Toronto – Vienna, 13 March 2018 – While Kyrgyzstan has generally been a rare positive example in a region where autocracy has been the rule, recent developments threaten to send the country down a similarly repressive path.
The Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Legislation, State System, Rule of Law and Human Rights
The Parliamenary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture and Health
The undersigned members of IFEX, the global network of organisations working to promote and defend freedom of expression and information worldwide, write to you to express our concern over recent developments regarding the climate for media freedom in Kyrgyzstan.
In particular, we are alarmed at the use of defamation lawsuits to levy disproportionate fines, travel bans and other harsh penalties against journalists and media outlets accused of insulting the President under the ‘Law On Guarantees for Activity of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic’. As obligated by the Law, the General Prosecutor has pursued several lawsuits against individual journalists and media entities on behalf of both the sitting and ex-President, using the far-reaching powers granted him to take legal action against anyone deemed to have “discredited” the “honour and reputation” of the President or former president(s). In addition, a proposed law titled, ‘Amending the Civil Code of the Kyrgyz Republic’ that was recently approved by the Parliamentary Committee on Social Affairs, Education, Science, Culture, and Health, could create further justification for punishing journalists and others on broad and legally ambiguous grounds for exercising their right to free expression.
In a worrying example of the existing Law’s application, in April 2017 a case was brought on behalf of ex-President Almazbek Atambayev against the founders of the popular news site Zanoza.kg, the website itself, and several other affiliated defendants after the publication of an article criticising the arrest of the opposition leader, Omurbek Tekebaev. The attendant proceedings were marred by significant procedural irregularities, circumvention of the pretrial dispute mechanism, and infringement of the defendants’ rights to an adversarial defense. The website and its founders have since been fined 27 million Kyrgyz soms (equivalent to about US$338,000) and face potential prison time for failure to pay within a month. In addition, some of their assets have been frozen and they have been barred from leaving the country. The outrageously large fines, the small window granted to them for payment, along with the irregular trial proceedings make it clear that this is a politically motivated attempt to silence critical reporting through legislative harassment.
Such harassment of journalists and the media has continued into 2018. On 22 February, the Supreme Court upheld a sentence requiring journalist Kabai Karabekov to pay 5 million soms for “offending” the new president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Freelance journalist Elnura Alkanova has been charged with “seeking and disclosing confidential commercial information” and also faces a travel ban for an investigative report on the allegedly corrupt sale of government property. The blocking of Fergana News’ website and closure of Sentyabr, a news channel aligned with the opposition, along with both voluntary and forced expulsions of local and foreign journalists alike, including Ulugek Babulakov, Russian journalist Grigoriy Mikhailov and Agence France-Presse’s Chris Rickleton, mark other low points for media freedom in Kyrgyzstan.
Under these circumstances, a new bill that would amend the civil code to establish mandatory compensation for offending the “honour, dignity and business reputation” of all citizens across a broad range of mediums, threatens to create a society-wide threat to free expression.
Such laws contradict internationally recognized standards around defamation and libel laws, which are intended to protect persons from false statements of fact, not feelings or interests. Furthermore, concerning the application of these laws to public officials, The UN Human Rights Committee’s General Comment 34 makes clear that, “[I]n circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. Thus, the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties…”
While Kyrgyzstan has generally been a rare positive example in a region where autocracy has been the rule, recent developments threaten to send the country down a similarly repressive path. When small media outlets are forced to shut down due to lawsuits by government officials, this significantly damages freedom of speech in the long term, increases self-censorship in the media, weakens their role in communicating socially significant information to citizens, and can play a role in the overall decline of socioeconomic and political conditions.
Rules and regulations can either enable or hinder the growth of media and restrict or promote particular kinds of content. An empowering legal regime will allow media to cover hard-hitting investigative reports and fulfill their function as a democratic watchdog without fear of legal sanction, making governments more accountable.
For this reason, the undersigned organisations call on the government of Kyrgyzstan to withdraw punitive lawsuits and other restrictions against local journalists and media outlets and review and amend the ‘Law On Guarantees for Activity of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic’ to bring it in line with international standards. We also call on Parliament to reject the legislative amendments contained in the draft law on ‘Amending the Civil Code of the Kyrgyz Republic’, due to its similar incompatibility with established standards on legal limits to free expression.
Media Policy Institute
Public Association “Journalists”
Afghanistan Journalists Center (AFJC)
Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
Center for Independent Journalism – Romania
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Foro de Periodismo Argentino
Globe International Center
Independent Journalism Center – Moldova
Index on Censorship
International Press Centre (IPC)
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
PEN American Center
South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State
World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC)
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers