Social media censorship and information manipulation after Sadyr Zhaparov's rise in Kyrgyzstan

Screenshot from now defunct Instagram account supporting President Zhaparov. Text in the main photo: (Top) The detained who harm Kyrgyzstan should be severely punished. (Bottom) People of Alai are supporting the president 24.10.22

Punishing civil activists and regime critics and using social media propaganda and manipulation against them has become an important tactic in securing and strengthening the political rule of the incumbent regime in Kyrgyzstan since 2020. Although formally there is no dominant pro-government political party, President Sadyr Zhaparov has concentrated the power around his figure, while the national security sector is controlled by his friend and ally Kamchybek Tashiev. The duo of “two friends,” unlike previous leadership pairs, seems more lasting and fruitful in particular due to a crafty combination of intimidation, surveillance and social media censorship on the one hand and social media propaganda and manipulation through various social media support groups on the other.

Intimidation, surveillance and social media censorship

After the government announced it was giving the Kempir-Abad water reservoir to Uzbekistan in a border deal agreement between two countries, several civil society activists, ex-politicians and acting opposition politicians were detained between 23 and 27 October 2022. In total 27 people were jailed for a period of two months before their trial, including six women with minor children, for their public criticism of the deal. The incumbent power used the excuse of the Kempir-Abad issue to get rid of other critics too who did not have any relationship to Kempir-Abad.

The Kempir-Abad reservoir was built on Kyrgyz territory in 1983, to irrigate Uzbek cotton fields. In exchange, the Uzbek Soviet republic took on the responsibility to build an irrigation channel and a water reservoir for the Kyrgyz Soviet republic as “compensation.” However, after the fall of the Soviet rule these ‘responsibilities’ remained on paper despite the Uzbek side continuing to use the water. Finding water for irrigation is a source of conflict in the region, as Soviet water management systems are outdated and the countries face challenges in the joint management of water resources. The materials (key protocols) on the border deal agreement with Uzbekistan were kept secret from the public. The absence of information on an important matter like the water reservoir generated uncertainty and public anger. The discontent was further fuelled by the obvious political pressure on and later dismissal of the head of the parliamentary committee on international affairs, defence, security and migration Chyngyz Aidarbekov for his refusal to sign the protocol on the transfer of the Kempir-Abad. This resulted in a public meeting (Kurultai) led by opposition leaders and civic activists in Uzgen on October 15, 2022.

The organisers demanded public access to the protocols and criticised the deal through their social media channels and during the Kurultai. Most of the detained activists were members of the Committee to save Kempir-Abad, which was formed after the public assembly. The members of the Committee declared their intention to hold another nationwide public meeting on October 26 in the capital Bishkek. The activists were detained on charges of attempting to organise a mass riot after the security services released three audio recordings of conversations between some of the politicians and civic activists. Others were detained for their posts and videos on social media, mainly on Facebook, where they had criticised the Kyrgyz authorities. The detainees were charged with an alleged attempt to overthrow power, the punishment for which can reach up to 10 years of imprisonment according to the criminal code. A few months before the Kempir-Abad issue, dozens of bloggers who had  actively criticised the regime were interrogated by the security services. This was all possible after August 2021 when the parliament adopted the so-called law against fake news (the Law on Protection from False Information). The new legal framework enabled the Kyrgyz authorities to censor and hack social media users, to raid the offices of investigative journalists and bloggers, and put freedom of speech at risk overall.

Social media propaganda and manipulation through various pro-regime social media support groups

The incumbent power increasingly relies on numerous support groups, such as za_sadyr_zhaparov (for Sadyr Zhaparov) and other troll farms on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Telegram to instil hate against regime critics and create a discourse of public support for the president and his policies and decisions. Domestic public discourse among the rural Kyrgyz-speaking majority is also shaped through the manipulation of information, propaganda, trolling, and the use of fake accounts by specific interest groups — usually politicians, who fund trolling farms. These “hired” support groups create content that praises the current regime’s decisions and policies and spreads those praises through various social media channels, mainly WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Tiktok and Telegram. The troll farms also write comments under the controversial pieces of news on various media channels’ posts. Negative comments are usually predominant under the news posts of independent media outlets such as Azattyk, where users also blame the latter for their alleged “anti-leadership campaign” against the Kyrgyz leadership.

The recent Kyrgyz–Uzbek border deal in which the Kyrgyz side gave the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan resulted in a series of protests nation-wide and generated criticism against the regime. Bearing in mind the volatile political context of the country in the past, with three regime overthrows, the incumbent power was aware of the mass discontent and public rioting potential of the Kempir-Abad issue, which could end their rule. The risk of a mass riot on the ground was exacerbated by the background of the Kyrgyz authorities’ mismanaged response to Tajik military aggression in Batken and Osh in September 2022.

Therefore, during the Kempir-Abad crisis the Kyrgyz leadership relied heavily on small staged public assemblies or small meetings in support of President Zhaparov and his ally Tashiev arranged by various interest groups. The meetings held in Ozgon, Tokmok, Alai, Bazar-Korgon, Kara-Suu, Talas, Yssykkol, Batken and Bishkek were recorded by the organisers and were spread through pro-regime social media accounts. In these videos the assembled men and women criticise the detained opposition politicians and civil activists, express their support for Zhaparov and Tashiev, and speak against any nationwide power overthrows and protests in the future. In their address they call the detained activists “el buzarlar” (Kyrgyz for “nation-spoilers” or “nation-destroyers”) who are funded by foreign countries (in reference to the NGOs, in particular); they blame them for putting their own interests above the national interest. They also blame “foreign” forces for their interest in political instability in Kyrgyzstan. These videos are used to put forth the narrative that the general public understands that speaking against the government is equivalent to being a pawn of foreign forces who are trying to topple the government.

The Kyrgyz authorities are also using the narrative of “foreign interests” to adopt a law on ‘foreign agents’ largely inspired by the Russian model. The draft law is currently under public discussion and is likely to be adopted very soon, limiting the activity of NGOs in the country.

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