Kyrgyzstan: Gagging free speech accelerates democratic backsliding

Kyrgyzstan: Gagging free speech accelerates democratic backsliding - Civic Space

The atmosphere for freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan has been rapidly backsliding. Under the false pretext of tackling disinformation and hate speech, the authorities have been expanding their efforts to quash critical discussion on issues of public interest. The recent decision to deport journalist Bolot Temirov to Russia is the latest example of the sweeping crackdown on press freedom in the country. 

On 23 November, the Bishkek City Court upheld the conviction against investigative journalist Bolot Temirov for ‘illegally obtaining a Kyrgyz passport,’ which ultimately sanctioned his expulsion to Russia. The well-known anti-corruption journalist was taken into custody and subsequently transferred to the airport without having access to his lawyer. In light of the escalating repression of independent voices in Russia and the ongoing military mobilisation ordered by the Kremlin, the decision to expel Temirov from Kyrgyzstan has grave consequences for his safety. 

Bolot Temirov was first arrested in January 2022 following a raid on his office for alleged drug possession. Temirov claims the police had planted the drugs. Shortly before his detention, he exposed an alleged corruption scheme tied to high-ranking officials. In April, Temirov was additionally accused of illegally crossing the border with Russia and forging a Kyrgyz passport. In September, the Sverdlovsk District Court of Bishkek found the journalist guilty on the charge of ‘document forgery’, but did not impose a sentence due to the statute of limitations. The court of appeal, however, upheld the verdict of the district court and decided to expel Temirov from the country. 

The rise in attacks against journalists

The judicial harassment against Bolot Temirov comes amidst the recent series of attacks against journalists and media outlets that challenge the government’s narrative. In February 2022, outlet was charged with ‘disseminating war propaganda’ after it published an article alleging Kyrgyz soldiers initiated an attack at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. In March 2022, Next TV had its offices shut down, while the network’s director Taalai Duishenbiev was charged with ‘inciting hatred’ on Next TV’s social media channels after he published articles about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison; however, the court decided to release him and sentence him to 3 years of probation. In October 2022, a video covering recent tensions at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border resulted in Azattyk Media, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, being blocked. Currently, the editorial board remains under systematic pressure, its bank accounts have been frozen, and the media outlet itself was listed by the country’s Financial Intelligence Service as being suspected of ‘money laundering’.

‘The Kyrgyz authorities increasingly misuse the legal system to obstruct the vital work of independent media and activists by launching criminal investigations against them. As an OSCE member and a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Kyrgyzstan is obliged to uphold international standards on freedom of expression and access to information and to strengthen democratic institutions, which includes protecting media freedom and pluralism,’ says Sarah Clarke, head of Europe and Central Asia team. 

Controversial laws curtail free speech

An alarming trend of shrinking press freedom and civil space in Kyrgyzstan has been further exacerbated by recent legislative changes, sparking vast criticism from domestic and international human rights groups. The order to ban the RFERL-affiliated website was based on the controversial Law on Protection from False Information, which came into force in August 2021 and has been used to suppress press freedom and censor coverage that authorities find uncomfortable and inconvenient. ARTICLE 19 commented on the original draft of the Law in July 2020. We expressed concerns that it contained a number of vague and overbroad terms, and gave the authorities the power to block access to websites and shut down social media accounts without any due process. 

In September 2022, the president’s administration submitted amendments to the Mass Media Law that envisage penalties for ‘abuse of free speech’. The draft law would tighten the state control over media space by making the process of registration more complex and complicated for foreign-funded media organisations. In addition, the proposal mimics the Russian law on Mass Media and may be used to stamp out critical media outlets on a larger scale. 

ARTICLE 19 monitors the exponential rise in attacks against journalists and civil society groups with great concern. The Kyrgyz authorities must repeal these controversial laws and criminal code provisions that contradict Kyrgyzstan’s international commitments and open the way to the persecution of dissenting voices. Kyrgyzstan should strongly reaffirm its commitment to safeguarding freedom of speech as a critical pillar of democracy.