Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on a Bishkek court to dismiss an absurd lawsuit against two Kyrgyz news media outlets, Radio Azattyk and the website Kloop, and the journalist Ali Toktakunov, when the court resumes hearing the case today.
The lawsuit has been brought by Kyrgyzstan’s powerful Matraimov family, which is seeking a total of 780,000 euros in damages in connection with their joint revelations about an alleged massive network of corruption involving a parliamentarian and a former senior customs official who are members of the family. The lawsuit initially also targeted 24.kg, a news website that published a summary of the exposé, but 24.kg has been dropped from the case after it published a statement yesterday retracting the investigation’s claims. Radio Azattyk, Kloop and Toktakunov refused offers of a similar out-of-court arrangement.
“It is absurd that the journalists at Azattyk and Kloop are being sued in connection with their investigative reporting, which served the public interest and galvanized Kyrgyz civil society in its entirety,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We ask the court to dismiss the lawsuit against the two media outlets and the journalist Ali Toktakunov and we urge the Kyrgyz authorities to do whatever is necessary to guarantee the safety of the journalists working on the story. The attacks of the past three months have done serious damage to press freedom in Kyrgyzstan.”
Rewarded by the International Journalists’ Network (IJNet) and carried out jointly by some 20 journalists with Radio Azattyk, Kloop and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the investigation concluded that 700 million dollars were illegally funneled out of Kyrgyzstan, one of the world’s poorest countries. This operation was allegedly possible thanks to the influence of Raimbek Matraimov, who used to be the deputy head of the Kyrgyz customs service. It was the murder of the journalists’ main source, the businessman Aierken Saimaiti, last November that precipitated the story’s publication.
Kyrgyz journalists have been subjected to harassment ever since. Bolot Temirov, the editor of the Factcheck news site, was assaulted by three men in Bishkek on 9 January, just weeks after a cyber-attack on the website. Both attacks were probably in reprisal for his linked investigation with Bellingcat into the fortune of Ulkan Turgunova, Raimbek Matraimov’s wife. A court ordered the temporary freezing of the bank accounts of Radio Azattyk, Kloop and 24.kg on 12 December. And last September, a Radio Azattyk employee was attacked and badly beaten while filming outside a house belonging to the Matraimovs.
The Kyrgyz authorities have condemned these reprisals. The interior minister personally took charge of the investigation into the attack on Temirov, while President Jeenbekov has promised to guarantee the safety of two Radio Azattyk journalists living in Prague, Ali Toktakunov and Ydyrys Isakov, if they return to Kyrgyzstan to testify in the investigation into Saimaiti’s murder.
Kyrgyzstan is ranked 83rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.