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Importing illiberal practices: The Kyrgyz state’s attack on media, journalists and bloggers

The Kyrgyz government is importing illiberal practices from Russia, and these changes have impacted public lives and affected the activity of media, journalists and bloggers.

On October 5, 2020, protests began in Kyrgyzstan in response to the parliamentary elections of the previous day, the result of which was seen as unfair. As a result, the incumbent government was ousted and Sadyr Japarov came to power. The assertive authoritarian steps taken after, in particular the state attacks on media, bloggers and journalists, are rather uncommon incidents in a country which has been positioning itself for decades as “an island” of democracy in Central Asia.

Copy and paste: The Law on Protection from False Information

As journalists in Russia have noted, pressure on the media has steadily increased since Vladimir Putin took power. Over the past three years in Russia, journalists who criticised the government or President Putin have been arbitrarily detained, and media outlets who did that have been labelled foreign agents and shut down.

The Kyrgyz government proposed a law on foreign agents, largely inspired by this Russian model, to restrict the activities of NGOs and foreign media, thought it has not been adopted. The Kyrgyz government also moved to regulate the online sphere by introducing a new Law on Protection from False Information (known also as the law against fakes) in August 2021. In November 2022, the President’s Administration issued for public discussion the draft law on “Non-commercial non-state organisations.” The aim of the law is to protect state interests against the illegal activity of non-state institutions. If the law is adopted, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Justice will gain access to internal documents related to the sources of financing, expenses, and other information of NGOs, allowing them to further target them based on this information.

Attacks on media, journalists and bloggers

In October 2022, the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sport and Youth (the Ministry of Culture) shut down the website of Radio Free Europe affiliate Azattyk, claiming that, since Azattyk had retransmitted unconfirmed information about Tajik and Kyrgyz clashes in Batken from Radio Free Europe affiliate Nastoyashee Vremya in September 2022, it was not impartial and took the Tajik side in reporting the news. Most believe that the real reason for the closure was an investigation by Azattyk into the controversial Kempir-Abad water reservoir issue. The investigation was timely and critical because it provided detailed information about the reservoir and shared local concerns about the decision’s impact on their everyday lives. A few days later, Azattyk’s bank accounts were frozen on the order of the State Committee on the National Security of the Kyrgyz Republic. As of publication, Azattyk has officially shut down.

Shortly before the announcement of the government’s decision to close Azattyk’s website, a pro-government group of “activists” held a protest near Azattyk’s office in Bishkek on October 13. The protesters with covered faces held banners calling for the closure of the offices of Azattyk and other independent media outlets such as Kloop and Kaktus. They blamed Azattyk, Kloop and Kaktus for disinformation during the Tajik invasion of Kyrgyzstan in September 2022 and the June clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Also, the protesters were concerned with their “policies” on the promotion of non-traditional values, such as being LGBTQ+ positive. The leader of the protest, Ilimbek Israilov threatened to burn down the Azattyk building if the Kyrgyz parliament did not adopt the law on foreign agents. In addition, there were attempts to accuse and defame Azattyk with the help of paid trolls. These users left negative comments under the news posts on Azattyk’s social media pages (Facebook, Instagram and YouTube).

Earlier, in August 2022, the authorities also tried to block for two months the website of a media agency, 24.kg. In their letter to the internet providers the authorities did not specify the material based on which the agency’s website was suspended. Shortly, after the 24.kg turned to the Ministry of Culture for official comment, they found out that the decision had been annulled by the government.

The closure of Azattyk’s website was an effort to take control of the online media space and is an attempt to attack independent journalism (in particular, investigative journalism) in Kyrgyzstan. In the past, Azattyk’s investigative pieces (conducted together with OCCRP and Kloop) on state corruption and money laundering schemes, related to the former deputy chief of the Kyrgyz Customs Service Raimbek Matraimov created a huge resonance within communities and contributed to the October protest in 2020 that resulted in a change of power.

Today, investigative journalism in Kyrgyzstan faces various challenges and some journalists have faced numerous accusations, assaults and legal proceedings. A prominent recent case was related to the head of Temirov Live investigative media channel. Bolot Temirov was accused of keeping drugs, illegally acquiring a Kyrgyz passport and illegal border crossing. Yet, due to public pressure, he was found innocent in trial and was released in September 2022. However, in the beginning of November the state prosecutor appealed the court’s decision. The persecution of Temirov started after he published an investigation into the head of the State Committee on National Security Kamchybek Tashiev and his family — specifically about their corruption scheme, bidding with his company in state procurements, and others. On November 23, Bolot Temirov was forcefully expelled from Kyrgyzstan to Russia immediately after the court hearing.

The number of Facebook and other social media users censored and interrogated by the Kyrgyz security services for their criticism towards the president and the incumbent government is skyrocketing. Only since the beginning of 2022, seven bloggers, including those related to the critical media channels, were censored and interrogated by the security services. Another round of arrests took place in Kyrgyzstan against civil society activists, ex-politicians and acting politicians between 23 and 27 October, 2022. In total, 27 people were arrested for two months before their trial, including six women. The critics publicly spoke against the handover of the Kempir-Abad water reservoir to Uzbekistan as a border deal agreement between two countries through their social media channels and during the public assembly (Kurultai) organised in Uzgen on October 15. Sixteen detainees remain behind bars at the time of publication. According to the criminal code, the punishment can reach up to 10 years of imprisonment. Thus, the Kyrgyz government has become increasingly engaged in attacking free media and censoring its own population’s social media posts, putting media freedom and the rights of expressing opinion at risk.

Source: Global Voices