Journalists detained in Kyrgyz media crackdown

In a sweeping crackdown on independent media, Kyrgyz authorities raided the offices of several news outlets, confiscated their equipment, and detained at least 11 journalists this week, drawing condemnation from human rights groups and press freedom advocates.

The raids began on Monday, when officers from the State Committee for National Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, stormed the newsroom of 24.KG, one of the oldest and most respected online news outlets in Kyrgyzstan. They seized computers and servers, and took away the outlet’s general director, Asel Otorbaeva, and two chief editors, Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar, for questioning.

The intelligence agency said it had opened a criminal investigation into 24.KG for “propaganda of war,” without providing any further details or evidence. The outlet’s lawyer, Nurbek Sydykov, said the case was based on a complaint filed by a former member of parliament, who accused 24.KG of publishing an article that allegedly incited ethnic hatred and violence. Sydykov denied the allegations and said the article was a factual report on the situation in the country’s volatile south.

The three journalists were released after about 45 minutes of interrogation, but the outlet’s office remained sealed and its website inaccessible. Otorbaeva said the raid was an attempt to silence independent journalism and intimidate the media.

“We have been working for 20 years, covering all the events in the country, including the revolutions and the conflicts. We have always been objective and professional. We have never called for war or violence. We have always called for peace and dialogue,” she told Voice of America.

On Tuesday, the crackdown continued, as police raided the office of Temirov Live, an investigative outlet known for exposing corruption and abuse of power among the country’s elites. They also searched the homes of 11 current and former staff members of Temirov Live and its sister project, Ayt Ayt Dese, and detained them for interrogation.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs said it had opened a criminal investigation into unspecified publications by Temirov Live and Ayt Ayt Dese for “calls to protest actions and mass unrest.” It did not specify which articles or posts were under scrutiny, but said they were found on the outlets’ social media pages.

The founder of Temirov Live, Bolot Temirov, who is currently in exile in Sweden, said the charges were fabricated and politically motivated. He said the authorities were targeting his outlets for their critical reporting and their support for the opposition.

“They are trying to silence us, to scare us, to stop us from doing our work. But we will not give up. We will continue to investigate and expose the truth. We will continue to fight for democracy and human rights in Kyrgyzstan,” he told the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Temirov Live and Ayt Ayt Dese have been in the authorities’ crosshairs for a long time. In 2022, Temirov Live’s office was raided and Temirov, a Kyrgyzstan-born journalist, was deported to Sweden, where he had obtained citizenship. He said he was forced to leave the country after receiving death threats and facing harassment from the security services.

The raids and arrests sparked outrage and concern among human rights groups and press freedom advocates, who denounced the authorities’ actions as a violation of the right to freedom of expression and information.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, eight human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Freedom House, called on the Kyrgyz authorities to drop the criminal cases against the news outlets and release the detained journalists.

“The Kyrgyz authorities need to take immediate and decisive steps to bring the country’s respect for press freedom in accordance with its international obligations,” the statement said. “They should end the harassment and intimidation of independent media and journalists, and ensure a safe and enabling environment for them to carry out their work without fear of reprisals.”

Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, has long been seen as a relatively open and democratic country in the region, with a vibrant civil society and a pluralistic media landscape. However, in recent years, the country has experienced a decline in democratic standards and a rise in authoritarian tendencies, especially under the rule of President Sadyr Japarov, who came to power in 2020 following a popular uprising that ousted his predecessor.

Since then, Japarov has consolidated his grip on power, expanding his presidential powers through a constitutional referendum, cracking down on dissent, and pursuing a nationalist and populist agenda. He has also faced accusations of corruption, nepotism, and involvement in organized crime, which he has denied.

Japarov’s government has also intensified its pressure on independent media, using legal and administrative measures to silence critical voices and limit access to information. In 2022, the authorities ordered the blocking of Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded broadcaster, over its reporting on a corruption scandal involving the president’s family. In 2023, a court ordered the closure of Radio Azattyk, but the decision was later reversed by an appeals court after the outlet deleted the report that the authorities had demanded removed.

The authorities are also seeking to shut down Kloop, a local partner of the global investigative network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, over its involvement in the same corruption investigation. Kloop is facing a lawsuit from the president’s brother, who claims the outlet defamed him by linking him to a criminal group.

In addition, the authorities are pushing for a new media law that would give them broad powers to regulate and control the media, including the ability to suspend or revoke the licenses of news outlets, impose fines and sanctions, and access journalists’ personal data and sources. The draft law has been widely criticized by local and international media groups, who say it would severely undermine media freedom and independence in Kyrgyzstan.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based press freedom watchdog, ranked Kyrgyzstan 122nd out of 180 countries in its 2023 World Press Freedom Index, down 50 places from the previous year. It said the country was experiencing “a dramatic decline in respect for press freedom” and warned that it was “on the verge of losing its status as Central Asia’s only country where the media are pluralist and independent.”

Leave a Reply

Previous post Land Agreement Expected in Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict
Next post Uzbekistan sentences 23 in deadly cough syrup scandal