By Katya Konradova
A Pit for Kyrgyzstan’s Independent Press
“New moves against opposition politicians and the press are meant to scare the last bastion of Kyrgyzstan’s civil society into submission,” writes Naryn Idinov, the former chief editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE) Kyrgyz service and the former director of the Kabar information agency in Bishkek, in his article for OpenDemocracy.net.1 He makes this statement only three months before news of his trial for allegedly smearing the President of Kyrgyzstan appears in the newsfeed of almost every major international media watchdog organization on 30 June 2017.
In late March 2017, Idinov, also known by the name of Naryn Aiyp, was taken to court along with his colleague, editor Dina Maslova, at the news website ProMedia, which they co-founded and is responsible for running the news agency Zanoza.kg. A former parliament member, Cholpon Dzhakupova, was also taken to court. Following the court order, the media organizations’ bank accounts were frozen. A lien was also placed on Idinov’s apartment and the journalist himself was banned from leaving the country. A total of six offending articles, which reported on President Almazbek Sharshenovich Atambayev’s alleged involvement in corruption and criticized his treatment of opposition leaders, were banned from being viewed by the public.
Dzhakupova was accused of defaming President Atambayev during a roundtable discussion hosted by the office of the Ombudsman, during which she said that he was a “personality with maniacal inclinations.” The remarks were published by Zanoza.kg on 30 March 2017. Dzhakupova is the head of the Legal Clinic ‘Adilet,’ a robust Kyrgyz human rights organization that provides free access to legal assistance for vulnerable groups of population, as well as works to improve the legal culture in Kyrgyzstan. According to RSF, five complaints in total were filed against Zanoza and its co-founders.2 The prosecutors sought a total of 27 million Kyrgyz KGS (about €339,000) in moral compensation to be paid to President Almazbek Atambayev. The Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg reported on 5 July 2017 that the court found all the defendants guilty of the above mentioned charges and ordered Zanoza.kg and its founders Idinov and Maslova to pay a fine of 24 million KGS, as well as to recover 3 million KGS from Dzhakupova.3
The defendants and their lawyers complained that too many trials had been scheduled during a very short time frame, making it difficult for them to adequately prepare for the hearings.
It would seem that even in rising democracies like Kyrgyzstan, struggling against an opponent as powerful as the head of the country is futile, yet leading media professionals in Kyrgyzstan resist curbing their activity and voice their concern that authorities will keep tightening their control over the exchange of information in the months leading up to the presidential election on 19 November 2017. Recent events leave many wondering—and rightfully—about the state of press freedom in the country.
In his 15 March speech this year, President Atambayev claimed that the state imposes no limitation on news reporting in the Kyrgyz media.4 He assured the assembly, made up of ambassadors of Côte d’Ivoire, Latvia, Ethopia, India, and Afghanistan, that with regard to freedom of speech, Kyrgyzstan occupies a leading position among the countries in Central Asia.
Analyses of media freedom in Kyrgyzstan from independent watchdog organizations generally support President Atambayev’s claim; nonetheless, they point out the growing polarization of Kyrgyz society and its effects on media environment in the country, as well as a great deal of self-censorship and ethnic, political, and regional biases. The Freedom House Freedom of the Press Ranking has been consistent in assigning Kyrgyzstan a status of “Not Free” since the launching of the project in 2002, with the country receiving a total score of 67/100 in 2017. Kyrgyzstan’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) dropped from 85th in 2016 to 89th out of 180 countries in 2017. For reference, the neighbouring countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are currently ranked as 157th, 169th, and 149th, respectively.
According to Atambayev, heavy fines and imprisonment are effective penalties for libel in what he calls “the civilized world,” referring to countries such as the United States, France, or Denmark. He thus denied taking inspiration from Kyrgyzstan’s neighbouring dictatorships. Taking financial responsibility for their “outright demagoguery,” he said, is the least journalists can do, being incapable of moral reflection.
Among the accusations made by Atambayev during his speech was that RFE/RL receives generous funding from the U.S. Congress and its budget reaches hundreds of millions of dollars, in response to which RFE/RL reported that its Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk (Liberty), is only one of its 26 language services and its 2016 budget amounted to 108.4 million USD.
RFE/RL became a target of President Atambayev’s diatribe after the political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan in February 2017. Earlier this year, Atambayev filed two complaints against Azattyk, accusing it of slander following February reports on detention of the leader of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party, Omurbek Tekebaev.5 Hundreds of opposition supporters, including former President Roza Otunbaeva, gathered in Bishkek on 26 February 2017 to protest what they saw as unlawful and politically motivated persecution. He was investigated on charges of corruption. A lawyer for the Ata-Meken party asserted that Tekebaev’s detention was meant to prevent him from disclosing information about a Turkish cargo plane that crashed near Bishkek on 16 January 2017 and killed all four crew members and 35 people on the ground. He allegedly had in his possession documents proving that the cargo belonged to high state officials in Bishkek. Still others believe that the charges were made against Tekebaev, who was named as his party’s presidential candidate on 5 March 2017 in order to prevent him from running for president.
In his 24 March this year speech in Bishkek, Atambayev said he would complain about Azattyk’s activity to U.S. President Donald Trump.6 He also threatened to take RFE/RL to international courts to show them a “good lesson,” but the charges against Azattyk were dropped in May, following a meeting of President Atambayev with RFE/RL President Thomas Kent on March 30. According to Ferghana News Agency, the presidential press service informed that the decision to drop the charges was made after experts noted “the quality improvement in coverage of events by the ‘Azattyk’ radio,” invoking again Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to upholding media freedom in the country.7
Alleged foreign support to RFE/RL was not the only apparent thorn in President Atambayev’s side. He expressed fears that other journalists in Kyrgyzstan instigate negative attitudes toward their motherland in exchange for foreign money, suspecting them of carrying foreign passports or residence permits while hypocritically referring to themselves as Kyrgyz nationals.
This anti-foreign sentiment is reminiscent of Kyrgyzstan’s long-standing ethnic issues. Ethnic Uzbeks represent a significant minority in the country, with most of them being concentrated in the western and southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, mainly the Ferghana valley and the three provinces of Batken, Osh, and Jalal-Abad. Despite being largely excluded from taking part in the country’s decision-making, Uzbeks have been feared for their potential to eventually exert enough pressure on the Kyrgyz government and achieve political and linguistic autonomy. In the past, these tensions have escalated into violent outbreaks. On May 23 of this year, Ulugbek Babakulov, an independent Kyrgyz journalist who also contributes to Zanoza.kg, published an article on the regional news website Fergana, in which he criticized Kyrgyz-language social media posts for using ethnic slurs and inciting hatred and violence against ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan.8 The article quotes several posts made by users who often claim to be university graduates and urge others to expel or even liquidate Kyrgyzstan’s largest ethnic minority. As a closing remark, Babakulov speculates that he may become the target of a similar wave of criticism coming from nationalist press and social media users as a result of publishing his article, a prediction that has come true with a more serious twist.
On 1 June 2017, CPJ reported that Babakulov had been under pressure from lawmakers and pro-government media and even received death threats on social media in retaliation for his article.9 On 27 May OTRK, a major Kyrgyz TV channel, aired a report accusing Babakulov, ironically, of inciting inter-ethnic hatred in his Ferghana article.10 The report argued that as a trained professional, Babakulov knew that social media posts are written by people with questionable credentials, and thus his decision to concentrate on this heavily biased medium speaks to his lack of journalistic professionalism, as well as demonstrates a malicious intent to “disseminate provocative materials” and stir up separatist emotions that are still lingering in society after the 2010 bloody conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan. Ainura Arzymatova, a historian at Kyrgyz National University, stated that “people like Babakulov… are just enemies of Kyrgyzstan,” further reiterating the claim made by the presenter of the TV channel that Babakulov attempted to present the country as a “fascist state, whose population is completely nationalist.” As a response, members of the parliament suggested stripping Babakulov of his citizenship. To escape public outrage and legal charges, Babakulov fled the country on June 8, and the Ferghana news website was blocked on 10 June 2017, RFE/RL reported.11
Babakulov was among the journalists Atambayev addressed specifically in his 15 March speech, urging them to stop “betraying” the country. Other media professionals denounced as “pseudojournalists” by the head of the state included Daniil Kislov, the chief editor of Ferghana News, or the very Naryn Idinov, who reacted to Atambayev’s accusations with a detailed account of the recent persecution of media in his March 30 article on openDemocracy.net.12 The President, Idinov lamented, has been frequently backed up by EU officials, whose reports praise Kyrgyzstan’s progress toward democracy and appear ridiculous against the backdrop of the disturbingly high number of defamation suits, verbal assaults and other forms of harassment from institutions and officials in the past several months. Such inaccurate reports, he warned, may undermine local journalists’ struggle for an open, uncensored media environment in Kyrgyzstan.
On 27 June only two days before the trial against ProMedia and Idinov, the European Union held the 8th round of their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Kyrgyzstan in Brussels.13 According to the official report, the “open and constructive discussion” covered a broad range of issues, including the prevention of torture, protection of the rights of women and children, and fight against corruption. The EU called on Kyrgyz authorities to maintain media freedom in order to ensure transparency in the upcoming presidential elections in October. The report does not indicate whether the EU demanded that Kyrgyzstan take responsibility for the recent press freedom violations.
EU’s Human Rights Dialogue was not the only occasion of apparent neglectful inspection from leading international organizations. In June, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres received criticism from Human Rights Watch for failing to address important human rights issues, including recent attacks on Kyrgyz media, during his tour of five Central Asian countries. In his opening remarks at a press conference with President Atambayev, Guterres praised Kyrgyzstan as a “pioneer of democracy” and a prime example of a commitment to protection of human rights both regionally and abroad.14
“In regions like Central Asia,” writes Hugh Williamson, the Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, “the UN should state clearly that ending human rights abuses is an integral part of wider development and security strategies.”15
The UN has previously criticized Kyrgyz authorities for their imprisonment of ethnic Uzbek journalist and human rights activist Azimjon Askarov. In September 2010, he was detained and sentenced to life in prison on charges of assisting in the murder of a police officer and inciting ethnic hatred during the 2010 ethnic clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in southern Kyrgyzstan, which left more than 420 people dead and thousands fleeing the terror to largely mono-ethnic areas. The verdict was reinstated by the court on January 24 this year, despite the UN Human Rights Committee urging Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov after it was found that he was tortured and denied a fair trial in what the UN, as well as the jailed activist, saw as a politically motivated act.16 Askarov is the founder of the human rights organization Vozdukh (Air) and has worked to investigate and report cases of police abuse and poor prison conditions.
Whatever the reason for the President’s onslaught against opposition voices, it is clear that he is not targeting independent outlets to maintain his leadership of the country, according to Daniil Kislov from Ferghana News.17 Atambayev has served a six-year term since 2011, but under the 2010 constitution, he is barred from running for re-election. The December 2016 referendum, however, increased the power and independence of the Prime Minister significantly. This fact causes some to suspect that he may attempt to continue to remain in power by either becoming the next prime minister or installing a political ally in this newly reformed post. As Kislov and others make rather grim predictions for the next stage of Kyrgyzstan’s history, it is yet to be seen whether Kyrgyzstan will live up to the expectations set by international institutions and continue paving the way to democracy in Central Asia.
1 Aiyp, N. (2017, March 30). “Inciters, deceivers, slaves”: Kyrgyzstan’s president takes aim at the press. OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/naryn-aiyp/inciters-deceivers-slaves-kyrgyzstan-s-president-takes-aim-at-press
2 RSF calls for end to prosecutions of Kyrgyz media and journalists. (2017, June 23). Retrieved from https://rsf.org/en/news/rsf-calls-end-prosecutions-kyrgyz-media-and-journalists
3 Kudryavtseva, T. (2017, July 5). Million-som suits against media – wish to dispose of disloyal outlets. 24.kg. Retrieved from https://24.kg/english/56777_Million-som_suits_against_media_-_wish_to_dispose_of_disloyal_outlets/
4 Алмазбек Атамбаев: “Эй, смотрели на себя в зеркало, чтобы читать нам наставления? Помалкиваете там, а здесь вольничаете?”. (2017, March 15). Gezitter.org. Retrieved from http://www.gezitter.org/politic/58433_almazbek_atambaev_ey_smotreli_na_sebya_v_zerkalo_chtobyi_chitat_nam_nastavleniya_pomalkivaete_tam_a_zdes_volnichaete/
5 Kyrgyz President ‘Ready’ To Take RFE/RL Lawsuit To ‘International Courts’. (2017, March 24). RFE/RL. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-atambaev-ready-to-take-rferl-lawsuit-international-courts/28389282.html
6 Kyrgyz President ‘Ready’ To Take RFE/RL Lawsuit To ‘International Courts’. (2017, March 24). RFE/RL. Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-atambaev-ready-to-take-rferl-lawsuit-international-courts/28389282.html
7 Kyrgyzstan: Almazbek Atambayev suggested Prosecutor General’s Office withdrawing claims against ‘Azattyk’ radio. (2017, May 12). Ferghana News. Retrieved from http://enews.fergananews.com/news.php?id=3337
8 Люди как звери. В киргизском сегменте соцсетей звучат призывы к расправе над «сартами». (2017, May 23). Ferghana News. Retrieved from http://www.fergananews.com/articles/9421
9 Kyrgyz journalist receives death threats. (2017, June 1). Retrieved from https://cpj.org/x/6cf2
10 Kyrgyzstan major TV channel: Block Fergana and journalist Ulugbek Babakulov is enemy of people. (2017, May 29). Ferghana News. Retrieved from http://enews.fergananews.com/articles/3019
11 Journalist Charged With Inciting Hatred Says He Fled Kyrgyzstan. (2017, June 12). Retrieved from https://www.rferl.org/a/fergana-website-blocked-kyrgyzstan-hatred-charge/28542352.html
12 Aiyp, N. (2017, March 30). “Inciters, deceivers, slaves”: Kyrgyzstan’s president takes aim at the press. OpenDemocracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/naryn-aiyp/inciters-deceivers-slaves-kyrgyzstan-s-president-takes-aim-at-press
13 European External Action Service (EEAS), Headquarters. (2017, June 27). 8th EU-Kyrgyz Republic Human Rights Dialogue [Press release]. Retrieved from https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/29045/8th%20EU-Kyrgyz%20Republic%20Human%20Rights%20Dialogue
14 Guterres, A. (n.d.). Opening remarks at press conference with President Almazbek Atambaev of Kyrgyzstan. Speech. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2017-06-11/secretary-general%E2%80%99s-press-remarks-kyrgyz-president-atambaev
15 Williamson, H. (2017, June 15). UN Secretary-General Fails to Speak Up for Rights in Central Asia. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/15/un-secretary-general-fails-speak-rights-central-asia
16 Azimjan Askarov verdict in Kyrgyzstan ‘deeply troubling’ – Zeid. (2017, January 24). United Nations Human Rights – Office of the High Commissioner. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21113&LangID=E
17 Said, G. (2017, March 28). In pivotal election year Kyrgyz media face verbal assaults from president and legal action. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/blog/2017/03/in-pivotal-election-year-kyrgyz-media-face-verbal-.php