The recent ruling to close ‘Azattyk Media’ reflects a growing pattern in Kyrgyzstan to draft and arbitrarily implement controversial and ambiguous laws that could be misused to target people and institutions exercising their rights to free expression and information.
Dear President Sadyr Japarov,
We, the undersigned civil society organisations, who work to promote and defend freedom of expression and information as fundamental rights worldwide, are writing to express our concern with the continued deterioration of these rights in Kyrgyzstan.
On 27 April, the Lenin District Court in Bishkek ruled to close yet another independent media outlet – Azattyk Media, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL, also known locally as Radio Azattyk), following a lawsuit filed on 17 January by the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy. In its lawsuit, the Ministry of Culture claims Azattyk Media violated Article 23(c) “The List of Information Not Subject to Public Dissemination” under the Law of the Kyrgyz Republic “On Mass Media”, which considers Azattyk Media to have disseminated “propaganda of war, violence and cruelty, national, religious exclusivity and intolerance towards other peoples and nations”. This follows from a government-ordered two-month blockage of Azattyk Media’s websites in October 2022 after a video was circulated covering the September 2022 border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Under the “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” law, authorities claimed the video included elements of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “war propaganda”. However, as of 27 April, the initial two-month blockage was extended to seven months. Radio Azattyk’s bank account was also frozen under Article 14 of the law “On countering the financing of terrorist activities and the legalization (laundering) of criminal proceeds,” which allows the suspension of accounts suspected of money laundering.
This recent ruling to close Azattyk Media reflects a growing pattern in Kyrgyzstan to draft and arbitrarily implement controversial and ambiguous laws that could be misused to target people and institutions exercising their rights to free expression and information. Vague and inconsistent constitutional amendments in early 2021, such as the restriction of “activities that contradict moral and ethical values and public conscience of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic” under Article 10(4), have dangerous implications for the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” law, approved in August 2021 despite heavy criticism, allows authorities to arbitrarily and extrajudicially remove or block information considered to be “false” or “inaccurate” from online platforms. In November 2021, the Kyrgyz parliament pushed forward a bill to convert the OTRK – the country’s largest and most-watched television network – into a state-owned body, while eliminating a range of democratic principles designed to ensure the independence of the broadcaster. Despite civil society efforts calling for the government to withdraw the Broadcasting Bill, the bill passed into law in early 2022.
Press freedom and media pluralism are the lifeblood of a healthy civic space and a cornerstone for a thriving democracy. In April 2022, 25 IFEX member organisations supported the Media Policy Institute (MPI) and Public Association of Journalists (PAJ) in a joint statement expressing concerns about the shrinking state of civic space and media freedom in Kyrgyzstan after seeing a pattern of overreaching legislative changes, harassment of independent media outlets, and journalists being arrested and detained under trumped-up charges. As the silencing of independent media continues, this runs counter to Kyrgyzstan’s own constitutional values under Article 10(2) which prohibits censorship; Article 32 which guarantees rights to free thought and opinion, free expression, free speech, and press freedom; and Article 63(1) which prohibits laws restricting freedom of speech, press, and media. By blocking Azattyk Media, Kyrgyzstan is violating rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and access to information, which contravenes international and regional human rights obligations, and commitments applicable to Kyrgyzstan that have been highlighted in previous member statements.
Kyrgyzstan’s backslide into authoritarianism is further concerning as Kyrgyzstan now sits on the Human Rights Council (HRC) with an expectation to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”. As free expression, media freedom, and civic space steadily deteriorates in the country, it is vital that Kyrgyzstan reverses course and meets the commitments it has made as a member of the HRC by strengthening cooperation with international human rights mechanisms; bolstering civil society participation at the HRC; and raising awareness of human rights during its tenure. Kyrgyzstan should reflect an environment at home that is conducive to the rights to freedom of expression and information, and encourages an open civic space, if it is to be an effective member of the HRC.
Thus, we urge the Government of Kyrgyzstan to:
- Protect the freedoms of independent media by requesting that the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy of the Kyrgyz Republic drop their lawsuit and that the Lenin District Court of Bishkek reverse its decision to close Azattyk Media;
- Create an enabling environment conducive to freedom of expression, media freedom, and civic space by ensuring journalists and independent media outlets are free to carry out their work independently without fear of criminalisation, interference, censorship, or prosecution;
- Refrain from developing and implementing ambiguous and overbroad legislation that can be misused and abused to target independent media outlets, journalists, and others exercising their rights to free expression and information; and
- Uphold Kyrgyzstan’s responsibilities to promote and protect human rights as a member of the Human Rights Council by adhering to international human rights obligations to ensure freedom of expression and information under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.