Kyrgyzstan used to be seen as an exception in Central Asia as regards media pluralism, but the first half of 2017 has been marked by criminal proceedings against media outlets for “insulting” President Almazbek Atambayev, the blocking of the independent news website Ferghana, arrests of journalists and verbal attacks on the media by the president.
“In a democracy such as Kyrgyzstan, the presidential election being held in October ought to be an opportunity for encouraging a climate of debate and an exchange of critical ideas but instead the Kyrgyz authorities seem to want to imitate their neighbours and adopt their repressive methods,” RSF editor-in-chief Virginie Dangles said.
“It is vital that the European Union should use the next round in its human rights dialogue with Kyrgyzstan as a platform for urging the Kyrgyz authorities to put a stop to this offensive against critical media.”
The prosecutor-general brought no fewer than seven complaints against two independent news websites in March and April, accusing them of “insulting the president’s honour and dignity.”
The first two complaints were brought against Azattyk, the Kyrgyz offshoot of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and were prompted by two articles that quoted opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev as claiming that President Atambayev and others had bank accounts in Cyprus.
The five other complaints, also prompted by critical stories, targeted the news website Zanoza and its co-founders, editor Dina Maslova and reporter Naryn Aiyp. In all, the prosecutor-general sought nearly 50 million Soms (650,000 euros) in damages. Access to the offending articles was blocked and, in March, a court in the capital, Bishkek, ordered the freezing of the two website’s bank accounts.
The proceedings against Azattyk were dropped after RFE/RL president Thomas Kent met with President Atambayev in May. Those against Zanoza still stand but the constitutional court has to rule on their constitutionality before the cases can proceed any further.
The attempts to gag independent media outlets have continued in June. At the start of the month, a Bishkek court ordered the blocking of the Ferghana website, a leading source of news about Central Asia.
Criminal proceeding have also been brought against Ferghana’s correspondent in Kyrgyzstan, Ulugbek Babakulov, who is accused of “inciting inter-ethnic hatred” in a 23 May article about social network hate messages targeting Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority.
As the subject of inter-ethnic relations is largely off-limits for the media in Kyrgyzstan, Babakulov has also been the target of a death threats and a smear campaign in the state-owned media. A report on the state TV channel OTRK branded him as an “enemy” of the country and several legislators have called for him to be stripped of his nationality. He has fled the country.
Ferghana editor Daniil Kislov points out that Atambayev is not seeking reelection and says this “purge” of the media is designed to guarantee his immunity after his term ends. The purge is above all targeting independent media outlets that have covered corruption case implicating Atambayev.
On the official website of the president’s office, Atambayev accused a “small group of independent journalists, media and politicians” in March of trying to destabilize the country. And in a subsequent meeting with foreign ambassadors, he described certain journalists as “immoral idiots.”
Kyrgyzstan is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.