Kyrgyzstan: Tightening The Screws On Free Speech And Civic Engagement – OpEd
This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from November 2022 to April 2023. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the reporting period, the government continued its attempts to tighten the screws on free speech and civic engagement, as seen in a series of developments that seriously threatened the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
A restrictive draft media law initiated by the presidential administration in autumn 2022 remained under consideration. In response to widespread criticism of the draft law, the presidential administration agreed to revise it together with independent media experts. However, officials failed to take on board key expert recommendations, as a result of which basic flaws were retained in several revised versions of the draft law put forward by the presidential administration in the first few months of 2023. Critics fear that the draft law, if adopted in the proposed format, would result in excessive state control over the activities of media and could be used to silence inconvenient outlets.
There were ongoing concerns about the government’s misuse of the controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information to stifle independent news reporting. In particular, the site of the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Azattyk, was blocked under this law throughout the reporting period because of a video report that presented the official views of both countries regarding the September 2022 hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border.
In addition, the government turned to court with a request to close down the media outlet because of the same video report, which it claimed featured war propaganda and hate speech, although RFE/RL insisted it was in line with its standards of balanced reporting. In a ruling issued in late April 2023, a local court ruled in favour of the government’s request to revoke Radio Azattyk’s licence, thereby dealing a serious blow to media freedoms in the country. The media outlet announced that it would appeal the ruling.
In another trend of concern, there were several cases in which state-controlled media outlets filed defamation lawsuits against independent media outlets, featuring excessive requests for moral damages.
The high-profile criminal case against close to 30 civil society activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and other critics of a government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan continued. Those arrested in this case in October 2022 were charged with preparing riots, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against the draft border agreement concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir. The pre-trial detention of most of them was repeatedly extended by court orders despite the apparent lack of tangible progress on the investigation and the absence of any compelling grounds for keeping them behind bars. In the first few months of 2023, several people charged in the case, including several women activists, were nevertheless transferred to house arrest due to serious health issues developed in detention.
In an unprecedented turn of developments in the spurious criminal case initiated against him, corruption whistle-blowing journalist Bolot Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan in November 2022, while several bloggers went on trial because of social media posts on issues which are sensitive to the authorities.
A draft law initiated by the presidential administration in November 2022 proposed to introduce excessive state oversight and restrictions on the activities of NGOs. Following severe criticism of the draft law by both civil society representatives and international experts, a government working group involving NGO representatives was set up to revise it by June 2023. A series of unscheduled inspections of human rights NGOs, carried out by the state tax service shortly after the introduction of the draft NGO law, reinforced concerns about increasing state interference in the activities of NGOs. In a separate initiative, a Member of Parliament put forward a repressive and stigmatising draft law concerning foreign-funded NGOs in particular. This draft law, which was essentially a recycled, adapted version of an earlier draft law voted down by parliament in 2016, was also seriously criticised by both CSOs and international experts.
In a welcome development, the Supreme Court finally acquitted NGO leader and human rights defender Kamil Ruziev of criminal charges initiated in apparent retaliation for his efforts to ensure accountability for unlawful practices by security services. This ruling was issued in January 2023, following a protracted legal struggle by the defender.
A court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful assemblies outside the Russian embassy, the presidential and parliament building, and in other central areas of the capital Bishkek was repeatedly prolonged during the reporting period. Law enforcement authorities have repeatedly used this ban, which was issued in violation of national and international standards safeguarding the right to freedom of assembly, to justify the detentions of peaceful protesters. For example, in January 2023, police detained around 30 people who had gathered for a peaceful march to call for the release of those held in pre-trial detention in the Kempir-Abad case. Several of those detained were subsequently fined. In another case, in November 2022, police detained veteran human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova who was observing a small peaceful protest against the government-negotiated agreement on Kempir-Abad. She had been warned by a local police chief the day before to ‘’write less’’ on social media, where she has been outspoken on this and other issues. She was fined, but her conviction was overturned on appeal.
New draft legislation initiated in February 2023 risks resulting in censorship of film screenings. Under the proposed provisions, any film screenings – including those at film festivals and other non-commercial events – would require pre-approval from the state. Already in November 2022, there was an attempt at censorship at the annual human rights film festival organised by the Bir Duino Human Rights Movement in Bishkek, with two films being arbitrarily banned from being screened. The decision was eventually lifted but this case illustrated the threats posed by the new draft legislation.
In another development that illustrates the decreasing space for expressing critical views in Kyrgyzstan, Ombudsperson Atyr Abdrakhmatova came under fire in April 2023. In an initiative that appeared to have been prompted by her active and independent approach while in office, as well as the criticism she has voiced regarding the actions of authorities, a group of pro-government MPs proposed her early dismissal after she presented her annual report about the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan. At the beginning of May, a majority of MPs voted in favour of Abdrakhmatova’s dismissal.
Due to the recently deteriorating situation with respect to democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan, the country’s rating on international indexes measuring the level of protection in these areas has deteriorated. For example, in the annual Freedom in the World survey released by Freedom House in March 2023, Kyrgyzstan was assessed as ‘’not free’’ for the second year in a row, unlike in earlier years when it was assessed as ‘’partly free’’. Kyrgyzstan received 27 scores on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is the lowest and 100 is the highest level of freedom. In the 2023 edition of the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders, Kyrgyzstan plummeted to a new low, being ranked in place 122 out of 180 compared to place 72 in 2022.