Civic space concerns reinforced by COVID-19 response
This is an update on developments concerning the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from January to April 2020. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
The period covered by this update saw the introduction of emergency measures in Kyrgyzstan in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, including a state of emergency in the capital Bishkek and several other cities and regions. These measures affected the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. For several weeks, journalists were not accredited or granted special permission to move around in the capital and other areas where the state of emergency was in place, which prevented them from effectively carrying out their work. Lawyers were also not exempted from the restrictions on movement that applied, which obstructed their efforts to provide legal assistance to clients. Rallies, pickets and all other assemblies were fully banned during the state of emergency and social media users were detained, threatened with criminal prosecution and forced to “publicly apologise” for spreading alleged false information about the pandemic.
Restrictions on the media existed prior to the pandemic, where independent media and journalists were subjected to growing pressure, including punitive defamation lawsuits, intimidation and attacks. In one high-profile court case, a former top customs official and his family members persisted with their claims for massive damages against two leading independent media outlets that published an attention-grabbing corruption investigation at the end of 2019. In another alarming development, in January 2020 unknown perpetrators physically attacked the chief editor of an outlet that published a report about the lavish lifestyle of the wife of the former top customs official implicated in the earlier corruption investigation. Two social media bloggers were facing charges of “inciting hostility” under a broadly worded Criminal Code provision that international experts have criticised for being open to implementation restricting legitimate free speech.
Parliament adopted new draft legislation on NGOs on first reading in March 2020, despite the widespread criticism by civil society and others that the bill represents an unjustified attempt to step up control of NGOs and may be used to put pressure on organisations working on issues that do not please the authorities. In a joint appeal, more than 100 Kyrgyzstani NGO leaders called for the withdrawal of the draft legislation, which introduces additional reporting obligations for NGOs in addition to those set out by existing legislation. There were also new cases in which civil society representatives were intimidated and harassed, among others, during a meeting to discuss the new draft legislation on NGOs. The current COVID-19 pandemic reinforced concerns about the health of imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Askarov and prompted renewed calls for his release in accordance with a UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) decision on his case.
While most peaceful protests take place without interference in Kyrgyzstan, an exception to this was seen on 8th March 2020 when those who had gathered for a march to protest violence against women in Bishkek were first attacked by unknown perpetrators and thereafter arbitrarily detained and ill-treated by police. The police attempted to justify their measures by calling the march “unsanctioned”, although advance permission for assemblies is not required under national law, and claimed that they acted to prevent clashes between the participants and their attackers. The police response to the women’s rights march was heavily criticised and several participants filed complaints about unlawful treatment by police, which are currently under investigation. Prior to the 8th March 2020 event, local authorities also sought to prevent it from taking place by seeking court bans on all non-official assemblies in the capital until 1st July 2020, citing the need to prevent the spread of the virus before any emergency measures had been introduced in this context. In the end, the authorities backed off from their controversial initiative and dropped their requests for such bans.
These developments are described in more detail below.
Restrictions on fundamental freedoms due to COVID-19
In response to the pandemic, an emergency situation was announced in Kyrgyzstan as of 22nd March 2020, and a state of emergency with more stringent restrictions declared in Bishkek and several other cities and regions as of 25th March 2020. As part of the state of emergency, initially in force until 15th April 2020 but later prolonged until 10th May 2020, a curfew was introduced, people’s movement was limited and police checkpoints were being established to enforce this. These measures had implications for the protection of freedom of expression, association and assembly.
Restrictions on the work of the media
Media activities were not exempted from the restrictions on people’s movement that were introduced as part of the state of emergency. On 30th March 2020, the government official (commandant) overseeing the emergency regime in Bishkek announced that journalists would not be granted accreditation to work in the capital during this time for the alleged purpose of protecting their health. This announcement contradicted the assurances he had initially given that the work of journalists would not be restricted during the state of emergency.
As a result, media offices had to operate remotely and journalists were unable to move around freely to carry out their professional activities. Journalists also reported problems with obtaining information from the authorities on the measures taken to combat COVID-19. Official briefings only provided one-sided information and did not include question and answer sessions, while media inquiries to officials were answered after several days’ delay, if at all. At the same time, the restrictions did not appear to apply equally to state media, with state TV channels, for example, providing footage of hospitals treating COVID-19 patients and of official press briefings on the pandemic.
Media and human rights organisations criticised the restrictive policy during the state of emergency as unlawful and discriminatory. In a joint appeal, media groups and representatives called on the authorities to enable the media to carry out their work and safeguard access to information of public interest during the pandemic. Among others, OSCE Representative of Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir also expressed concerns about the problems with journalists obtaining accreditation in Kyrgyzstan.
Concerned by the continued accreditation problem faced by journalists in #Kyrgyzstan, despite a clear instruction by the President's Office to rectify it. Journalists should be able to report and work during the pandemic without undue limitations. @rferl @Begaim @MediaKg— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) April 17, 2020
In mid-April, the president’s office recommended that the officials overseeing the state of emergency reconsider the issue of accreditation of the media. On 20th April 2020, the commandant’s office in Bishkek finally announced that it would start accrediting journalists wishing to carry out their work during the state of emergency.
Lawyers obstructed in efforts to provide legal assistance
Lawyers were also not exempted from the restrictions on freedom of movement that were introduced during the state of emergency in Bishkek and other regions, which created obstacles for them in the provision of legal assistance to clients. Kyrgyzstan’s Bar Association (Advokatura) appealed to the General Prosecutor to address this issue and to ensure that lawyers could carry out their work without hindrance. The NGO Coalition against Torture also expressed concerns that restrictions on the freedom of movement of lawyers may mean that citizens are unable to access qualified legal assistance in a timely manner. The Coalition urged the Minister of Justice to take adequate measures to safeguard the activities of the Bar and to regulate the provision of legal assistance in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
On 28th April 2020, Prime Minister Muhammetkalyi Abylgaziev finally gave assurances that lawyers would be allowed to move around and resume their work as of 1st May 2020. As a result, the Bar Association announced that it would start operating fully again as of this date.
Social media users intimidated for spreading false info about pandemic
Following the introduction of emergency measures, the State Committee on National Security (SCNS) started to update the media regularly about actions taken against social media users accused of disseminating alleged false information about the pandemic. According to these reports, the SCNS, which typically detains such individuals, held “preventive” discussions with them, threatened them with criminal prosecution and released them after they publicly “apologised” and “repented”. While many of those targeted were accused of disseminating incorrect information about the spread of COVID-19 in different parts of Kyrgyzstan, some of them had highlighted problems at hospitals or other healthcare facilities due to the pandemic.
The SCNS’ measures were criticised by both lawmakers and civil society. A group of media experts stated that the SCNS is misleading people if it is forcing them to apologise and telling them that they may otherwise be held criminally responsible. The experts pointed out that the criminal code provision typically cited by the SCNS (article 344) does not cover the dissemination of unsubstantiated information online but specifically concerns falsely reporting a crime to law enforcement authorities and that there is no such thing as “public apology and repentance” under national law. The media experts emphasised that any efforts to prevent misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic must not violate the rights of citizens and that the most important way to promote access to verified, credible information about the pandemic is for the authorities to cooperate with the media, including independent media.
At the beginning of April 2020, a new provision was introduced to Kyrgyzstan’s Code of Violations (article 82-2), which provides for fines for the dissemination of “false information” that “violates public order and the peace of mind of citizens” in areas of the country where an emergency situation, a state of emergency or martial law has been declared. This provision, the implementation of which is the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior rather than the SCNS, was criticised for its vague wording. For example, an expert from the Media Policy Institute concluded that it fails to set out any clear criteria for determining whether these types of violations have taken place and lacks an element of “intent”. Members of the IFEX global network for freedom of expression warned that the new provision risks restricting freedom of expression “through arbitrary enforcement due to overly broad and imprecise language”.
As covered previously on the Monitor, Kyrgyzstan’s legislation safeguards freedom of peaceful assembly in accordance with international standards. However, the state of emergency declared in the capital Bishkek and several other cities and regions due to the pandemic resulted in a temporary ban on assemblies. Thus, in accordance with the decree signed by President Jeenbekov, all protests, demonstrations, rallies, pickets, strikes and other assemblies were banned during the state of emergency as of 25th March 2020. A few days later, Kyrgyzstan informed the UN Secretary General about its derogation from article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
These steps were problematic. While states have the right to limit fundamental rights based on public health concerns, the UN Human Rights Committee has stressed that they should not suspend rights protected by the ICCPR if it is possible to meet the same objectives through less far-reaching measures to restrict rights allowed under the Covenant. At the same time, any measure to derogate from or limit rights must be exceptional and meet strict requirements set out by international law. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has pointed out that states’ responses to COVID-19 “should not halt” these rights, saying that it “is inadmissible to declare blanket restrictions” without exemptions being made, for example, for civil society actors, trade unions and journalists covering the crisis.
Civil society concerned about new draft NGO legislation
As covered previously by the Monitor, a new draft law on amendments to legislation regulating the activities of NGOs is currently under consideration in parliament. The draft law, first initiated by a Member of Parliament and later supported by several other deputies, introduces new reporting obligations for NGOs with respect to their finances. These obligations come on top of extensive reporting obligations that already exist for NGOs.
On 4th March 2020, parliament adopted the draft law on the first reading, despite wide criticism by civil society that the law is an unjustified attempt to step up control of NGOs. Lawyers from the Adilet Legal Clinic, a prominent Kyrgyzstani NGO, assessed the compliance of the draft legislation with the constitution and international human rights standards and found it to be problematic in several respects. In particular, they concluded that the draft law, which duplicates reporting requirements set out under existing legislation, is discriminatory because it applies only to certain types of non-commercial organisations and may be used to “put pressure on the non-commercial sector because of its active position in public life”. The head of Adilet, Cholpon Djakupova also warned that a provision of the draft legislation, which requires NGOs to submit information about their programmes for publication on the website of the Ministry of Justice, may endanger organisations working on sensitive issues such as the protection of LGBTI members by attracting unwanted attention to their work. There are widespread negative attitudes toward LGBTI communities and those who defend their rights in Kyrgyzstan and some movements have taken an aggressive stance against these groups.
In a joint appeal, more than 100 Kyrgyzstani NGO leaders called for the draft legislation to be withdrawn.
“The bill, if adopted, will have a negative effect on all NGOs, including charitable and humanitarian organisations that provide social services to the population. The establishment of the above burdensome requirements is fraught with a reduction in foreign investment in the non-profit sector of Kyrgyzstan, which will lead to a reduction in the social services they provide, which the country's population urgently needs.”
Ombudsperson Tokon Mamytov made a similar call. In order to be finally adopted, the draft legislation needs to be passed by the parliament on second and third reading.
Intimidation and harassment of CSO representatives
As covered previously by the Monitor, human rights lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov and human rights defender Dinara Oshurakhunova received threats in December 2019 after publicly raising concerns about the lack of effective measures by the authorities to investigate corruption allegations and protect free speech. Police subsequently opened investigations into these threats on suspicion of “threatening to use force” (under Criminal Code article 145), which were still taking place in April 2020.
The period covered by this update saw new cases in which civil society representatives were intimidated and harassed:
- On 29th January 2020, the Adilet Legal Clinic organised a meeting for NGO representatives in Bishkek to discuss the new draft legislation on NGOs (described above). A group of unknown people arrived at the hotel where the event was being held but they were not allowed to enter since they had not registered for the event and were unable to say which NGOs they represented. Later, however, several of them forced their way into the hotel lobby where the meeting was taking place, interrupting the concluding remarks of Adilet head Cholpon Djakupova. The intruders claimed that their rights had been “violated” since they were not allowed to participate in the discussion and stated that they supported the draft legislation. Based on a complaint from Djakupova, police opened an investigation of “hooliganism” under the Criminal Code.
- On 13th February 2020, unknown perpetrators interrupted a public event organised by several civil society activists in the city of Osh to discuss the social and political situation in the country. According to one of the organisers, Bishkek-based Ulan Usein, a group of young men entered the meeting venue just as the event was about to start, demanding that those present should leave and telling the audience that it was “an LGBT meeting”. Usein reported that one of the young men also attempted to take his mobile phone away and yelled that he and the other organisers should be “kicked out” of the city. As the meeting participants left, the young men stopped them, wrote down their personal details and threatened them. Police officers present also told Usein to leave. Based on press and social media information about the incident, which caused a public outcry, local law enforcement authorities initiated an investigation.
Renewed calls for the release of HRD Azimjan Askarov
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced concerns about the health and well-being of imprisoned human rights defender (HRD) Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his alleged role in the inter-ethnic violence that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. In a joint letter sent to President Jeenbekov on 31st March 2020, nine European and international human rights and press freedom organisations – including IPHR – called on the government to protect Askarov’s health at this time, to ensure that he has access to appropriate hygiene, screening and medical assistance and to urgently release him. The signatories noted that Askarov is at risk of being disproportionately affected by the virus given that he is 68 years old and has for years suffered from poor health, including cardiac and respiratory problems, for which he has not received adequate medical attention.
As reported previously by the Monitor, in December 2019, the Supreme Court reviewed an appeal filed by Askarov’s lawyers against a lower level court ruling that rejected the defender’s request for a reconsideration of his sentence under the new Criminal Code that came into effect in Kyrgyzstan in January 2019. Although the Supreme Court partially ruled in favour of the defence and reduced the sentence imposed against Askarov under some of the Criminal Code provisions under which he was convicted, it nevertheless upheld his life sentence. A final, so-called cassation appeal submitted by Askarov’s defence to the Supreme Court was initially scheduled to be heard on 6th April 2020 but was postponed to 13th May 2020 due to the state of emergency. At that hearing, the Supreme Court once again upheld the defender’s life sentence and thus denied him justice (this development will be described in more detail in the next update).
In a separate development, Askarov has filed a lawsuit against Kyrgyzstan’s government for its failure to implement the 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision in his case and, thus, to comply with its international human rights obligations. A Bishkek court was initially scheduled to hear the lawsuit on 30th March 2020, but the hearing was postponed due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. In its decision, the Human Rights Committee found that Kyrgyzstan had violated Askarov’s rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and called for his immediate release and quashing of his conviction. This did not happen and the re-trial initiated in Askarov’s case following the decision by the UN body failed to ensure a fair review of his case.
Other international human rights mechanisms and experts have repeatedly called for Askarov’s release, in accordance with the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee. During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Kyrgyzstan, which took place under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in January 2020, this call was also made. Moreover, ahead of the Supreme Court hearing in Askarov’s case scheduled to take place in mid-May 2020, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs Mary Lawlor called for “a proper review” of his appeal in accordance with fair trial safeguards and for “his immediate release”. She pointed out that the “UN’s many communications to have Mr Askarov’s case quashed have been ignored by the Kyrgyzstani authorities”. She also expressed concerns about poor prison conditions.
“We are concerned about the toll that dismal prison conditions and solitary confinement have had on Mr Askarov’s health, and the increased risk that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated elder prisoners like him with underlying health conditions.”
Her statement was endorsed by several other UN special mechanisms, including the special rapporteurs on torture, minority issues, the independence of judges and lawyers, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Court upholds ban on entering the country for Russian Central Asia expert
The Kyrgyzstani authorities have banned several foreign HRDs from entering the country on arbitrary grounds. Among them is Vitaly Ponomarev, director of the Central Asia programme at the Russian Memorial Human Rights Centre, who was prohibited from entering Kyrgyzstan in July 2017. Last year Ponomarev’s legal representatives filed a lawsuit with a Bishkek court to challenge the ban. This lawsuit was dismissed in December 2019 and the decision was upheld on appeal by Bishkek City Court on 31st January 2020. Head of the Kylym Shami NGO, Aziza Abdyrasulova, who represents Ponomarev in this case, announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. According to Ponomarev, all previous inquiries about the ban have been answered with a standard reference to a provision of Kyrgyzstan’s Law on External Migration, which permits restrictions on entry to the country “in the interests of state security”. Both court hearings on his lawsuit were held behind closed doors without the participation of his legal representatives.
As covered before, the residents of Kyrgyzstan actively exercise their right to hold pickets, protests and rallies on various social, economic and political issues. Prior to the introduction of the emergency measures, numerous new peaceful assemblies were also held during the period covered by this update. Among these, one example was a rally organised by the Youth Ecological Movement “Green Kyrgyzstan” in February 2020 to demand concrete measures in response to air pollution in Bishkek.
Women’s rights marchers attacked, detained and penalised
Most peaceful protests take place without interference in Kyrgyzstan. However, in an exception to this, those who had gathered for a march against violence against women in Bishkek on International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8th March 2020 were first attacked by unknown perpetrators and then detained and ill-treated by police.
The Feminale and 8/365 movements had initiated the march to draw attention to domestic violence, forced marriages and other forms of violence against women and girls, which remain a serious problem in Kyrgyzstan. A group of men, many of whom were wearing masks, attacked participants as they were about to begin the march. The men threw eggs at them, destroyed their banners and posters and physically assaulted them. After police arrived, the crowd dispersed. However, instead of seeking out the attackers, police detained march participants, forcibly placed them on a bus and took them to a local police station. A total of about 70 people, mostly women, were detained. Some of them reported being subjected to physical abuse by police. The detainees were not informed about the grounds for their detention and were not granted access to legal assistance. Representatives of the Ombudsperson’s office were also not initially allowed to visit the detainees. After being held for several hours, all detainees were released, most of them without charge. However, some of the organisers were penalised.
According to a press release issued by the police, six of the march participants and five other individuals “who disturbed public order” were fined for disobeying the lawful orders of police officers. The police called the women’s rights march “an unsanctioned rally”, saying it had “not been properly agreed” with local authorities and that the organisers had failed to inform police about the rally so that they could ensure public safety, which resulted in “provocations” and “violations of public order”. However, national law does not require assemblies to be “sanctioned” by the authorities and safeguards the right to hold both planned and spontaneous assemblies. The police press release also claimed that the intervention on 8th March 2020 was aimed at “preventing an escalation” of a “brawl” between the march participants and another “group of people”, thus suggesting that the participants had provoked their attackers. Before the march, local authorities had sought to prevent it from taking place by requesting court bans on all non-official assemblies in the city until 1st July 2020. However, the authorities eventually backed off on this request and the march was held in a district of the capital where such a request had been withdrawn from court on the eve of the event (see more below).
The police response to the women’s rights march attracted a lot of media attention and was heavily criticised by national and international human rights NGOs. For example, Front Line Defenders stated that it “strongly condemns the attack against participants of the Women’s March in Bishkek, and the violent arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders and peaceful protesters by the police.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated:
“People should be protected, not penalised, when exercising their right to assemble and protest peacefully. Instead, on a day meant to celebrate women’s rights, these activists were doubly punished – first by an angry mob and then by the police.”
Members of Parliament also voiced concerns and requested that measures be put in place to hold law enforcement officials accountable for violations. Several of the detained protesters filed complaints about unlawful treatment by the police. There had been no further news about the investigation into these complaints at the end of April 2020. However, on 10th April 2020, it was announced, based on a complaint filed by the Ombudsperson’s office, that two police officers would be reprimanded for preventing representatives of this office from visiting those detained during the 8th March 2020 event.
New blanket ban proposed on assemblies in the capital
As covered previously on the Monitor, courts in Kyrgyzstan have repeatedly issued blanket bans on holding peaceful assemblies in central areas of the capital Bishkek for several weeks at a time. These court decisions have been issued in response to requests made by local authorities based on vague arguments about the supposed threats caused by assemblies and have not met the requirements for permissible restrictions on peaceful assemblies set out by national and international law. During the period covered by this update, local authorities turned to the courts with new requests for such blanket bans.
On 4th March 2020, the Bishkek city administration issued a decree ordering the heads of administrative districts of the capital to take measures to restrict assemblies in the city until 1st July 2020 for the stated purpose of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. The decree was issued three weeks before the state of emergency was declared in the capital in connection with COVID-19 and was unrelated to that measure.
In accordance with the decree, the city’s district administrator filed requests with local courts to ban all assemblies in these districts for the relevant period, apart from events organised by local and state authorities. The fact that exceptions were made for official events raised questions about the supposed objective of preventing large gatherings of people where COVID-19 could easily spread. The bans were initiated only days before the 8th March 2020 IWD event (see above) was scheduled to take place. In court, local officials also made arguments suggesting that the bans were, in fact, aimed at stopping this event. Among other statements, officials said that no calls for “non-traditional sexual relations” should be allowed. As reported earlier, a march held in support of equal rights and opportunities on International Women’s Day in 2019 resulted in controversy and an outpouring of negative reactions on social media as some participants carried posters with slogans in support of LGBT rights. Some lawmakers dubbed that event a “gay parade”.
On 6th March 2020, the city authorities announced that they were dropping their requests for court bans on assemblies. The same day, a request to ban assemblies submitted to Sverdlovsk District Court, which had not yet been considered, was withdrawn. The women’s rights march on 8th March 2020 was held in this district of the capital. On 9th March 2020, Bishkek’s prosecutor office appealed against the bans that had already been issued by other district courts. This was the first time that court-sanctioned blanket bans on assemblies have been rescinded in Kyrgyzstan.
High-profile defamation case against media persists
As covered in a previous Monitor update, several leading independent media outlets faced defamation lawsuits involving unprecedented large claims for damages after publishing an investigation in November 2019 that revealed systematic corruption within Kyrgyzstan’s Customs Service. A key figure featured in this probe, former Customs Service Deputy Head Raimbek Matraimov and members of his family sued these outlets, requesting a total of more than 60 million Som (around 700,000 EUR) in compensation for alleged moral damages. The outlets targeted included Radio Azattyk (the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Libert) and Kloop, which carried out the corruption investigations together with the global OCCPR network, as well as 24.kg, which covered the findings of the investigation, although it did not participate in it as such. A journalist working with Kloop, Ali Toktakunov was also sued.
On 20th January 2020, Sverdlov District Court in Bishkek began hearing the merits of the case. Soon after the start of the proceedings, the court announced that the claimants had dropped their request for material compensation against the 24.kg news agency after it published a retraction of the previously published article about the corruption investigation. At the same time, the plaintiffs persisted with the claims against the other defendants, demanding damages amounting to 22,5 million Som (about 260,000 EUR) from Radio Azattyk, 12,5 million Som (about 145,000 EUR) from Kloop, and 10 million Som (about 116,000 EUR) from journalist Ali Toktakunov.
Media watchdogs and experts have denounced the actions taken against the media in this case and the excessive damages sought. For example, when commenting on the case, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir warned that “disproportionate damages” may have “a chilling effect on media freedom” and “may bring about the closure of outlets and endanger media pluralism”.
In a statement issued prior to the start of the court proceedings in January 2020, Reporters without Borders (RSF) called on the court to dismiss the lawsuits.
“It is absurd that the journalists at Azattyk and Kloop are being sued in connection with their investigative reporting, which served the public interest and galvanised Kyrgyz civil society in its entirety”.
The organisation also urged the Kyrgyzstani authorities to “do whatever is necessary to guarantee the safety of the journalists working on the story.”
In a similar vein, Civil Rights Defenders, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and IPHR have previously called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to “take all steps provided under the national law” to protect the journalists who exposed high-level government corruption and those who called for investigations into these allegations.
No investigation into DDoS attacks
As covered before by the Monitor, several Kyrgyzstani websites were subjected to concerted DDoS attacks that restricted access to these resources on 17th December 2019. The attacks began shortly after the sites published an investigative report produced by Factcheck.kg about the luxurious lifestyle of the wife of Raimbek Matraimov – as mentioned above, a key figure in the earlier media investigation intocorruption. In addition to Factcheck.kg, other sites targeted by attacks included those of Kloop, Kaktus Media and others that reposted the report. Member of Parliament Dastan Bekeshev subsequently called on the law enforcement authorities to investigate the DDoS attacks on the media. However, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that no investigation would be launched since the media outlets affected had not filed complaints with the police.
Attack on investigative journalist widely condemned
On 9th January 2020, three unknown perpetrators assaulted Bolot Temirov, chief editor of Factcheck.kg, near his office in central Bishkek. According to Temirov, the three men approached him from behind, hit him on the head and kicked him repeatedly after he fell to the ground. When people nearby came to his assistance, the perpetrators ran off, grabbing his phone which he had dropped during the assault. As a result of the attack, the journalist suffered a concussion and bruising. Temirov deemed the assault to be an attempt to intimidate him because of his journalistic work. The Independent Journalist Union of Kyrgyzstan also said that it believes that the attack was related to Temirov’s professional activities.
Factcheck.kg has repeatedly published investigative reports about government corruption and attracted attention after posting a report about the lavish lifestyle of the wife of former top customs official Raimbek Matraimov in mid-December 2019. As described above, following the publication of that report, Factcheck.kg and several other sites that reposted the report were subjected to invasive cyberattacks.
In a statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to “conduct a swift and thorough investigation” into the assault on Temirov and “ensure that reporters can cover corruption allegations without fearing for their safety”. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir made a similar call:
“No intimidation of journalists should be tolerated.”
I condemn yesterday’s attack on Bolot Temirov, Editor-in-Chief @factcheckK in #Kyrgyzstan. I welcome President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s reaction and call on the authorities to investigate thoroughly this violent incident. No intimidation of journalists should be tolerated.— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) January 10, 2020
President Jeenbekov’s press secretary also expressed regret about the attack and said that he hoped that the police would respond quickly and identify the perpetrators.
On 14th January 2020, the police arrested four men suspected of involvement in the attack on Temirov on charges of theft. The trial in the case was initially set to start in early March 2020, but according to the journalist, it was subsequently postponed for an undetermined period of time, apparently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Temirov added that the suspects in the case had initially confessed to carrying out the assault after being ordered to do so by an unnamed client, but later withdrew their confessions, saying they had made them under duress.
Local journalist threatened following critical report
Other journalists have also faced intimidation in relation to their professional activities. In one case, Samara Parpieva, a journalist working with the Osh-based TMG TV channel on a programme called “Citizen Control” which highlighted problems in a local kindergarten, reported receiving threats after the report aired in mid-February 2020. Following the broadcast, local authorities set up a commission to investigate the situation at the kindergarten and the head of the kindergarten was temporarily removed from her position. According to Parpieva, a person who introduced himself as the son of the head of the kindergarten called her husband and told him that “we can start speaking very differently with your wife, I just wanted to warn you”. The head of the kindergarten also reportedly filed a lawsuit against Parpieva, claiming that the latter had demanded 500 USD to stop the programme from being aired – an allegation that the journalist said was defamatory. The TMG TV channel filed a complaint with police about the intimidation targeting their journalist and the police opened an investigation into this complaint.
Criminal cases against bloggers
Several social media bloggers have recently been charged with “incitement to hostility” in cases that give rise to free speech concerns. The Criminal Code provision (article 313) under which these charges have been brought provides for a penalty of up to ten years in prison.
As covered in the previous Monitor update, Facebook administrator Aftandil Zhorobekov was charged with inciting inter-regional hostility after being accused of disseminating “information discrediting the current authorities”, as well as of “dividing” the visitors to his Facebook page into “opposing groups” and provoking “insulting comments” among them. Human rights experts decried the charges, concluding that the case materials indicated that the blogger was in fact being prosecuted for his criticism of the authorities and for the comments made by visitors to his site. A social media campaign was also launched in his support. In December 2019, Zhorobekov was placed under house arrest pending trial.
In another case, Instagram blogger Elmirbek Sydymanov was charged with inciting inter-regional hostility in February 2020. He was detained in Bishkek on 17th February 2020 and was initially held in a pre-trial detention facility until being transferred to house arrest on 27th February 2020. The charges against Sydymanov are related to a live Instagram broadcast in which he expressed negative views about the dialectic swear words used by visitors to his site from southern Kyrgyzstan and said that those who live in that region are “not developed” and that he “does not like” them. He later apologised for his statements. Experts from the Media Policy Institute - an NGO- pointed out that the blogger was essentially discussing the question of which visitors to his site were swearing “more correctly” below his posts and concluded that this is “silly” but not prohibited speech.The experts also said that a sentence of five to ten years in prison, which is foreseen by the criminal code provision under which the blogger is facing charges, would be an “inhumane” penalty in a case like this.
International human rights experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues who visited Kyrgyzstan in December 2019, have expressed concerns about misuse of the broadly worded Criminal Code provision on inciting inter-regional and other hostility to stifle free speech in the country.
Civic Space Developments