Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This extract is from the report on the Philippines, from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
Kyrgyzstan, famously the only “island of democracy” in Central Asia, has fallen to the rise of the nationalist and populist regime of Sadyr Zhaparov following the mass protests in October 2020. Since the adoption of the Law on Protection from False Information (aka the law against the spread of fake news) in Kyrgyzstan in August 2021, the legal persecution and detention of critics and bloggers because of their posts on social media has become possible. The number of Facebook or other social media users censored and interrogated by the Kyrgyz security services for their criticism of the president and the incumbent government is skyrocketing. Seven bloggers, including those associated with media channels critical of the state, were censored and interrogated by the security services just between January and June 2022 (Kadyrov). More than 30 critics of the regime — civil society activists, opposition politicians, independent journalists, bloggers and human rights activists — were detained between October and December 2022 for their social media criticism (mainly on Facebook) of the government’s decision to transfer the Kempir-Abad water reservoir to Uzbekistan in a border deal. The detainees were accused of attempting to overthrow the government after the security services released audio recordings of conversations between opposition politicians and civil society activists. Very soon, the authorities also shut down the website of Radio Free Europe affiliate Azattyk in Kyrgyzstan for two months for “biased reporting”; in December 2022 the term was extended indefinitely. Prominent investigative journalist Bolot Temirov was expelled from Kyrgyzstan to Russia by a judicial decision in November 2022. The Kyrgyz authorities intend to adopt a law on non-commercial non-state organisations (aka law on foreign agents) which is currently under public consideration. Finally, in January 2023, the Apparatus of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic released a draft Law on Mass Media according to which the state will oversee bloggers, internet outlets and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers. The state intends to register them in a unified system in order to track and to monitor their activity.
In Kyrgyzstan, internet governance and control became a more prevalent practice following the power change in 2020, when President Zhaparov came to power. Unlike previous presidents, Zhaparov is highly attuned to the influence of social media, is known to actively engage with it and informally runs multiple fan or support pages/groups on popular social media channels Instagram, Facebook, Telegram, YouTube and WhatsApp. Though these pages/groups might look harmless, they are heavily misused in order to increase authoritarianism and illiberal practices in the country (as documented in the public Airtable). Pro-president social networks misinform, disinform and manipulate information, create artificial support for the president and legitimise the authorities’ attacks on non-state media, civil society, bloggers and social media users. In other words, Kyrgyz authorities are worried about too much “digital freedom” on the internet and thought of legislative measures to limit it.
The research has revealed that the incumbent Kyrgyz government is actively suppressing dissent by engaging in information manipulation, passing restrictive laws and attacking free media and investigative journalism. The Kyrgyz government has introduced new laws to regulate online activity, and is proposing additional legislation on foreign agents to control and to limit the activity of NGOs and foreign media, and on mass media to gain greater control over bloggers and social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers. The government has been using the “Law on Protection from False Information,” also known as the fake news law, to silence its critics. This has included shutting down the website of Azattyk, a foreign-funded media outlet critical of the state, and detaining and censoring individuals who share or repost information critical of the government on social media. Similarly, investigative reporters in Kyrgyzstan have had to deal with multiple accusations, various attacks, or legal action taken against them. One of them, Temirov Bolot, was forced to leave Kyrgyzstan and move to Russia in November 2022.
Furthermore, the research has examined how the Kyrgyz leadership is exploiting social media platforms to launch influence campaigns and boost the president’s popularity. Pages and groups supportive of Zhaparov on various social media platforms, including Instagram, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp, have emerged with the aim of garnering backing for the president during critical moments, and are run by individuals associated with his informal network, while receiving funding from unknown pro-president groups or individuals. The support pages promote the current regime’s decisions and policies by creating proregime content (usually videos) that is disseminated through multiple social media platforms, while also commenting on contentious news items published by critical media channels. These videos are directed towards under-educated Kyrgyz-speaking people who tend to trust unverified sources, conveying unconfirmed and intentionally exaggerated information.
Overall, the situation with media freedom and freedom of opinion in Kyrgyzstan is worsening and these developments are worrying because the country has been a champion of democratic reforms in the region since 1991. At the same time, the Kyrgyz authorities are very optimistic about advanced technologies and digitisation initiatives. Most of these innovative digitisation projects are funded by international organisations and agencies, such as the UN, the EU and the OSCE, which aim to build a more democratic, transparent, inclusive and effective governance. To draw the attention of international donors, the government of Kyrgyzstan had indicated digital transformation and e-commerce as a priority in its National Development Strategy (Vision 2040) and the corresponding five-year development plan called “Digital Kyrgyzstan 2019–2023” aimed to modernise and to develop the national economy. In 2021, the Ministry of Digital Development and the State Agency on Protection of Personal Data were established in order to ensure digital transformation and e-governance in the country. On January 19, 2023, the Ministry of Digital Development of the Kyrgyz Republic presented a conceptual project of the Digital Code of the Kyrgyz Republic, a document aimed at the regulation of public relations in the digital environment. The authorities, in particular, are working hard to boost the e-economy through e-commerce, technical innovations, digital entrepreneurship and techno-parks with international donors and investors.
Thus, the Kyrgyz authorities tend to play between these two conflicting digital poles on domestic and international levels: one aimed at restricting “digital freedom,” another one aimed at transparent democratic governance through digitisation and building an e-economy.
Read the full report here.