While misinformation and disinformation are particularly harmful during this pandemic, the policy of censoring the opinions of social media users should instead be replaced by measures to ensure that media has access to information to provide comprehensive news to the public.
Dear President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic, Speaker of the Kyrgyz Republic Parliament
The undersigned members of IFEX, the global network promoting and defending freedom of expression, are writing to express our deep concern over the violation of constitutional rights of journalists, the media, and social media-users related to access to information and freedom of speech during the COVID-19 state of emergency in Kyrgyzstan.
On 22 March, at the proposal of the Security Council of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kyrgyzstan entered a state of emergency for a period of one month in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. On 24 March, the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Jeenbekov S.Sh., signed a Decree on the introduction of a state of emergency in the territories of Bishkek, Osh, Jalal-Abad, Suzak, Nookat and Kara-Suu. The Decree stipulated that the regime be introduced “solely in the interests of protecting the life and health of citizens, their safety and public order, and also in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus infection to other territories of the Kyrgyz Republic.”On 14 April, the president signed a new Decree extending the state of emergency until 30 April.
While we are encouraged that the Bishkek Commandant’s Office recently reversed a previous decision to deny journalists accreditation during the state of emergency, several of the restrictions that remain in place still infringe upon the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic and fail to meet international standards for acceptable limitations on the right to freedom of expression and information. These restrictions include:
- Lack of feedback between state bodies and the media due to the absence of open and accessible information briefings, which limits the rights of the public to freedom of information.
- The abuse of Article 344 of the Criminal Code, “filing a false police report” to force social media users to apologize for spreading allegedly false information regarding COVID-19;
- The introduction of Article 82.2, “Violation of Law and Order in an Emergency Situation, State of Emergency or Martial Law,” which provides liability for dissemination of false information without the qualifying signs of “aforethought” and “intent”.
Kyrgyzstan, like the rest of the world, is facing an unprecedented emergency situation. As a result, the importance of the media is clearer now more than ever. Society relies on journalists and the media community’s access to information during the state of emergency, so they can provide the public with timely and accurate information on developments and measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recently, independent monitors on the right to freedom of expression for the UN and several regional bodies, including the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, released a statement reminding governments about the crucial role of journalism at this time and stressed the need for states to make “exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists”. In the same statement, they warn against measures that could criminalize online information related to the pandemic, except where these measures meet the tests of necessity and proportionality.
However, since the state of emergency has been implemented, journalists and independent media have lost access to press secretaries and decision makers, and have been unable to ask questions during briefings, while sections of the legal framework are being abused to police speech in a way that is overly broad and has already been misapplied to citizens that have been critical of the government’s response.
The government’s decision to provide information only in the format of briefings limits the rights of the media to seek and receive information, as journalists are deprived of the opportunity to ask questions that are important and relevant to the public. The State also lacks other mechanisms for monitoring the work of government bodies involved in combating the spread of the coronavirus, such as live broadcasts of their meetings. Questions sent to commandant offices are often ignored and decision makers unavailable, further preventing the media from carrying out their essential work.
Abuses of the legal framework could also have a chilling effect on expression for the general public and social media users in particular. Article 344 has already been misused to intimidate physicians and their relatives who express online opinions on the inadequacy of the provisions of personal protective equipment for physicians, while Article 82 risks restricting free speech further through arbitrary enforcement due to overly broad and imprecise language.
Thus, the emergency measures fail to meet international human rights standards including legitimacy, legality, proportionality and non-discrimination. In addition, they fail to create the enabling environment necessary for journalists to perform their public function during this crisis and risk being used as an excuse to censor or punish speech that is critical of the government’s response, or which contradicts government information. Limits on access to information are also a contradiction of Kyrgyzstan Constitutional Law, which does not mention emergency situations as a permissible excuse to restrict this right.
The state must prevent legislation from being abused to impede the right to freedom of opinion, guaranteed by the Constitution, and ensure that laws and emergency measures align with Kyrgyzstan’s constitutional and international obligations. While misinformation and disinformation are particularly pernicious during this pandemic, the policy of censoring the opinions of social media users should instead be replaced by measures to ensure that media has access to information to provide comprehensive news to the public, and that complaints voiced by citizens are addressed in an open and rights-respecting manner.
The Government’s active engagement with all media outlets, along with other policies of openness, will increase public confidence in the Government and its decisions, and will have a positive impact on citizens’ awareness of the current situation and the activities of government agencies.