Kyrgyzstan’s security services are dropping the gloves for a fight against Facebook-using keyboard warriors who are taking pops at apparently thin-skinned President Almazbek Atambayev. Social media users do not know whether to laugh or cry.
On January 10, a letter from the deputy head of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, addressed to a member of parliament in Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, began circulating online. The letter noted that some 45 Facebook users who are openly critical of Atambayev had been placed under the organ’s direct observation. Then, some of them were named and shamed in the text.
Officially, the term GKNB deputy director and former Atambayev bodyguard Bolot Suyumbayev used in the letter, which MP Irina Karamushkina has confirmed as authentic, is “negative publications addressed to the head of state.”
A quick search through the publicly visible posts of the social media users named in the letter reveals very few that are openly insulting of Atambayev. However, it is possible that some of purportedly offending posts might have been recently removed by the users.
One that stands out is Toichubek Akmatali uulu’s page from November 24. It contains a repost that mocks a reference made by a political ally of the president, referring to Atambayev as a “Father of the Nation.” Swathes of Facebook users pilloried the comment as evidence of a stirring personality cult.
The post also features a photo of Atambayev with bulging eyes that are an unhealthy shade of yellow superimposed onto his face.
Karamushkina – who has a reputation as something of an SDPK attack dog – first called on the GKNB to pursue Atambayev’s online critics during a parliamentary session in October. At the time, another GKNB deputy director said the organ was doing exactly that, and justified the investigations by arguing that Atambayev is “a state symbol,” and thus is deserving of reverence, just like the national anthem and the flag.
A local media watchdog, the Institute of Media Policy, noted soon after that exchange — which many viewed as heavily choreographed — that unlike the anthem and flag, the president was not included among the state symbols listed in the constitution.
Despite the passage of several contentious changes to the country’s basic law in a referendum late last year, that does still remain the case.
But the rule of law tends to play second fiddle in Kyrgyz politics to political expediency, and critics say that authorities are eager to bring Facebook, the social media platform favored by Kyrgyzstan’s highly politicized civic leaders, to heel.
Just weeks before the appearance of the GKNB’s letter to Karamushkina, a civil court set a precedent by ruling against a Facebook user who had criticized her SDPK colleague Dastan Bekeshev. “[The government] pressures users in order to foster self-censorship,” says Adil Turdukulov, who leads the Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Speech advocacy group, and is himself facing civil proceedings for insulting another former member of Atambayev’s security detail.
“Now a person will think five times before writing something critical about the government,” he told EurasiaNet.org “[Kyrgyzstan] has taken its lead from Russia and Kazakhstan, where you can get jailed for a repost or a ‘like.’”
While the content of the letter is alarming, there are doubts about the abilities of the GKNB to execute a systematic roundup of Atambayev’s online enemies. In the letter to Karamushkina, for instance, Suyumbayev claims that the IP addresses of the Facebook users named indicate they are living abroad, and therefore cannot be brought in for questioning.
One Facebook user who is featured in the GKNB letter, and who was later interviewed by the news outlet Kloop.kg, scoffed at that the security services’ allegations, and remained defiant.
“What article did Atambayev not like? When I write, I write the truth. […] The GKNB is a disgrace,” Ainura Belekovna told Kloop. “Such a strong state organ, but they cannot locate my IP address! I do not live in the countries that you wrote. I’m living in Kyrgyzstan! And once again I say: Down with Atambayev!”
Some people have been brought in for questioning over Atambayev-related posts, continuing a trend that began towards the end of last year. According to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service Azattyk, 11 Facebook users in southern Jalal-Abad oblast have already been summoned to the GKNB’s local office for a ticking off for their Atambayev criticisms since the turn of the year.
Gulnura Toralieva, a former government advisor and founder of the Bishkek School of Public Relations, a non-profit entity, has called investigators’ recent surge of interest in anti-Atambayev Facebook posts “absurd” and “a dangerous precedent.” But she is not surprised that authorities are interested in keeping tabs on the medium.
“In the last two years, social networks have grown much more important, connected with the growing tendency of [citizens] to get news via them and journalists and civil society to use it as a platform,” Toralieva told Eurasianet.org in comments over Facebook.
“Influential commentators and social influencers have emerged [on social networks]. Politicians can publish their statements and denials there without approaching journalists. The government can use [the social networks] to help it respond to the public mood and score points. If it ignores them, it stands to lose.”
For the moment, several Kyrgyz Facebook users are responding to the GKNB name-and-shame campaign by calling on their friends to join them in roundly insulting Atambayev.
“Now many Internet users have a common passion — to get on this list :-),” joked photographer Ilya Karimdjanov on January 11.