Independent media outlets have set Kyrgyzstan apart from its authoritarian neighbours since the country became independent in late 1991. The current Kyrgyz administration, however, seems to see such media as a threat and since the start of 2022 an unprecedented campaign has been under way in the country to silence outlets that publish information that the authorities find inconvenient.
Signs of trouble down the road for independent media were evident as early as October 2020. That was when now-president Sadyr Japarov was busted out of his Bishkek prison cell by supporters during unrest sparked by the results of the quite obviously rigged October 4 parliamentary elections.
Busted out of prison by supporters during unrest, Sadyr Japarov quickly took hold of the presidency (Credit: Official publication).
Japarov was described in one report as “a former MP from the nationalist Ata-Jurt political party and disgraced politician”.
He was arrested in October 2012 while trying to storm the government building in Bishkek and convicted in 2013 for trying to overthrow the government, but he was released from prison within weeks. Japarov was then implicated in the November 2013 kidnapping of a local official in Japarov’s native Issyk-Kul Province during protests against the company mining the country’s flagship gold mine Kumtor. A wanted man, he fled the country.
Apprehended along the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border in March 2017, Japarov was sentenced to 11 years and six months in prison. And that was where the sixth-Kyrgyz-president-to-be was when crowds chased the government from power in October 2020.
Hours after he left his prison cell, word started spreading on Kyrgyz-language social networks that Japarov should be the choice to be president. The ploy worked and the path to a meteoric rise to power was thrown open to Japarov.
Japarov became prime minister, then acting president by mid-October.
On November 6, 2020, Japarov told journalists, “I am always for freedom of speech… if the correct information is given.”
Pursuit of Temirov Live
Bolot Temirov is an investigative journalist who founded Temirov Live, a YouTube programme that reports on corruption.
On January 20, 2022, Temirov Live reported on corrupt deals in the state oil industry involving family members of Kamchybek Tashiyev, head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), and a close friend of Japarov.
Subsequently, police raided the office of Temirov Live. They then claimed to find a small packet of marijuana on Temirov that Temirov said police planted on him. Temirov was tested for narcotics. The tests came back negative, but he was still arrested for narcotics possession and held in custody.
Temirov Live continued to operate. On April 18, the programme reported on a company of Tashiyev’s son, Taimuras, winning several state tenders.
On April 19, three new charges were brought against Temirov—forging documents, using a fake passport and illegally crossing the state border, charges Temirov also denied.
In September 2022, a court found Temirov not guilty of possession of drugs and of illegally crossing the state border, but it convicted him of using forged documents to obtain a Kyrgyz passport in 2008. He was not sentenced because the statute of limitations had expired.
Temirov filed an appeal against the conviction. The prosecutor filed an appeal against all the court decisions.
A court heard both appeals on November 23, 2022, upholding the original decisions, but ordering Temirov to be deported from Kyrgyzstan since his Kyrgyz citizenship documents were forged.
Police escorted Temirov from the courtroom to the airport and put him on a plane for Russia.
Kloop Media is one of the leading independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan.
Kloop has worked with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) to shed light on the shady business world in Kyrgyzstan. This work has included a detailed report on the vast assets of a former deputy Customs Service chief, and reputed mafia kingpin, Raimbek Matraimov.
Matraimov is suspected of having played a role in catapulting Sadyr Japarov from prisoner to president.
A Kloop website report on one of its battles with the authorities (Credit; kloop.kg/blog).
On August 22, Kloop reported on the involvement of GKNB chief Tashiyev’s sons, and also associates of Japarov, in a project to open a Barcelona football academy built on state land in the southern city of Jalal-Abad.
On August 28, Kloop received notice that the Bishkek prosecutor’s office had filed an application with the court to close it down because Kloop Media’s charter allegedly did not list media activity as part of its operations.
Kloop reported that same day that Bishkek prosecutor Emilbek Abdymannapov said its reporting “has a negative emotional-psychological effect on society… generating fear, anxiety, despair, and panic among a huge number of people...”
On September 8, the Culture Ministry demanded Kloop remove its reports about a jailed former member of parliament and vocal critic of the government, Ravshan Jeenbekov, being tortured.
Kloop refused and, on September 12, the Culture Ministry ordered Kloop’s Russian-language website to be blocked. At the end of October, the Culture Ministry issued another order, this time to block Kloop’s Kyrgyz-language site.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ’s) reading of the government’s attack on critical media was crystal clear as early as May 7, 2022, when it concluded: “As their attacks on the independent press intensify, Kyrgyz authorities appear to be resorting to any legal means, however spurious, to clamp down on critical outlets.”
The CPJ and other watchdogs by now have extensive files on Japarov officials’ moves against the media.
Shutting down Next TV
Musayev alleged Kyrgyzstan was secretly providing military assistance to Russia.
Next TV was founded by Ravshan Jeenbekov.
Plainclothes GKNB officers raided the station that night, taking director Taalaybek Duyshenbiyev into custody and charging him and Next TV with “inciting ethnic, national, religious, or interregional hatred.”
The station was closed.
Duyshenbiyev was convicted of inciting interethnic hatred in September 2022 and sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was later reduced to three years’ probation.
Close shave for Kaktus
On January 27, 2022, Kaktus.media republished an article from independent Tajik media outlet Asia-Plus about a brief exchange of fire along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border days earlier.
Asia-Plus reported that it was Kyrgyz soldiers who started the shooting.
Kaktus removed the report several hours later, but prosecutors filed a case against the outlet on February 1 for disseminating “propaganda of war.”
The case was dismissed at the end of March 2022 for lack of evidence.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, was blocked in late October 2022 after refusing to remove material about the September 2022 Kyrgyz-Tajik border clashes.
The Culture Ministry ordered the website blocked on the grounds that Azattyk’s material on the border conflict contained views from the Tajik side that the ministry claimed were false.
Azattyk’s bank accounts were also frozen, and a long court process started that only ended in July this year when Azattyk removed the material from its website.
Deaf to the clamour of protest
Domestic and international rights and media freedom groups, the OSCE, the European Union, individual governments, and others have criticised the Japarov administration’s campaign against Kyrgyz independent media outlets every step of the way—without effect.
In its annual Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders dropped Kyrgyzstan on its ranking of 180 countries from 72nd in 2022 to 122nd in 2023.
There are currently two draft laws moving forward, which, if passed, could be the death knell for independent media in Kyrgyzstan.
One proposed law is on “non-commercial organisations”. Its critics point out the draft strongly resembles Russia’s law on foreign agents, which has led to the closure of many independent media outlets in Russia.
The other is the proposed new law on media that places new restrictions on media outlets.
If these draft laws are passed, the end of independent media in Kyrgyzstan might follow.