Despite the fact that the freedom of speech situation in Kyrgyzstan is better than in other Central Asian states, experts say there should be no illusion about it.
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Every new power in Kyrgyzstan becomes more intolerant to other opinions and criticism, so the situation with the freedom of speech may become worse in the next few years, media expert Gulnura Toralieva said.
“I think the authorities will not exert pressure on the freedom of speech directly, but will be doing it via courts and using officials by filing multimillion lawsuits and buying out media outlets. Now president Sooronbai Zheenbekov does not use refer to general prosecutor to vindicate his honour and dignity, but on the other hand, he has not been strongly criticised in the two years of his presidency. Media and human rights defenders are still loyal to him, giving him a chance to prove himself,” Toralieva said.
At the same time, the activities of some media seemed restricted amid the political scandal in Kyrgyzstan.
On August 7, during the coverage of the operation in Koi-Tash on forced summoning of the ex-president for interrogation, Aprel TV channel owned by former president Almazbek Atambaev was disconnected from the digital package and Internet broadcasting.
Two days later, the court seized the property of the TV channel and JSC Media Forum, in whose building it was located. The property of LLC Editorial Office of Channel D, better known to viewers as Channel 7, was also arrested.
Journalists and a number of experts called it pressure on the freedom of speech and called on the Kyrgyz authorities to lift the arrest of Aprel property. At the same time, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Desir, emphasised that “he is aware of the exceptional circumstances in which a decision was made to arrest, and yet he calls on the authorities to review it.”
The international organisation Reporters Without Borders believes the forced closure of the channel is a blow to media pluralism.
“The investigation into Almazbek Atambaev’s assets cannot be used to justify such violation of the freedom of the press. Moreover, Aprel is not accused of breaking the law. We urge the authorities to abolish this disproportionate measure and protect media pluralism,” Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders office in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said.
The journalistic community of Kyrgyzstan also condemned the arrest of the property of the TV channel.
“We find the restraint measure and the seizure of the property of the TV channel and the suspension of its activities excessive and unjustified, and in accordance with the Constitution, any restrictions must serve the legitimate purpose and be proportionate to it. Therefore, we demand the lifting of the arrest and the resumption of broadcasting of the TV channel,” the joint statement of representatives of various media outlets and media organisations reads.
Now the journalists left without the studio and equipment continue to cover events on social media and on the channel’s website.
Lawsuits and arrests as a tool of pressure on the media
The situation around Aprel TV channel is indicative, but not the only case of restriction of activities of journalists and the media in Kyrgyzstan.
In 2015, the Prosecutor General’s Office filed a lawsuit to defend the honour and dignity of Almazbek Atambaev against journalist Daiyrbek Orunbekov, demanding from him a sum of 2 million soms (28.65 thousand dollars), which is unbearable for a journalist. He lost the lawsuit in all instances and a criminal case was instituted against him for the failure to execute a court decision, but in March 2017 he was granted amnesty.
Orunbekov stopped his journalistic activity.
In 2017, one after the other, large independent media received multimillion lawsuits. Mostly from Prosecutor General Indira Dzholdubaeva, defending president Almazbek Atambaev.
In March-April 2017, Dzholdubaeva filed lawsuits against Zanoza.kg website and Radio Azattyk. Lawsuits against Azattyk were withdrawn after a meeting between Radio Liberty director Thomas Kent and Atambaev. Atambaev withdrew lawsuits against Zanoza.kg only in 2018, after the end of his presidential term.
In August of the same year, the opposition TV channel Sentyabr was closed – the Prosecutor General’s Office found extremist material in its content. After that, the journalists of Sentyabr created Zhalbyrak TV project, which broadcasts on the Internet.
The current president Sooronbai Zheenbekov filed a million lawsuit against the media. During the election campaign in summer 2017, he demanded 5 million som (71.63 thousand dollars) from the 24.kg news agency and journalist Kabai Karabekov in court. The reason was the article of Karabekov, where he talked about the alleged links between the Zheenbekovs and radical Arab organisations. The editors later published a refutation. Once he became the president, he withdrew the lawsuit.
In 2017, France Press Agency journalist Chris Rickleton was also deported from the country, and Grigory Mikhailov, journalist of the Russian edition of REGNUM, received a ban on entry.
In December 2018, politicians Akhmatbek Keldibekov, Azibek Beknazarov and Keneshbek Duishebaev filed a lawsuit against the Aprel TV channel and ex-president Almazbek Atambaev. The reason was the interview of the latter, in which he mentioned these politicians in a negative way. The total amount of the claim amounted to 18 million som (257.87 thousand dollars). But the court satisfied him only partially, having released the TV channel from the material part of the claims and obliged the former president to pay 100 thousand soms (1,432 dollars) to disgruntled politicians.
The year of 2019 was also marked by several lawsuits for the Kyrgyz media.
In April, businessman Zhalil Atambaev demanded 50 million som (716.3 thousand dollars) from the journalist of Radio Azattyk Ydyrys Isakov. The entrepreneur called Isakov’s journalistic investigation about his shadow business in Osh oblast slander. In May, Atambaev was reported to withdraw the lawsuit.
Now the fate of the Asia News newspaper is hanging by a thread. This year several multimillion lawsuits were filed against it. Interior Minister Kashkar Dzhunushaliev demanded 5 million som (71.63 thousand dollars) as compensation for “fake information and collage” published in the newspaper.
Ex-deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Daniyar Abdykarov demanded 10 million som ($ 143.26 thousand dollars) for an article on an unsolved case of the murder of student Kamila Duishebaeva.
And on August 17, it became known that Vice Prime Minister Zhenish Razakov also filed a lawsuit for 10 million som against the article about his alleged connection with Tajik intelligence service.
According to the lawyer of the Media Institute Policy Altynai Isaeva, judges must strike a balance between the right to defend honour and dignity and freedom of the press when reviewing such cases.
“Most often multimillion lawsuits are filed by high-ranking people. And when these public figures not only demand a refutation of the information, but also require compensation with six zeros, this is doubtful because the priority should be given to the truth, the refutation of fake information, but not the recovery of a small fortune,” Isaeva said.
According to her, when making a final decision, the courts must observe the principle of justice and proportionality, but sometimes it doesn’t happen, which causes concern.
“Such decisions lead to the fact that additional self-censorship appears in the editorial office and it may go bankrupt and close down because such amounts of compensation do not correspond to the income level of local media,” Isaeva said.
Bloomy rankings of international organisations
Speaking of the freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan, indicators are usually compared to the ones in other Central Asian states. And the situation seems not so dire amid them.
In the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, Kyrgyzstan is always the leader in the region. Thus, in 2017, Kyrgyzstan ranked 89th, whereas Tajikistan ranked 149th, Kazakhstan 157th, and Uzbekistan 169th.
But according to media expert Azamat Tynaev, one should not be deceived about this. According to him, the indicators in Central Asia are good for public speeches of politicians, but in reality they are not enough.
“The numbers in the international rankings are mere numbers. They do not show the entire picture. The fact that we have a positive picture in comparison with neighbouring countries should not satisfy us, deceive us and create an illusion. There are examples of significant media progress in Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and there is a huge gap between the media in Kyrgyzstan and the Baltic countries,” Tynaev said.
It should be noted that in the ranking of Reporters Without Borders, the position of Kyrgyzstan is extremely unstable. In 2018, the republic fell to 98th place, and this year it jumped sharply by 15 positions up, taking 83rd place.
According to Gulnura Toralieva, this means that the media in Kyrgyzstan is not sufficiently developed as an independent institution.
“In Kyrgyzstan, the media, on the one hand, perform their function by disclosing corruption schemes, calling the authorities to account. But on the other hand, they are not protected, as in developed countries. The persecution of a journalist and the media can begin at any time here. The instability of Kyrgyzstan in the freedom of speech rankings shows the dependence of the media on the political situation, but it should not depend on anything and be independent and work confidently under any regime,” Toralieva said.
Main photo: RFE/RL
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.