licenses to run private businesses. According to the government, all Bhutanese citizens are eligible for security clearances provided they do not have criminal records.
Access to Basic Services: The government stated that Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens. According to the CTA, 13 Tibetan refugees have received licenses to run businesses. The CTA also said that while Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, a few Tibetan refugees worked as teachers and health-care providers under temporary government contracts. They reportedly have difficulties traveling within and outside the country.
Durable Solutions: Tibetan refugees could travel to India, although many faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India. The government continued to delay implementing a process to identify and repatriate refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship.
A nationwide census in 1985 resulted in a determination that many Nepali-speaking persons in Bhutan were not citizens, effectively rendering them stateless. The government alleged that they were not citizens because they could not prove they had been resident in the country in 1958. Officials repeated the census in 1988-89 in the southern districts. During the second round of the census, those who were deemed not to be citizens in 1985 could apply for citizenship provided they met certain conditions. The government categorized those who did not meet the new criteria as illegal immigrants and expelled them. According to NGOs, an unknown number of Nepali-speaking stateless persons remained in the country, mainly in the south. Officials conducted the last census in 2005. While records do not show any figures on stateless persons, informed sources estimated 1,000 families are stateless.
For a child to qualify for Bhutanese citizenship, both parents must be Bhutanese citizens. NGOs and media sources highlighted the existence of stateless children born to unwed mothers who were unable to prove the identity of the father of the child. According to 2014 NGO reports, more than 700 children born in the country were not recognized as Bhutanese citizens because their fathers’ nationality was undocumented. Nonetheless, the government claimed that 20 children in the kingdom fell into this category. In May the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) urged the government to end discrimination against children based on ethnic origin, particularly in access to education. The UNCRC also requested that the government amend the Citizenship Act of 1985.
Stateless persons cannot obtain “no objection certificates” and security clearance certificates, which are often necessary for access to public healthcare, employment, access to primary and secondary education, enrollment at institutions of higher education, travel documents, and business ownership. The National Commission for Women and Children stated children without citizenship were eligible for public educational and health services.