25 April 2022
The Afghanistan Journalists Center(AFJC) joined 24 other members of IFEX in an open letter on April 25, 2022, calling on the Kyrgyzstan government to end the increasing harassment of independent media outlets and journalists and to ensure an environment conducive to press freedom and civic space.
Dear President Sadyr Japarov,
We, the undersigned civil society organisations, who work to promote and defend freedom of expression and information as fundamental rights worldwide, are writing to express our concern with the rapidly deteriorating situation regarding the right to freedom of expression and access to information in Kyrgyzstan, as independent media broadcasters and journalists have come under attack.
On 23 November 2021, IFEX published a joint statement signed by 19 IFEX members calling on the government of Kyrgyzstan to withdraw draft legislation that would restrict independent media by converting the most-watched television network, the Kyrgyz Broadcasting Corporation (OTRK), into a state-owned body. The Broadcasting Bill has now passed its third reading in the Kyrgyz Parliament and is pending adoption into law by the President despite the threat it poses to media freedom, civic space, and democracy.
This legislation follows the “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” law that was approved in August 2021 to allow authorities to extrajudicially remove information considered to be “false” or “inaccurate” from online platforms. Prior to that, constitutional amendments in April 2021 drew criticism for the risk they pose to violating the right to freedom of opinion and expression by unduly prohibiting the dissemination of information based on the broad and vague grounds of running contrary to the “moral values and the public consciousness of the people of Kyrgyzstan.”
For any country, press freedom and access to information are the lifeblood for a healthy civic space. These legislative changes in Kyrgyzstan therefore pose a serious threat to civic space. While peaceful protests have been held in response to the crackdown on media freedom, the threat is further underscored by the pattern of launching unfounded criminal sanctions against journalists and independent media, including:
- On 22 January, Bolot Temirov, investigative journalist and founder of TemirovLive, was detained after exposing an alleged high-level fuel export corruption scheme tied to the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS). Temirov was charged with drug possession after drugs planted by law enforcement were found on him. On 19 April, he received additional charges for document forgery and illegally crossing the border. Authorities claimed they found Temirov falsified documents to secure a Kyrgyz passport that was then used to illegally enter and exit Kyrgyzstan.
- On 1 February, a criminal investigation was opened into Kaktus.media after the outlet shared an article alleging Kyrgyz soldiers initiated an attack at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. They were charged with disseminating war propaganda with the aim of “causing aggression of one country against another or unleashing a military conflict.”
- On 3 March, a criminal investigation was launched into Next TV after the SCNS detained the director Taalai Duishenbiev, confiscated computer equipment, and shut down the offices. Duishenbiev was charged with inciting ethnic hatred after Next TV’s Facebook and Telegram accounts reported Kyrgyzstan’s willingness to provide Russia with military assistance in the invasion of Ukraine – a broadcast that was later ruled as “extremist”.
Such violations of freedom of opinion and expression and access to information contravene international human rights law and standards, including Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory and has a legal obligation to uphold. As a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Kyrgyzstan also has a commitment to implement and adhere to OSCE principles of respecting human rights and strengthening democratic institutions, including protecting and supporting media freedom. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan has made public commitments to improve democracy in accordance with Council of Europe standards, including on the independence of public service broadcasters and on media pluralism and transparency of ownership. Yet the recent legislative changes, increase in the harassment of independent media outlets, and the series of attacks on journalists reveal an alarming trend of shrinking press freedoms and civic space in Kyrgyzstan. This is a symptom of a larger pattern of backsliding on the rule of law, respect for human rights, and protection of fundamental freedoms, including press freedom.
During its third Universal Periodic Review in 2020, Kyrgyzstan supported recommendations to strengthen the protection of journalists and create an enabling environment for press freedom. In October, the 136th session of the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the ICCPR by its State parties, will consider Kyrgyzstan’s State report. Kyrgyzstan now has a narrow window of opportunity to change course in advance of this review and uphold its international obligations by protecting journalists, expanding civic space, and advancing a healthy democracy.
Thus, we urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to:
- Create an enabling environment conducive to media freedom and civic space by ensuring journalists are free to carry out their journalistic work independently without fear of intimidation, interference, reprisals, or prosecution;
- Preserve the transparency and accountability of independent media by requesting the President reject the adopted OTRK Broadcasting Bill and to return the bill to parliament with objections; and
- Ensure compliance with international human rights standards by implementing the recommendations from the third Universal Periodic Review to strengthen democratic institutions and protect freedom of expression ahead of the 136th Human Rights Committee session.