No good news for media freedom in Kyrgyzstan as government arrests journalists, activists, and bloggers

A handmade felt map of Kyrgyzstan in a Kyrgyz school. Photo by GPE / Maxime Fossat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On November 23, 2022, the city court of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, which was evaluating an appeal by the prosecutor's office regarding a previous decision of the regional court, issued a ruling to deport the prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov. Despite the defendant holding Kyrgyz citizenship since 2008, he was hastily and forcefully deported to Moscow, Russia, causing bewilderment and criticism among human rights activists and international organizations. In May 2022, as several criminal investigations came one after another, he was deprived of Kyrgyz citizenship, on the grounds of “document forgery,” which eventually paved the way for his deportation to Russia. While being deported to Russia by force, he was not allowed to take any personal belongings, money, phone or even passport in violation of deportation procedures.

The founder of the Temirov LIVE YouTube channel Bolot Temirov was among the nominees for the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 30th annual Press Freedom Prize in the Independence category. An ardent investigator of top-level corruption in his native Kyrgyzstan, Temirov was previously attacked and beaten up around the time of the exposure of a billion-dollar corruption scandal connected with Raimbek Matraimov, the deputy head of Kyrgyz customs, and his relatives. This time, he apparently “crossed the line” with his disclosure of  corruption schemes connected with the state-owned Kyrgyz oil and gas company “Kyrgyzneftegaz” in which, allegedly, the children of the head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) Kamchybek Tashiev were involved. It ought to be noted that Tashiev is a very close friend and political companion of the Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov.

As it turned out, the GKNB and its security agents were quick in their attempts to silence the journalist and his colleagues, employing surveillance, blackmail and spying, including the publication of a sex tape involving a woman employee of “Temirov LIVE.” As for Temirov himself, his apartment was bugged and later raided, while he was charged with possessing and selling drugs, as well as falsification of documents and illegally crossing the border, although he believed that police officers planted drugs on him. Despite facing a potential 5-year-sentence, he was nevertheless acquitted of the drug possession and illegal border crossing charges on September 28, upon which they found no other way but to deport him.

On December 7, 2022, another highly politicized trial, that of the 19-year-old blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev, began in one of the district courts of Bishkek. Zhekshenaliev faced accusations of inciting public disobedience and stirring up mass riots. He was arrested in August 2022 in connection with a video that criticized the governmental endeavor to sell the Jetim-Too iron ore deposits, released by the Facebook group he administered, “Полит Узник” (Political Prisoner).

Earlier, in November 2020, it was the then acting prime minister Sadyr Japarov who brought up the idea of paying back the USD 1.8 billion debt to the Exim Bank of China through the resources of Jetim-Too. However, on August 14, the same day the blogger was arrested, Japarov, who is now the president of Kyrgyzstan, claimed that the country was not yet ready to develop the Jetim-Too deposits, accusing “false-patriots” of spreading rumors of the government attempting to hand the mines to foreigners.

Arrested blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev at the court hearing. Bishkek, September 2, 2022. Screenshot from the Kaktus KG YouTube channel.

Kyrgyzstan, which is ranked 72nd in the RSF World Press Freedom index as of the end of January 2022, currently exerts prodigious pressure on journalists and harasses them to an unprecedented extent, and limits media freedoms. Following the arrest of Temirov on January 22, 2022, the prosecutor general’s office started a criminal investigation of “Kaktus Media” over their republication of a story from a Tajik news outlet on the recent Kyrgyz–Tajik border conflict, accusing the media of a “propaganda of war” that stipulates a punishment for up to five years in prison. The acts of intimidation against journalists and media were not confined to legal actions. On January 28 and later on February 9, crowds gathered in front of the “Kaktus Media” and “Kloop” editorial offices urging for the elimination of prominent media outlets such as “Kaktus,” “Kloop,” and “Azattyk,” which they accused of being “spies” and “foreign agents.”

Around the same time, a pro-governmental group that described themselves as “bloggers” and “activists” held a press-conference calling for the adoption of the so-called “foreign agent law” — an instrument widely employed in Russia to persecute independent media and activists — as, according to them, the above-mentioned media present one-sided and incorrect information. Hence, the government proposed a series of draft laws and amendments that would severely restrict rights to freedom of association and civil society operations, including the draft law on non-commercial non-governmental organizations, as well as amendments to the law on mass media. These hasty endeavors would bring in burdensome registration procedures, tightening governmental control over independent journalism and communications.

On October 23, 2022, amid the ongoing government attempts to block or restrict independent media outlets, the country was shocked by the mass arrest of 22 activists and politicians, including journalists. According to Akyikatchy (ombudswoman) Atyr Abdrakhmatova, responsible for parliamentary control of the compliance with human rights, the searches and subsequent arrests of the activists and politicians were connected with their stance on the status of the Kempir-Abad reservoir. The arrested activists were the founding members of the so-called Committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad, which was founded a few days earlier. As often happens, the state news agency “Kabar” released an interview of the president Japarov on the eve of the arrests, where he accused the opponents of the deal of “abusing democracy,” claiming that he knows who organized and sponsors these riots. Later, on November 17, 2022, the GKNB head Tashiev would openly accuse them of intending to overthrow the government through a coup because of the Kyrgyz–Uzbek border agreement.

A view of the Kempir-Abad reservoir. Screenshot from the Azattyk YouTube channel.

Moreover, commenting on the issue, Edil Baisalov, the deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers, urged everybody to shut up on border issues:

По вопросам границы вообще всем молчать. Таковы законы демократии. Решат всё легитимно всенародно избранные органы власти. Не толпа. Не блогеры. И тем более, не “сбитые летчики” политики-пенсионеры и не лузеры.

On the issue of the borders everyone should shut up. These are the rules of democracy. Everything would be legitimately resolved by the publicly elected authorities. Not by crowds. Not by bloggers. An especially not by “lame duck” political pensioners and losers.

Previously, he chose to blame the media for inducing the nation into stress by revealing and spreading the news of a horrendous rape of a 13-year old girl by police officers for the period of about five months.

On October 10, 2022, Tashiev reported at the parliamentary committee that, according to the proposed deal over the Kempir-Abad reservoir (also known in Uzbek as Andijan reservoir) at the Kyrgyz–Uzbek border, Kyrgyzstan would expand its territory by 15,806 hectares, while Uzbekistan retains 4,485 hectares of water area. However, as the press office of the Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev reveals, the agreement stipulates a further ban on the construction of hydrotechnical or any other structures on the river Govasay. Eventually, the deal was ratified by the parliaments of the two countries and signed by their presidents, amid the ongoing detention of the activists.

In the meantime, as the government continues its practice of freezing media outlets’ bank accounts and blocking websites, publicly harassing journalists and social media activists, 19 out of 30 arrested activists went on hunger strike, claiming that they were arrested on fabricated claims for their involvement in Kempir-Abad issue.

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