By Chris Rickleton
The imminent trial of Vladimir Farafonov, an ethnic Russian journalist charged with inciting racial hatred by penning a series of offensive online publications, is fueling debates about chauvinism, due process and press freedom in his native Kyrgyzstan.
Farafonov’s delayed trial is now set to begin March 15. He stands accused of violating Article 299 of the Kyrgyz criminal code, which covers the incitement of “national, racial, religious or interregional enmity” via mass media. Watchdogs including the Committee to Project Journalists have criticized the charges as “politically motivated.”
While few disagree that Farafonov’s articles include distasteful and offensive anti-Kyrgyz slurs, the case offers a fairness test for Kyrgyzstan’s justice system: amid a rise in nationalist rhetoric since the ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June 2010, no ethnic Kyrgyz have stood before a court on a charge comparable to that faced by Farafonov.
Farafonov maintains his innocence following the results of a “linguistic analysis” on 16 separate articles by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee on National Security (GKNB).
His inflammatory writing will hardly help his case. In September 2010, Farafonov wrote in Bely Parus, a Bishkek newspaper, that only 20 percent of ethnic Kyrgyz are “modern humans,” while 80 percent are “stupidly stuck in the Asian middle ages.”
In an August 2011 article about the murder of a Kazakh tourist in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region, published by Centrasia.ru, Farafonov calls the Kyrgyz press covering the story “prisoners of political darkness,” trapped in “absolute stagnation” akin to an era of “early feudalism.” Labeling the murder an example of “elementary Kyrgyz hospitality,” the author’s scathing references to “primitive” rural Kyrgyz were condemned by Kyrgyz-language newspapers such as Fabula and Kyrgyz Ruhu.
By Farafonov’s own admission, that article resulted in “an explosion” of Kyrgyz-language articles attacking him, which he believes triggered the GKNB investigation and the subsequent criminal case. Kyrgyzstan’s Russian-language media, on the other hand, showed little interest in Farafonov until charges were filed. One Russian-language news service, 24.kg called the case part of a campaign, or “hunt,” against the media, comparing it to the recently imposed Internet blockade of Fergananews.com (formerly Ferghana.ru), a popular Russian-language Central Asia-themed news site that parliament unanimously accused of “igniting ethnic hatred” for its coverage of the 2010 ethnic violence.
Jyrgalbek Kasbolotov, deputy director of Kyrgyzstan’s state-run Kabar.kg news agency, believes the accusations against Farafonov are warranted, and that Article 299 should be applied whenever journalism is “directed at the humiliation of another ethnos.” Farafonov’s writing could cause “resentment in society toward members of the author’s own ethnicity,” added Kasbolotov. Kabar.kg is one of a handful of media outlets that publishes articles in both Kyrgyz and Russian.
“My articles contain no slogans, no calls to action, just a critique and a verification of facts,” Farafonov told EurasiaNet.org. “In the Kyrgyz language media, there are a sufficient number of nationalistic slogans, and yet not one editor or journalist has been called to account under Article 299. This case has a definitive ethnic character.”
Noting that his wife is part Kyrgyz, Farafonov is unflinching in his self-defense: “I am not a racist.”
Kyrgyzstan’s politicians have often used the country’s media as a sounding board for ideas about language, ethnic relations and national ideology. After independence in 1991, President Askar Akayev, eager to stem the emigration of ethnic Russians, declared Kyrgyzstan a “common home” for the country’s various ethnic groups. During Akayev’s administration, the Russian language’s official status was preserved in the constitution, handing it a dominant role in the media.
But this slogan was never popular with some ethnic Kyrgyz, whose demands for the primacy of the Kyrgyz language and a more dominant role for the titular nationality began to gain steam after Akayev’s ouster. Popular nationalist politician Adakhan Madumarov, a former parliamentary speaker, declared in 2008 that “Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz, everyone else is a tenant.” Similar rhetoric has been repeated frequently by Kyrgyz-language publications in the aftermath of the 2010 ethnic bloodletting, in which over 400 were killed in the country’s southern provinces.
Kadyrjan Batyrov, who now has asylum in Sweden, and five other Uzbeks were found guilty in October under Article 299-related charges brought in connection with the Osh tragedy. Batyrov has described his conviction as politically motivated.
Dina Maslova, editor of the Internet version of the Bishkek-based Russian-language newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, admits there is “little corporate solidarity” between journalists working in the two languages. Kyrgyz-language and Russian-language journalists tend to sit in separate groups at press conferences, she noted. “[The Kyrgyz language media] consider themselves true patriots and that we, Russian-speaking journalists, aren’t patriotic,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
While Maslova condemns Farafonov’s writing as “exaggerated and emotional” in its criticism, she worries that a conviction could result in “increased self-censorship” in the Russian-language press.
“If the judicial branch would be independent and authoritative, [convictions based on Article 299] might be lessons for journalists to be more objective.” Nevertheless, for the charge of inciting racial enmity to have real meaning, Maslova says, “too many people would need to appear before a judge, including several influential politicians.”
Farafonov’s case has already become a national talking point, not least due to the journalist’s own claim that GKNB officers told him he would face multiple criminal counts and possibly face up to 48 years in prison.
A violation of Article 299 is punishable by a prison term of between three and five years. Speaking by telephone, a spokesman for Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court would not rule out a possibility that Farafonov could face multiple counts of violating Article 299.
“This decision is for the Pervomaisky District court, where the judicial process will take place. It is too early to speak of how many years,” he said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.