Positive civic space developments: some activists hopeful, some still wary
This update covers events from 1st March to 30th April 2018 and was prepared by Legal Prosperity Foundation and International Partnership for Human Rights.
Respect for human rights, guarantees of freedom of expression, and improved cooperation with civil society featured prominently in the electoral campaign of presidential candidate Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Since being elected in October 2017, President Jeenbekov has stressed these same issues, particularly in speeches he gave on the International Day for the Protection of Human Rights and during a meeting with the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini.
Such statements have raised hopes among civil society activists and others that the new president may take specific steps to address ongoing violations of freedom of speech and human rights in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
Indeed, there have been some positive developments in this reporting period, including President Jeenbekov’s retraction of defamation claims against the news agency 24.kg and journalist Kabay Karabekov, after a court ordered them to pay several million soms in compensation. Observers are also pointing to President Jeenbekov’s active stance on anti-corruption measures and his emphasis on the need to improve the law enforcement and judicial systems - institutions alleged to be responsible for pervasive human rights violations - as further signs of improving respect for fundamental freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.
Not everyone is optimistic, however. Dina Maslova, co-founder of the Zanoza.kg news website, (which in late November 2017 was ordered to pay about 27 million soms (327,000 EUR) to a former head of state), believes that such optimism is premature. She notes that each head of state has had good relations with the media at the beginning of their terms in office, but after they have consolidated power, they began to use the courts to pressure journalists, political opponents and critics. She believes that it is expedient to consolidate the position of civil society and the media now so that "after a while, when the president becomes strong enough, he will actually take our opinions seriously. Otherwise everything will just carry on as usual".
CPJ joins call for #Kyrgyzstan to end restrictive media practices by @CPJ_Eurasia's @gulnozas @IFEX https://t.co/fcSfmQJhbO— Gulnoza Said (@gulnozas) March 14, 2018
In March, the International Association for the Protection of Freedom of Expression (IFEX) raised concerns over libel suits which result in disproportionate fines, travel bans and other severe sanctions against journalists and media outlets accused of insulting the former President. IFEX stated that:
"Disproportionately large fines, short deadlines for payment and inconsistent lawsuits make it clear that these actions are politically motivated attempts to silence media criticizing by means of legislative persecution".
Burdensome fines imposed by courts on the media and the closure of an opposition television company have negatively affected Kyrgyzstan’s freedom of the press ranking, as noted in the Freedom House's 2018 Nations in Transit report.
More than 20 Kyrgyz NGOs appealed to the heads of the Jogorku Kenesh (parliament) over recent court decisions regarding complaints with the General Prosecutor's Office about alleged violations of the honour and dignity of the ex-President. The NGOs said that such court decisions cause as much moral harm to the defendants as the plaintiffs claim they have suffered and also damage the image and reputation of both the judiciary and the state. The NGOs also appealed to the Ombudsman on this matter.
Freedom House: Kyrgyzstan’s democracy score deteriorateshttps://t.co/jR6xMkUIPF pic.twitter.com/3uqVtMuINk— eng24.kg (@Eng24Kg) April 12, 2018
In a separate development, a group of politicians, journalists and human rights activists wrote to President Jeenbekov regarding his speech to the Security Council of Kyrgyzstan. In the letter, the group noted that:
“some claims and cases initiated by state bodies against the media and journalists do not only violate the law but are also absurd and illogical”.
The signatories urged the President to initiate a nationwide dialogue to discuss problems in the judiciary, law enforcement and supervisory bodies and develop a joint plan to address corruption and hold a parliamentary hearing on an extraordinary report by the General Prosecutor on measures to fight corruption.
I welcome decision by Pt of #Kyrgyzstan to drop financial claims against journalist Kabay Karabekov, criminal case against Elnura Alkanova, withdrawal of draft law on defamation. Positive steps but more need to be done to ensure #MediaFreedom in Kyrgyzstan https://t.co/WpDnyoPBqd— OSCE media freedom (@OSCE_RFoM) April 27, 2018
Positive developments over the reporting period include President Jeenbekov’s statements in defence of free speech, his renunciation of claims against the 24.kg news agency and journalist Kabay Karabekov, legislative initiatives, procedural decisions by courts and investigative bodies related to the persecution of journalists and human rights defenders. These positive developments indicate improvements in relation to protection of the right to freedom of expression and are highlighted in the following example:
- On 12th April 2018, Parliament adopted amendments to the law 'On Mass Media', which shortened the time allocated to review registration applications from media outlets from one month to ten working days. As a result, registration procedures will be more timely and expedient for the sector. (Amendments also provide for the creation of a Unified State Register of Mass Media which will contain data on registered and re-registered media outlets as well as those that have ceased their activities.)
On 2nd February 2018, the Committee on Social Affairs of the Jogorku Kenesh approved the draft bill 'On Amendments to the Civil Code of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan' on first reading. The bill proposed regulating procedures for refuting defamatory information published on the internet, in print or broadcast on the television or radio. It also provided for minimum compensation of 20,000 soms (approximately 290 EUR), except in cases when the victim sought a smaller amount.
The draft bill received a negative reaction from the general public. Journalists, civic activists and representatives of non-governmental organisations criticised it for applying not only to media professionals, but also to users of social networks who could be held accountable for posting content on the internet. Member of the public also dislike the bill because it could allow public figures to use defamation law suits to put pressure on critics. Cholpon Djakupova, director of the legal clinic 'Adilet', said the bill was "devastatingly harmful" and called for its withdrawal.
IFEX also called on Parliament to reject the bill because of its incompatibility with established standards for freedom of expression. In response to public opinion, the government subsequently issued a negative assessment of the draft law (Постановление Правительства КР № 188 от 6 апреля 2018 года), and as a result, the bill was withdrawn in April.
Гульчехра Оморова рассматривала иск генерального прокурора Индиры Джолдубаевой к https://t.co/KEaJowqFqp и автору Нарыну Айыпу на 6 млн сомов и сразу же удовлетворила его.https://t.co/V2teslFIbJ— Kaktus Media (@kaktus__media) April 10, 2018
In 2017, courts had ruled in favour of complaints from the Prosecutor General's Office against the independent news site Zanoza.kg because of articles deemed to be defamatory of former President Atambayev. The courts ruled that Zanoza, its co-founders and journalists Narynbek Idinov and Dina Maslova, human rights defender Cholpon Dzhakupova, and lawyers of the Ata Meken opposition party should pay a large sum in compensation. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings on appeal, and the bailiffs proceeded to enforce the judgments.
Journalists Dina Maslova, Naryn Ayyp and human rights defender Cholpon Dzhakupova appealed to the court for permission to pay the fines in installments but their requests were refused. In April 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the decisions of lower courts to allow for the compensation to be paid in installments.
This decision by the Supreme Court is the first time that a higher court has annulled the decisions of other courts on claims filed in defense of the honour and dignity of the former President. The initial ruling on the payment of compensation remained in force until on 18th May 2018, when former President Atambaev announced that he would be withdrawing the claims for material compensation against Idinov, Maslova and Djakupova because of “the positive changes that have taken place in the last year in the official registered information resources and the media community in Kyrgyzstan”.
As reported previously in the CIVICUS monitor, on 5th October 2017 Sverdlovsk District Court of Bishkek ruled that information disseminated by the news agency "24.kg" in an article by journalist Kabay Karabekov entitled: "Visit to Sochi. Will the Kremlin again be told what a good successor is?" discredited the honour, dignity and professional reputation of presidential candidate Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
The court ordered the news agency and Kabay Karabekov to pay 5 million soms (about 60,000 EUR each) in compensation. However, in early February 2018, newly-elected President Jeenbekov withdrew the claim for compensation from news agency 24.kg after the news portal published an apology.
IFEX welcomed this positive precedent set by President Jeenbekov, hoping that:
"non-interference in the work of the independent press and an end to pressure on the opposition will become an integral part of the current presidency".
In April 2018, he also withdrew claims for compensation against Kabay Karabekov who issued a public apology. Commenting on the decision of the head of state, Karabekov said:
"This is a good precedent and an example for others. The president promised to defend freedom of speech and has proved he will do so".
Прекращено дело в отношении Эльнура Алканова (Elle Alkanova). Не нашли состава преступления.— Internews Kyrgyzstan (@internewskg) April 27, 2018
Смотрите комментарии юриста Институт Медиа Полиси в нашей публикации. https://t.co/Vw7a2Ak0fB
As reported previously, in December 2017 the State Service for the Fight against Economic Crimes opened a criminal case on the alleged disclosure of confidential bank information in two articles authored by journalist Elle Alkanova. OSCE spokesman for media freedom, Arlem Desir, commented on Alkanova’s case, stating that:
"journalists cannot be subjected to criminal prosecution for their work, and journalistic investigations are the core of freedom of speech".
In a welcome development, on 15th April 2018 criminal charges against Alkanova were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
In 2017, criminal charges had also been brought against poet Temirlan Ormukov for alleged “accusations about the commission of a crime" after a complaint was filed by an MP, whom the poet had accused of corruption. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media criticised the article in the Criminal Code under which Ormukov was accused, as it threatens freedom of expression.
Oktyabrsky District Court of Bishkek ruled to hold Ormukov in pre-trial detention and this decision was upheld by the Bishkek City Court in October 2017. However, the poet was not placed in pre-trial detention for health reasons (he is blind and has suffered two heart attacks).
On 29th March 2018, Ormukov was summoned to the Central Department of Internal Affairs of Bishkek. While in detention, he cut his stomach with a blade to protest against the state persecution against him. He was taken to hospital for treatment before being returned to pre-trial detention on 6th April.
The NGO Committee to Protect Freedom of Speech condemned Ormukov’s arrest and appealed to the President and Parliament, outlining the health consequences pf his detention and the potential threat to Ormukov’s life which the “harsh actions” of the judges and police have caused.
Elnura Alkanova writes on the prosecution against Temirlan Ormukov, Kyrgyzstan's satirical social media poet. (FYI: @RSF_EECA, @IndexCensorship.)https://t.co/gyHGOZPJNn— oDR (@opendemocracyru) April 23, 2018
Since the beginning of 2018, dozens of peaceful assemblies have been held in Kyrgyzstan on issues of concern to groups and individuals. A few examples of such demonstrations are as follows:
- Civil society activists held a rally near the Supreme Court building in support of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov's initiatives to combat corruption in the law enforcement and judicial system;
- Activist Toktonasyrov held a protest demanding medical care for three prisoners on hunger strike;
- Opposition supporters rallied to demand the resignation of the head of the State National Security Committee;
- Firefighters demonstrated to demand higher wages;
- A protest in memory of the six people killed during a protest march in Aksy in 2002;
- Lorry drivers held a protest against corruption in the Ministry of Transport and Roads; and
- A protest by residents of the Toguz-Torous district of Jalal-Abad region against the construction of a gold recovery plant.
Continuous anti-mining protests in southeastern district of Toguz Toro in Kyrgyzstan. Chinese company that owns stake in the mining project couldn't find common ground with local residents. Population worries about gold mine's environmental impact. https://t.co/r34bw2G40H— Ryskeldi Satke (@RyskeldiSatke) March 10, 2018
While most assemblies were held peacefully and without interference from the authorities, at the rally in Jalal-Abad, residents of the Toguz-Torous district stormed the office of the Kuranda Development Company and set fire to a partially-built gold recovery plant, throwing stones at police officers trying to intervene.
President of Kyrgyzstan heads "Immortal Regiment" march in Bishkekhttps://t.co/qrLcbLalnx pic.twitter.com/vGWtOgdtEb— eng24.kg (@Eng24Kg) May 9, 2018
Civil society monitoring of the authorities’ attitude towards meetings and actions held by human rights organisations shows that they are selective when reviewing notifications of an intent to organise an assembly. When marches are held on the initiative of the authorities, (for example, the Immortal Regiment March in May) the local authorities and law enforcement bodies escort participants; block and/or change traffic routes; and take other measures to ensure road safety.
On the contrary, marches and public actions which call for protection of women's rights; protest child and youth marriages as well as bride kidnapping, polygamy, pedophilia, family and sexual violence, harassment at work, slavery and human trafficking do not receive the same attention and protective measures from the authorities. Journalist Naryn Ayyp summed up the situation, saying:
"It all depends on who is organizing the action”.
International standards on freedom of peaceful assembly stipulate that authorities should take into account their duty to promote the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, and to balance people’s rights to express their opinions through meetings with the necessity to protect other individuals from unreasonable inconvenience.
On 17th April 2018, approximately 15 employees of the Academy of Experimental and Traditional Medicine attended a peaceful rally near the White House, where the Parliament and the President's Office are located, protesting against their eviction from the building where they have been working for ten years. The policemen on duty near the building told the participants to disperse because their rally had not been approved. However, this instruction from police violated the provisions of the constitution and the law "On Peaceful Assemblies", according to which everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, and which also stipulates that it is prohibited to restrict or ban a peaceful assembly because of the absence of notification, or because of failure to comply with the notification form, its content and deadlines (Article 34 of Constitution of Republic of Kyrgyzstan).
In contrast to the above incident, police officers did not demand that 50 or so residents of the Toguz-Torous district disperse, although this bigger protest took place in the same area (near the White house), on the same day and time as the protest of the employees of the Academy of Experimental and Traditional Medicine. Without having given the authorities any notification, the residents of Toguz-Torous held a rally protesting against the construction of a new gold recovery plant and demanding the release of people detained after the 11th April riots over the same issue.
On 16th March 2018, the Green Party of Kyrgyzstan notified the Bishkek Mayor's Office and the Central Internal Affairs Directorate about a peaceful civic action entitled "We are suffocating!" to be held near the town hall on 3rd April 2018. However, the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs of Bishkek filed an application to ban any kind of meeting, arguing that festive events were planned from 1st to 15th April in the capital to celebrate the anniversary of the April 2010 People's Revolution. On 29th March 2018, Leninsky District Court of Bishkek banned the holding of rallies in the Leninsky district of Bishkek from 1st to 15th April 2018. The court justified its decision on the grounds of "preserving law and order, security and preventing terrorist acts" during celebrations of the anniversary of the April revolution.
The Green Party appealed both decisions at the Supreme Court which on 12th April 2018, overturned the decisions of the lower courts. It is important to note that this is the first time that a higher court canceled the decisions of lower courts in relation to applications on violations of freedom of peaceful assembly.
According to CIVICUS Monitor research partners, the overall situation for civic space improved somewhat in the reporting period. Nonetheless, partners believe it is still too early to assess whether the improvements are part of a sustained and positive trend that will continue.
Civic Space Developments