Prosecutions, astronomic fines and travel bans are worsening the free expression environment in a state where it is already vulnerable.
This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 26 February 2018.
What with prosecutions, astronomic damages awards and travel bans, there is mounting concern about the threats to media freedom in Kyrgyzstan. The need to end the abuses and to respect press freedom is urgent, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says.
The harassment of independent journalists grows by the week. On 22 February 2018, the supreme court upheld a damages award of 5 million soms (60,000 euros) against well-known journalist Kabai Karabekov for “offending” the new president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
Karabekov has been banned from travelling abroad and is facing the possibility of a two-year jail term if he does not pay the entire amount quickly, because the courts have refused to let him pay in instalments.
A precedent was set last November when the supreme court confirmed a decision ordering the Zanoza news website, its founders, a human rights defender and two lawyers to pay 40 million soms (500,000 euros) in damages for allegedly insulting former President Almazbek Atambayev.
Not only have Zanoza’s representatives been banned from travelling abroad but their bank accounts have also been frozen. On 7 February, a court rejected a request by the journalists for the damage payments to be staggered. Atambayev is even demanding that Zanoza editor Dina Maslova’s real estate assets be auctioned in order to cover part of the damages. RSF calls for the broadest possible public response to the crowdfunding appeal to raise the money they need.
“Kyrgyzstan is on a slippery slope, and we appeal to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov to stop the persecution and to ensure full respect for press freedom during his term of office,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“In particular, we call for an end to the astronomic damages awards against critical media outlets and for an amendment to the press law that limits damages and abolishes special protection for the president. The courts must play their democratic role by protecting journalists from harassment instead of exposing them to it.”
Media freedom on a slippery slope
The pluralism of the Kyrgyz media is still exceptional in comparison with the rest of Central Asia, but concern is mounting.
Investigative journalist Elnura Alkanova was charged on 13 February with “obtaining and divulging information subject to banking or commercial confidentiality” in connection with her coverage of a controversial privatization for Ferghana, a news website that has been blocked in Kyrgyzstan since June 2017. Banned from travelling abroad since the start of January, she reports that the police have questioned her repeatedly about her sources and her fellow journalists.
Broadcasters have not been spared. The closure of Sentyabr, a TV channel that supports the opposition party Ata-Meken, was confirmed by the supreme court on 27 December. It was closed without warning last August by a Bishkek court on the grounds of allegedly “extremist” comments by a former senior official although the prosecution produced no expert evidence to support the “extremist” claim and the comments were made during a live interview by someone over whom the channel had no control.
To cap it all, the interview was not broadcast by the current Sentyabr but by a TV channel with the same name that was closed in 2016.
The headquarters of NTS, another TV channel, was the subject of a raid on the evening of 19 December by police and court bailiffs that temporarily paralysed its activities. One of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular channels, it is linked to opposition leader Omurbek Babanov, the runner-up to Jeenbekov in last October’s presidential election.
A Bishkek court ordered the freezing of NTS’s assets in response to a complaint by an obscure offshore company. The measure was carried out the same day with a speed that was all the more exceptional given that a third party, not NTS, was the complaint’s direct target. A temporary agreement was eventually reached under which NTS could continue broadcast after an inventory of all its equipment had been carried out.
Meanwhile, Agence France-Presse correspondent Christopher Rickleton, a British journalist based in Kyrgyzstan since 2010 who has a Kyrgyz wife and daughter, was expelled without explanation on 9 December in a case recalling that of Grigory Mikhailov, a Russian journalist expelled in March 2017 in unclear circumstances.
Kyrgyzstan is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
For more information:
See RSF’s previous press releases on this subject
Read the opinion piece (in Russian) that RSF and 42 Kyrgyz NGOs wrote after the supreme court ruling on the Zanoza case