Kyrgyz Media Under Pressure
Criminal cases decried as attempts to intimidate and impose censorship.
Media workers in Kyrgyzstan warn that they are facing the gravest freedom of speech crisis since independence amid a series of arrests of independent journalists.
In mid-January, the state committee for national security (GKNB) searched of media offices including the 24.kg news agency as well as the private homes of a number of journalists. Of the 14 people taken for questioning, 11 have been detained over alleged “calls for mass disorder” and will be held in pre-trial detention for two months.
All those detained have links to journalist Bolot Temirov, the founder of the YouTube project Temirov Live, which publishes investigations into Kyrgyz government corruption. In January 2022, officers of the ministry of interior affairs allegedly found narcotics in a search of his office which he claimed had been planted. In December 2022, he was deported on the ground of “illegal acquisition of a passport of a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic”.
Journalists have decried the raids as a warning to all independent media in Kyrgyzstan.
“Early morning searches in the homes of our colleagues are meant to intimidate us,” Tamara Valieva, the chair of the Platform of Media Action of Kyrgyzstan coalition, told a press conference on January 17. “They tell us, ‘keep your nose out of it’.”
In a further statement, the Media Action Platform decried the criminal cases as an attempt to impose censorship.
“Instead of recognising and valuing the role of journalism in raising public awareness and ensuring transparency of actions of authorities, such charges look like an attempt to weaken and remove sources of independent information, which can raise social tensions in the society,” the statement read.
The moves were also condemned by international organisations including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, the EU delegation in Kyrgyzstan and a range of diplomatic missions.
But following the arrests, President Sadyr Japarov told the Kabar state news agency that the detainees were all bloggers, rather than professional journalists, “who used social media and published various information irresponsibly”. He added that media workers often received grants to “tarnish the image of authorities” and for their “personal wealth”.
“What intimidation are we talking about? How can our people be intimidated?” Japarov said. “Kyrgyzstan has and will have freedom of speech. The only requirement is to observe the laws that regulate mass media, and, first of all, national security.”
Kyrgystan’s rankings in international freedom of speech indices tell a different story. In 2021, the country scored 69.63 out of 100 in the Press Freedom Index, while in 2023 it had dropped to 49.91.
“Many journalists are scared.”
Kyrgyzstan’s authorities previously confined themselves to multimillion dollar civil actions against critical outlets and journalists. However, under Japarov, criminal cases have been initiated in which journalists and bloggers have been imprisoned.
“We hear statements… that there ‘is freedom of speech’ in Kyrgyzstan, but few people believe it is real as such statements are made amid arrests of and pressure on media workers,” said Inga Sikorskaya, director of programmes of the School for Peacemaking and Media Technology in Central Asia.
Restrictions on both the media sector and NGOs have been tightened in recent years, amid the introduction of tough legislative initiatives. In 2021, parliament adopted its so-called law on fake news which has been used to block websites including RFE/RL’s Azattyk as well as the Res Publica newspaper and 24.kg, Kloop.kg and Nazarnews.kg news agencies.
Parliament is now considering a draft law on “foreign” NGOs, as well as a media bill developed by the presidential administration. This has already been criticised by both lawyers and the media community.
Veteran journalist Leila Saralaeva, editor-in-chief of online media Novye Litsa (New Faces), described the period from independence until the early 2000s as the best years for freedom of speech in the former Soviet Union, including Kyrgyzstan.
“Unfortunately, all the following years of independence have turned into the eternal confrontation between authority and independent media,” she told IWPR. “Once a new president comes in, he first thanks independent media for their support, honesty and criticism of the previous regime. But time goes by, and as new president enjoys the power, he tries to stop the flow of information provided by free media.”
Saralaeva warned that the extent of the current pressure would have a far-reaching impact.
“Many journalists are scared,” she continued. “Now journalists either stay silent or change their profession. I can understand them, they all have families and children, and no one wants to serve time in prison. Many journalists will leave the country and will only be able to speak openly and write from abroad."