Kyrgyz Authorities Arrest Investigative Journalist

Case highlights growing pressures on free expression in Central Asian state.

Kyrgyz Authorities Arrest Investigative Journalist

Case highlights growing pressures on free expression in Central Asian state.

Prominent Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov as he was arrested in the office of the outlet he founded, Terminov Live, on January 22.
Prominent Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov as he was arrested in the office of the outlet he founded, Terminov Live, on January 22. ©
Wednesday, 2 February, 2022

The arrest of a well-known journalist in Kyrgyzstan has raised concerns over freedom of speech in a country where a new generation of investigative reporters remain committed to unveil high-level corruption.

Bolot Temirov was detained on January 22, two days after releasing an investigation into an alleged fraud scheme involving allies of President Sadyr Zhaparov. In response, a large crowd of reporters and human rights advocates gathered outside the interior ministry in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek calling for his release.

The well-known reporter, founder of the You Tube-based investigative outlet Temirov Live, was detained after an anti-drug police squad raided his Bishkek office, searching employees and confiscating computer equipment, documents, and video surveillance camera recordings.

Temirov was arrested for the illegal possession of cannabis, charges which he said were bogus.

Similarly, Bolot Nazarov, an akyn or improvisational singer in Kyrgyz culture - who is well-known for his anti-corruption songs and had composed music to accompany Temirov Live’s reports - was found with hashish. Both denied possessing drugs, saying they were framed because of their activities.

"This is legal mayhem."

No trace of narcotics was found on Temirov, but Nazarov failed a drugs test. Following public uproar, Temirov was released on bail pending an investigation while Nazarov remains under house arrest.

If convicted of drug possession, they could face a fine of up to 200,000 som (2,360 US dollars) or up to five years in prison. The interior ministry stated that the search was carried out after a woman accused a man named Bolot of forcing her to take drugs with his friends.

The raid took place two days after the release of an investigation titled How to Earn 37 Million Som in Two Days, alleging that a relative of Kamchybek Tashiev, head of the GKNB state security agency, was profiting from the private re-sale of oil produced by a state-owned refinery.

Tashiev said that the report was groundless and that Temirov’s investigation was “all lies”. He added that the arrest after the release of the report was a coincidence.

Zhaparov announced on Facebook that he would be overseeing the case and warned journalists against making “unproven accusations against anyone”.

Following his release, Temirov said that he and his colleagues had been under surveillance and received threats. While intimidation would not stop their work, he continued, the lack of equipment would have an impact as the seized material will not be released while the investigation is under way.

He told reporters that he had two theories about his arrest.

“The first one is that Tashiev was framed, because it would be stupid to detain me right after the release of the investigation,” he said, adding, “The second one is that Tashiev personally gave instructions. This is legal mayhem. It means that law enforcement bodies are under the direct control of the authorities and execute their orders.”

Rights groups have condemned the arrest and the US state department, which awarded Temirov’s anti-corruption work in 2021, reacted by warning that “a free media is vital to fighting corruption”.

In January 2020, Temirov, then editor of the Factcheck news site, was assaulted by three men, a few weeks after the site was targeted by a cyber-attack. Both incidents took place after the investigation with the open-source platform Bellingcat into the fortune of Ulkan Turgunova, the wife of the former deputy head of the state customs, Raimbek Matraimov.

Local experts consider Temirov’s treatment to be unprecedented. The Media Policy Institute warned that it came amidst “an alarming trend of rollback from the principles and values of democratic society”. The Bishkek-based institute noted that journalists had become the target of “criminal cases with egregious violations of legal procedures, mass harassment by ‘troll factories’…are being monitored and [under] surveillance”.

Azamat Kasybekov, chair of the Independent Union of Journalists, agreed that there was growing pressure on freedom of speech, and argued that the authorities needed to be more open with the media.

“Investigations cause certain reactions among those in power,” he said. “However, they should avoid any coercive approaches against journalists… They need to have a dialogue with the media. If journalists have questions about corruption, give them an explanation, tell them, show them the scheme and the financial system. It should be done before, not after.”

Media expert Azamat Tynayev maintained that rule of law was deteriorating in Kyrgyzstan, with Temirov’s case a warning to all investigative reporters.

“Journalistic investigations focus on corruption, abuse, ineffective management…authorities should avoid these actions to achieve good performance in their work,” Tynayev explained, adding, “Experience shows that people who provoked journalists have been [judged by] history.”

Investigative journalism in Kyrgyzstan has improved, according to Eldiyar Arykbaev, Central Asia coordinator of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the reporting consortium behind investigations like the Pandora Papers

“The quality has increased and the approach [has developed],” Arykbaev told IWPR. “Previously, investigations referred to the publication of leaked materials from the GKNB, intelligence agencies, law-enforcement agencies or even articles that have nothing to do with traditional [journalistic] investigations.”

Over the last decade, outlets like FactCheck and Kloop, which is part of the OCCRP network, carried out in-depth research such as Samaragate, which investigated violations during the 2017 presidential elections. A later 2019 investigation explored Raiymbek Matraimov’s links to a large-scale money laundering scheme.

“[The latter] showed how to work with such stories... how thoroughly the topic can be learned, investigated and told,” Arykbaev said. Matraimov was eventually brought to trial and although he only had to pay a fine, he and his family were included on the Global Magnitsky List, which since 2016 authorises the US government to sanction individuals it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets and ban them from entry.

“Investigative journalists work mostly on sensitive topics involving high-ranking officials…and rich people, who have the resources to damage journalists,” Arykbaev noted. “They should be as cautious as possible. In the case of Temirov, given what we see and what the lawyers say, it all sounds like a provocation [and] the law-enforcement authorities have not yet provided convincing evidence that it is what they say it is.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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