A draconian draft media law and rising numbers of criminal investigations against journalists signal an authoritarian turn.
Once hailed as an example of democracy in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is tightening government control over the press. Rights’ groups warn that the latest draft of a new media law could allow criminal investigations to be launched against independent media to obstruct their work.
In an open letter sent to Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Zhaparov on January 31, seven international rights organisations expressed “alarm at the escalating repression of journalists and crackdown on press freedom pursued by [your] government” and asked for a meeting to discuss the “deterioration in democratic norms”.
The message lists increasing numbers of investigations opened against outlets, starting from interference in the work of Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of the US government-funded portal Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
On January 23, the ministry of culture, information, sport and youth policy filed a lawsuit seeking Azattyk’s permanent closure for its reporting of the deadly armed clashes that occurred on the Tajik border in summer 2022. The ministry stated that the reports violated media law and “promoted conflict, violence and ethnic intolerance”.
Previously, in October 2022, the ministry ordered Azattyk’s website blocked for two months and its bank account frozen over similar accusations it spread false information about the events. The website ban was extended in December with the warning that it would remain in place until Azattyk removed the report, which the editorial staff has refused to do.
The Committee to Protect Journalists labelled the action against Azattyk a violation of freedom of speech; Gulnoza Said, the watchdog’s coordinator for Eurasia, called on the Kyrgyz authorities to withdraw all charges and “cease all attempts to silence the media”.
Authorities have rejected accusations that they are persecuting independent media. However, the day after the open letter was disseminated, the ministry of culture requested Kloop, one of the country’s leading news outlets, to remove the joint statement from its website, stating that it contained “unreliable (false) information”. The ministry threatened to block Kloop’s website for two months if it failed to comply.
In its 2022 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch stated that, despite “promises to uphold human rights and freedoms Kyrgyz authorities restricted critical voices and civil society… Press freedom came under siege with a spate of criminal cases against independent journalists, bloggers, and media”.
In other cases last year, authorities also blocked the websites of ResPublica and suspended the broadcasting of Next TV channel on a charge of inciting interethnic hatred. A criminal case was opened against its director, Taalaibek Duishenbiev and he was sentenced to five years of probation.
On November 23, authorities deported investigative journalist Bolot Temirov from Kyrgyzstan to Moscow on charges of “illegal receipt of the passport of the citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic”. The founder of Temirov Live, a YouTube channel in which he reports on state corruption, holds both Kyrgyz and Russian citizenship. He was arrested in February 2022 for illegal use and detention of drugs, charges he said were bogus.
On January 12, 2023, blogger Adilet Ali Myktybek, known on social media as Adilet Baltabai, was sent to prison after the Bishkek city court canceled his three-year probation. Baltabai was sentenced to five years in prison in November on a charge of calling for social unrest via the Internet. Known for his critical reports of the authorities, he said that the allegations were politically motivated.
In September 2022, the president’s administration submitted draft amendments to the mass media law that envisaged penalties for the “abuse of free speech” and enhanced state control over outlets by making the process of registration more complicated for foreign-funded organisations. Media outlets and civil society criticised the draft, arguing that authorities were silencing debate on issues of public interest under the pretext of tackling disinformation and hate speech.
Following pressure, the government withdrew the draft in November and agreed to revise the bill with the support of an ad-hoc working group that included journalists, independent lawyers and media experts. But the revised draft, presented on January 9, differs little from the former document.
Tamara Valieva, a member of the Media Action Platform of Kyrgyzstan and part of the working group, told IWPR that they had requested a full list of suggestions from lawyers and media, but failed to receive it. At a meeting on January 30, they could only read the proposals from state bodies.
“They have made some minor concessions, but, generally, they left the matters of registration, re-registration, which caused our concerns and anxiety, without changes. So, there are no significant changes as a whole,” she concluded.
Among the key issues are six new articles which specifically concern bloggers. They were not included in the previous draft bill and media representatives say it is unclear who proposed them.
The new provisions indicate that every individual account on social media administered on Kyrgyz territory and visited by 5,000 or more unique users per month should be considered as media. Accordingly, they would fall under the requirements of the media law, including formal registration.
Akmat Alagushev, lawyer of the Bishkek-based public foundation Media Policy Institute, said that while bloggers must abide by Kyrgyzstan’s laws just like all other citizens, they cannot be included in the media law.
“They can always be found and identified, if they commit an offence and be held liable. It is not necessary to register them and so on. Therefore, we do not agree with it and will make our proposals,” Alagushev told IWPR.
Working group members have also noted that they are yet to receive the rationale for the proposed amendments and the instruments for their implementation. Lawyers have also noted the absence of precise criteria of liability for any offence.
The working group is to complete work over the draft law by March 1, a timeframe its members say it is too tight.
“Many issues should be analysed clause by clause, and we have agreed to give them the agreed version of our suggestions, and they will refine, analyse it, and we all start discussing it. We have a lot of work to do,” Alagushev said.
Media representatives are sceptical about the presidential administration’s openness, although there is still hope for a compromise.
Valieva said that Murat Ukushev, the lawmaker who is a member of the presidential executive office and one of the authors of the draft, said that “they would take everything into account and seek consensus. He stated vaguely that we would have a discussion and try to reach an understanding”.
She continued, “I asked for clarification on what he meant by consensus; did he mean that we would have to accept their point of view? We haven’t received a clear response.”