Kyrgyzstan's journalists fear yet another hurdle to freedom of speech

A new law against “manipulating information” online worries Kyrgyzstan's journalists and activists. Illustration (c): Tatyana Zelenskaya. Used with permission.

What's it like to be a journalist in a small Central Asian state? What's it like to fight for the right to speak the truth? In cases of emergency, can journalists count on the protection of the state and human rights organisations, or will the state turn out to be their main obstacle? When writing these words, why am I wondering whether the authorities might give me a call and invite me to answer a few questions?

Kyrgyzstan comes 83rd out of the 180 countries ranked in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 Press Freedom Index. This is a small improvement on the previous year; the international organisation notes that the pluralism of Kyrgyzstan's media is exceptional for Central Asia (its neighbours Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan came 158th, 161st, and 160th respectively.)

Nevertheless, some journalists fear the further erosion of press freedom. On June 25, Kyrgyzstan's parliament passed a law against “manipulating information.” The bill will allow the authorities to block websites containing “untruthful information,” but does not clarify who will make such an assessment or how.

The bill has been strongly criticised by international and Kyrgyz rights defenders alike; the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) characterises it as an assault on press freedom. While voting was held, 150 people protested in front of the parliament building in Bishkek against what they called an attack on freedom of speech. Gulshat Asylbayeva, the parliamentary deputy who submitted the bill, has fiercely defended it against criticism. On June 19, she stated that the online response nearly gave her a heart attack, and on June 25 complained that journalists were not covering the bill objectively, suggesting on Facebook that angry online discussions around it were themselves examples of “manipulation.”

The TV host Erkinbek Ryskulbekov changed his social media avatars in silent protest:

These fears are grounded in suspicion that the bill could be used to silence Kyrgyzstan's small but dedicated network of online independent news outlets, which have become known for their investigative journalism in recent years.

Learning from experience

Many in Kyrgyzstan are proud of the country's reputation as an island of freedom of speech, at least in the context of a very authoritarian neighbourhood. Recent incidents of attacks and harassment against the press have taught the country's journalists to be cautious.

For example, in March 2017 the online publications Zanoza (today called Kaktus.Media), RFE/RL's Kyrgyz-language service Azattyk, the journalist Naryn Aiyp, the human rights activist Cholpon Jakupova, and two lawyers from the opposition party Ata-Meken opposition party, were accused of disseminating “false” information. The Prosecutor General's Office filed charges accusing them of insulting the honour and dignity of Almazbek Atambayev, the former president who was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment on corruption charges on June 23. Soon after a visit by RFE/RL director Thomas Kent to Kyrgyzstan, Atambayev decided to drop his lawsuit against Azattyk. In May, Freedom House voiced concern about the Kyrgyz authorities’ attacks on independent media and human rights defenders.

Another wave of harassment of journalists began after Azattyk and its media partners OCCRP and Kloop published a high-profile investigation in May 2019. It claimed that approximately 700 million US dollars had been illicitly transferred out of the country with the involvement of Aierken Saiermati, a Chinese businessman of Uyghur origin.

A follow-up investigation was published on November 21. It stated that Saiermati, who was assassinated in Istanbul on November 10, had provided extensive evidence to journalists which implicated several powerful people in Kyrgyzstan in the illicit transfers. According to Saiermati, one of these was the former deputy chief of Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov and his allies.

On November 26, Kyrgyzstan's Prosecutor General announced that Saiermati had siphoned $932,736,000 from Kyrgyzstan into overseas bank accounts. Iskender Matraimov, brother of the former customs official, strongly denied the journalists’ accusations that he or his businesses benefitted from the scheme, and took Kloop, Azattyk, and OCCRP to court for defamation in October. In December, the case was dismissed.

Over this period there were several violent attacks on journalists in Kyrgyzstan.

On September 28, 2019, a camera operator for Azattyk, Aybek Kulchumanov, was attacked while filming with a drone in the southern city of Osh for an investigative report. Four men approached Kulchumanov and demanded to know who had ordered the filming, before seizing all his equipment by force. The incident took place just 200 metres from the former customs official's house. The Media Development Centre, a Bishkek-based NGO, characterised the attack as an attempt to obstruct the work of the media. Although the equipment was eventually returned at a police station in Osh, none of the attackers has yet been held to account. Kulchumanov recovered and eventually returned to work.

On January 9, 2020, the editor-in-chief of Bolot Temirov was beaten outside his office in Bishkek. The investigative website, like others, had experienced cyberattacks after reporting on the lifestyles of the former customs official and his family members. Three unknown men stole Temirov's telephone when it fell from his hands, but left his laptop. Temirov had also been assaulted while working in September 2018. “I'm not afraid of you,” wrote Temirov in a defiant Facebook post addressed to his attackers on January 11.

Furthermore, in February 2020 Ali Toktakunov, a veteran reporter who led Azattyk's investigation, received death threats in connection with his work. In an undated video Emilbek Kimsanov, another former customs official, claimed that Raimbek Matraimov had instructed him to either kidnap or murder Toktakunov.

Toktakunov, who now lives outside Kyrgyzstan, shared his reflections on the investigation and press freedom in his home country in an April 28 interview for Global Voices:

Последнее расследование, вызвавшее большой резонанс в обществе, не только у нас,  показывает, как коррупция ушла глубоко корнями во властные структуры. Здесь огромный клубок взаимосвязанных между собой структур, начиная от границ страны, банковской системы, правоохранительных, таможенных ведомства и т.д. И в этой система Матраимов был одной главных цепей. Об этом нам поведал человек из этой самой иерархии, который передал нам ряд документов. Эти документы доказывали, что десятки людей, которые занимали, или занимают высокие посты, замешаны. 

The latest investigation had huge resonance not only in our country, but also abroad. It showed just how deeply corruption has taken root in power structures. There is a huge web of interconnected structures starting from the border service to the banking system, law enforcement, customs officials and so forth. This was told to us by a man from within that same hierarchy, who gave us many documents. These documents demonstrated that dozens of people who held or hold high posts are involved.

Toktakunov and his colleague Ydyrys Isakov were summoned for an interview as witnesses by the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), Kyrgyzstan's intelligence service, on December 2. Toktakunov told Global Voices that the harassment and attacks of the previous months had not given him much hope that he would be safe:

Говоря о личной безопасности, как гражданин Кыргызстана, я, кроме наших правоохранительных органов, надеяться больше не могу никому и ничему. Говорить о каких-то других вариантах бессмысленно, у меня нет средств, чтобы обеспечить собственную безопасность. Сейчас я работаю в Праге, могу сказать, что живу в более безопасном месте. Если п приезду в Кыргызстан будут некие угрозы, или что-то, что будет угрожать мне и моей безопасности,
Однако то, что некоторые сотрудники силовых органов близки к коррупционной системе, и проявляют лояльность п отношению к лицам напрямую замешанную в расследовании – огорчает и я начинаю сомневаться в гарантиях свей безопасности.

В нашем расследовании участвовало много журналистов. 12 из них так или иначе подверглись преследованиям, избиениям, ряду угроз в виде сообщений, писем. Сайты, которые написали о расследовании, были атакованы хакерами извне.

Когда стали поступать угрозы в мой адрес, я первую очередь сообщил своему руководству об этом. Кроме этого, мы уведомили наших адвокатов, и конечно, правоохранительные органы. «Не знаю, какими путями, но вы должны привезти его ко мне из Праги…», такие указания получил Кимсанов. С тех пор никто из наших органов ко мне не обратился, не спросил, не было ли других угроз, все ли хорошо и т.д. Если слова Кимсанова подтвердятся и угрозы такие действительно были озвучены, тогда это действительно тревожный знак. Потому что это касается не только тех, кто занимался расследованием, моих коллег, но и в целом всего гражданского общества. Все звонки, сообщения, и запугивания собираю. Кроме того, поступают различные «предложения» – подождать с расследованием, либо прекратить совсем, взамен предлагаются некие материальные блага, либо другие «благодарности».

Они не гнушаются, и используют как посредников многих, начиная от моих родственников, и заканчивая депутатами парламента.

When it comes to my personal security, as a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, I have little faith in nobody and nothing apart from our law enforcement agencies. There's no point talking about other solutions as I don't have the resources to guarantee my own safety. Now I work in Prague, so I can say that I live in a safer place. If I do travel to Kyrgyzstan, there will be some threats to me and my personal safety. However, the fact that some members of the security and law enforcement agencies are close to corruption schemes and declare their loyalty to people directly implicated in our investigation deeply saddens me, and makes me doubt their guarantees of security.

Many journalists participated in our investigation. Of them, 12 have in one way or another been subjected to persecution, beatings, and threats in the form of messages and letters. Websites which wrote about the investigation were attacked by hackers.

When I started to receive personal threats, the first thing I did was to tell my manager about it. Furthermore, we notified our lawyers and, of course, the law enforcement agencies. “I don't know how, but you should bring him to be from Prague,” was the instruction given to Kimsanov. To this day, nobody from our [law enforcement] bodies has reached out to me to ask whether I have received other threats, whether everything is OK, and so on. If Kimsanov's words are confirmed and such threats really were made, then that really is a worrying sign. Because it doesn't just concern those of us who were engaged in the investigation, but the entirety of civil society. I collect all calls, messages, and threats. There are also various “suggestions”: to wait a little before investigating a topic, or to stop investigating entirely. Sometimes material benefits or other perks are offered by way of “thanks.”

They don't give up for a moment, and reach out to me through many intermediaries – starting with my relatives and ending with members of parliament.

The Kyrgyz authorities have cast doubt on Toktakunov's version of events. On June 2, at a meeting of a parliamentary commission examining the murder of Aierken Saimati, the GKNB declared that “the journalists received money.” The head of the GKNB's investigative committee, Sagyn Samidin Uulu, claimed that Saimati had paid Toktakunov $100,000 for the material, but as reports, they did not present documents confirming the transaction.

Kyrgyz journalist Ali Toktakunov during a reporting trip. Photo courtesy of Ali Toktakunov.

That same day, Toktakunov strongly denied the GKNB claim, stating that he had received hundreds of original documents but “not a single cent” from Saimati. He also drew attention to the fact that the authorities had not yet taken any judicial measures in connection with the revelations. For its part, Azattyk declared several times that it was willing to cooperate with law enforcement, although the journalists involved would have to answer questions by video conference as they were all abroad.

Many journalists in Kyrgyzstan would probably agree with Toktakunov's reflections on the state of the country's journalism today:

Задача журналистов обнародовать. Остальное – задача правоохранительных органов довести расследование до конца. Нет никаких понятных результатов…

Для меня лично то, что происходит в Кыргызстане – эмоционально тяжело, и обидно. У нас были две революции, где погибли люди. Сегодня мы входим в ряды самых бедных стран мира. Около миллиона наших граждан на заработках. До сегодняшнего дня те средства, которые были выведены из страны, в казну не возвращены. Сегодня, на фоне пандемии, когда наши люди отчаянно нуждаются в помощи, в бюджете нехватка средств. 

Свобода слова касается не только журналистов. Она касается каждого гражданина… То, что жизням многих моих коллег угрожали, угрожают и тот факт, что на это власти, правоохранительные органы, закрывают глаза – это тоже говорит об «уровне» свободы слова в стране.
Власть молчит.

Journalists’ task is to make things public. Everything else is the task of law enforcement agencies; meaning to carry an investigation through to the end. But there have been no comprehensible results…

What's happening in Kyrgyzstan is difficult for me emotionally, and personally offensive. We've had two revolutions in which people died. Today, we're among the poorest countries in the world. Around a million of our citizens work overseas. And right now, the funds which were extracted from the country have still not been returned to the treasury. Today, against the backdrop of a pandemic, when our people desperately need help, the budget just isn't big enough.

So freedom of speech doesn't just concern journalists. It concerns every citizen… The fact that my colleagues’ lives were threatened and are still being threatened, the fact that the authorities and law enforcement agencies are closing their eyes speaks about the “level” of press freedom in the country. The authorities are silent.

So it is not for nothing that Reporters Without Borders writes in its latest report on Kyrgyzstan that “Revelations about corruption can still be very dangerous for independent journalists and media outlets, as was seen in the Matraimov affair.”

We're not fakes

This is the context in which the fears of Kyrgyzstan's journalists and civil society activists today must be understood.

All that now stands between the bill becoming law is now a signature from Kyrgyzstan's President Sooronbai Jeenbekov. That is why journalists, human rights activists, and media workers are now sharing posts on social media calling on him not to enact the law, with the hashtag #ЯНеФейк (I'm not fake).

Журналисты, медиаорганизации, представители гражданского общества Кыргызстана начинают кампанию с призывом к Президенту КР не подписывать принятый парламентом скандальный законопроект «О манипулировании информацией».

Поддержите свободу слова в Кыргызстане! Repost and share!

#ПрезидентЗаСвободуСлова #ФейкМыйзамгаВето #НетЦензуреВКР

Journalists, media organisations, and representatives of civil society in Kyrgyzstan are starting a campaign calling on the President of Kyrgyzstan not to sign the scandalous draft bill passed by parliament on “manipulating information.”

Support freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan! Repost and share!

#PresidentForFreeSpeech #VetoAgainstTheFakeLaw #NoToCensorshipInKyrgyzstan

— Elina Karakulova, Facebook, 26 June 2020

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