Leaving the island: Japarov’s campaign to silence independent media6 min read
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz Republic has been considered an island of democracy in a largely autocratic region. However, the latest administration has spent the last two years reshaping the country into a populist ethno-state.
One of the first groups targeted by the country’s current president Sadyr Japarov in his nationalistic agenda was the media. This is a common tactic by those with dreams of total control and has provided Japarov with the foundation to pass a series of deleterious legislation for the once proud democratic stronghold. As more independent media outlets continue to become targets, the prospects of preventing this backsliding become increasingly grim.
In August 2021, the “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” law was passed in the Kyrgyz Republic. This legislation, part of Japarov’s larger “spiritual-moral development” agenda, gave Kyrgyz officials the authority to suspend the activity of any online portal that shares false information or that “defames the honour, dignity and business reputation of another person.” The vagueness of the law allows nearly anyone who disagrees with a publication to bring a case against the publisher.
The implications of the legislation are extremely dangerous as government officials could easily use this law to bring claims against whistleblowers of corruption and prevent them from speaking out. Unfortunately, this is only one of a slew of laws that breach the right to freedom of the press in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Among these laws was a new directive to impose fines on those who distribute “harmful information” in an effort to protect children. Much like previous laws, the wording of the legislation is extremely vague, employing language such as “denying family values” or “justifying violence,” concepts open to a number of interpretations, making it a perfect tool for targeted censorship.
In the fall of 2022, Japarov’s administration went a step further in attacking the freedom of press through targeted amendments to the “Law on Mass Media.” Among the proposed reforms were penalties for “abuse of freedom of speech”and a prohibition on foreign nationals from opening media outlets in the Kyrgyz Republic. This law is still under discussion and many drafts of the law have been scrapped following public discussion. However, many in the media sphere are already preparing for the worst, especially those who have already been shut down through the law on inaccurate information.
Guilty of stating the facts
Expectedly, the writers of this legislation have been quick to employ it to shut down their perceived enemies within the media sphere. Member of Parliament Nadira Narmatova, who has also proposed punishing organisers of women’s marches and banning TikTok, has been a particularly staunch advocate for this crackdown on media freedoms. In October 2023, Narmatova launched a petition calling for the closure of Azattyk, Kloop, and Kaktus.Media. Since then, the majority of them have been temporarily blocked in the country.
In November 2022, Azattyk became the first victim to have its bank accounts frozen and access to its site blocked. Azattyk was shut down using the inaccurate information law with the claim that one of their videos was inciting “ethnic hatred.” The video in question covered the armed conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, which many Kyrgyz government officials believed to be more sympathetic to Tajikistan. The government later blocked Azattyk’s bank account in early 2023 utilising the loose phrasing of the law “On countering the financing of terrorist activities and the legalisation (laundering) of criminal proceeds.” While the decision to close down Azattyk was ultimately annulled in July 2023, the use of this law to at least temporarily shut down a reputable news site set a new precedent.
The next major independent media outlet targeted was Kloop, which was presented with a lawsuit in August 2023 for engaging in journalism despite being registered as an NGO. Among other unsubstantiated claims, Kloop was also tried for encouraging “sexual deviancy” and suicidal ideation by increasing stress levels in its readers. In actuality, Kloop regularly posts fact-checked articles that reveal cases of corruption among government officials and businessmen in the Kyrygz Republic. Many of these articles target the president, who has also publicly stated his distaste for the organisation.
Kloop was eventually shut down on 13 September by the Kyrgyz Republic’s Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy after refusing to pull the offending articles. Despite the shutdown, Kloop remained steadfast in their position, posting a defiant response to their website stating, “We, in turn, will not stop our work for a minute, no matter how much pressure the Kyrgyz authorities put on us. We will continue to inform you about everything important that is happening in our country, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for those in power.” Kloop also provided links for their followers on other platforms still reachable in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Established news sites have not been the only victims of this campaign against the freedom of the press. In the last two years, over 30 bloggers, journalists, and activists have been jailed for speaking out against the government. Notable were the arrests of 27 members of the “Kempir-Abad Defence Committee” who were detained for just meeting to discuss their opposition to the Kempir-Abad negotiations in October 2022. Earlier that year, another well-known blogger and human rights activist, Bolot Temirov, was detained and stripped of his citizenship after posting videos to his YouTube channel investigating cases of corruption in the government under murky suspicions of fraud.
Cultivating troll farms
Not surprising, amidst this crackdown, the amount of pro-government misinformation has increased precipitously. One of the main offenders has been the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (NTRC), which has reportedly created a number of bot accounts that have attacked opposition leaders. There also appears to be several troll farms functioning to post content solely propping up the current administration, including the Telegram channel za.sadyr.zhaparov which regularly posts about all of the ways Japarov is improving the country. The government has also arranged staged press conferences to drum up support for more controversial legislation.
While the international community calls for the Kyrgyz Republic to stop breaching the freedoms of their citizens, Kyrgyz officials have continued to sharpen their sticks. Soon new legislation will be passed that will give Japarov carte blanche to overturn any decision of the Constitutional Court that he deems immoral. Given the lengths that Japarov has already gone to silence those who oppose him, he will undoubtedly make full use of this new power once granted. As the situation in the country continues to deteriorate, one of the few forms of recourse that remains is to somehow find a way to reach his base in the rural regions of the Kyrgyz Republic and show them how this legislation can affect them as well.