Central Asian governments must stop violating freedom of expression

On World Press Freedom day, ARTICLE 19 and regional partners Adil Soz, MPI and NANSMIT call on governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to stop violating freedom of expression.

“Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should stop using repressive laws and politically motivated court proceedings to suppress freedom of expression” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, in a joint statement together with regional partners Adil Soz, MPI and NANSMIT.

In Central Asia, draft laws and new legislation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are aimed at further restricting the rights of people to free expression and stifling the media. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, politicially motivated prosecutions and law suits are being used to silence dissent. The chilling effect this has on the right to freedom of expression is evidenced by the increasing environment of self-censorship in these countries.

“The Central Asian governments should abide by their international obligations to ensure full respect for the right to freedom of expression as required by the international human rights treaties” added Hughes.

New laws threatening free speech

Proposed laws by Kyrgyz MPs pose the danger of hamstringing the progress made by the country on freedom of expression and media freedom since the 2010 revolution. In violation of Article 20 of the Constitution, the parliament of Kyrgyzstan passed amendments to the Criminal Code on 16 April which criminalises “knowingly false messages about the commission of crime.” If signed by the President, the law would result in disproportionate fines and up to 3 years of incarceration. Amendments to Article 329 also criminalise the spread of “knowingly false messages”. Local human rights organisations believe that these amendments will have a negative impact on freedom of expression and the ability of media outlets to continue to freely operate, since what is considered “false” is subjective, and is open to considerable abuse by the government to punish expression in the media that they disagree with.

The government of Kazakhstan continues to introduce legislative changes unjustifiably limiting freedom of expression. On 23 April, the President signed amendments to the Criminal Code introducing a new article criminalising “knowingly disseminating false information”, which includes both facts and opinions and provides for up to 10 years in prison. This is in addition to eight provisions prohibiting defamation contained in the existing Criminal Code that will remain unchanged despite the amendment process.

“The threat of harsh criminal sanctions, especially imprisonment, for false or defamatory speech exerts a profound chilling effect on freedom of expression. Such sanctions clearly cannot be justified, as non-criminal sanctions are adequate to redress harms to individuals’ reputations. Kazakhstan should repeal its defamation laws, and reject attempts to criminalise the dissemination of ‘false’ information” adds Hughes.

The parliament of Kyrgyzstan is currently considering amendments to the Criminal Code, the Code of Administrative Responsibility, Law on Peaceful Assembly and Law on Mass Media to prohibit the so-called “promotion” of homosexual relationships. If passed, the amendments to the Law on Mass Media would introduce punitive measures for creating “a positive attitude toward non-traditional sexual relations, using the media or information and telecommunications networks” with those convicted facing up to six months in prison and a fine of 20 to 50 monthly calculated indexes. Amendments to the Law on Peaceful Assembly would further restrict freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly by criminalising any action aimed at creating a positive attitude to non-traditional sexual relationships.

Deputy Speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, Torobay Zulpukarov, was cited by the news agency 24.kg as saying “the amendments to some legislative acts are aimed at criminalising the calls for non-traditional sexual relations”.

“The proposed law is discriminatory and must be rejected. It would not only deny all people the freedom to openly discuss issues around sexual orientation and gender identity, but would also add to the stigmatisation and violence already seen against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people” Thomas Hughes said. “This ban would protect no one and harm everyone,” he added.

Politically motivated prosecutions and civil claims

ARTICLE 19 and regional partners Adil Soz, MPI and NANSMIT are also concerned that courts of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are issuing overtly unjust decisions in politically motivated cases that contribute to an increasing environment of self-censorship.

One of the clearest cases of unjust decisions is the verdict recently issued against Olga Tutubalina, a journalist working with one of the few remaining opposition newspapers, Asia Plus, in Tajikistan.

On 25 February 2014, Tutubalina was ordered by the Firdavsi district court in Dushanbe to apologize for the use of a Vladimir Lenin quote referring to the ‘Intelligentsia’ in derogatory terms (the “shit of the nation”), and pay 30,000 Somoni (approx. EUR 4,500) in compensation for moral damages to three people who claimed they were members of the intelligentsia. The decision was upheld by the Cassation Board on 30 April. The civil lawsuit was based on the statement by the plaintiffs that the word ‘shit’ used in the article ‘did not correspond to reality’ and insulted their honour, dignity and business reputation, even though none of them could be recognized in the article. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in Article 19, requires that all restrictions of the right to freedom of expression are proportionate to the harm of the reputation of individuals. Imposing sanctions where no individual’s reputation has been targeted or harmed violates international standards on freedom of expression. The fine of EUR 4,500, considering the low salaries of journalists in Tajikistan, is clearly intended to silence one journalist and send a warning to all others. It is entirely unjustified and disproportionate.

On 21 April 2014, Kazakhstan’s Medeu district court of Almaty ordered to shut down the newspaper Assandi Times on grounds that it was a part of the “single media” Respublika, which according to a 2012 court decision consisted of 8 newspapers and 23 Internet resources. The lawsuit filed by the Medeu district prosecutor that led to the court proceedings shutting down the Assandi Times makes note of only one reason for its closure – that is, “being a part of the single media” Respublika. The lawsuit is based on the following arguments:

  • Issues of the Assandi Times from 2004 indicated that the newspaper is continuing the traditions of Respublika.
  • The same materials were published in both Golos Respubliki Kaleidoskop sobytiy za nedelyu (a newspaper recognized as a part of the “single media” Respublika) and Assandi Times.
  • Materials are written and produced by the same editorial staff/journalists.

ARTICLE 19 believes that the closure of Assandi Times is a politically motivated decision, on the basis of the newspapers affiliation with the Respublika in the past that have also been banned. No media outlet should face a complete ban on operating, certainly not through guilt by apparent association. There is no evidence to suggest that this newspaper is part of any initiative to overthrow the government or incite hatred in the country, or that any such threat even exists in Kazakhstan. All Assandi Times is guilty of is independent journalism; there is absolutely no reason to suspect any wrongdoing under any of Kazakhstan’s laws.