The Press and the New President: A Review of Freedom of Speech in Kyrgyzstan

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Written by Ann-Sofie Nyman and Bobbie Jo Traut

Last month, Kyrgyzstan inaugurated its new president Sooronbay Jeenbekov who has promised to continue the previous presidential administration’s policies. This does not bode well for independent journalists and other critical voices who were publicly labeled as national enemies, threatened and taken to court under the previous president’s tenure. In the run-up to the election held on 15 October, there were multiple cases in which independent media and journalists were convicted and ordered to pay significant amounts in compensation because of coverage considered defamatory of outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev. In addition, other tactics, such as intimidation and harassment, were used to suppress criticism of the regime.

Prominent investigative journalist Ulugbek Babakulov writes on pressing human rights issues, such as human trafficking, cases of torture and the impact of corruption in Kyrgyzstan. His writing has sparked the ire of the Kyrgyz authorities. Most recently in May 2017, Babakulov published an article in the well-known Central Asian media outlet Fergana News that caused backlash from those in power. This controversial article drew attention to the negative impact of aggressive, nationalistic rhetoric, especially comments on social media that insulted Uzbeks and called for violence against them. Such rhetoric represents a concerning trend considering the 2010 violent clashes in the south of the country when 470 people were reportedly killed, the majority of whom were ethnic Uzbeks, and following which Uzbeks were disproportionately condemned for the violence in trials considered unfair by the international community. The situation for the Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan has been tense since those fateful events.

Instead of engaging in a dialogue with independent media and Babakulov following the publication of the article, the authorities blocked access to the Fergana News website in Kyrgyzstan and state-run media initiated a smear campaign against the journalist. President Atambayev publicly criticized Babakulov, and members of parliament called for revoking his citizenship. The State Committee for National Security also filed a criminal case against Babakulov under article 299 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits inciting national (interethnic), racial, religious or inter-regional enmity. Under this article, Babakulov could face four to seven years of imprisonment, although his writing sought to encourage the authorities to address problems of nationalism and promote greater inclusivity and reconciliation.

Babakulov commented on the government’s response to his writing, stating that:

When I wrote the article criticizing nationalists, I did not expect such a strong reaction. I did not expect the nationalists to like my article, but I had hoped that the authorities would turn their attention to the problem and put a stop to such negative rhetoric against the Uzbek ethnic minority”.

The threats and intimidation against Babakulov for exercising his right to free speech unfolded at a politically-sensitive time, when parties and candidates used populism to gain public support in the run-up to the October elections. Atambayev exploited nationalism and anti-Uzbek sentiment and cracked down on free speech to ensure his favoured candidate’s success. Though Atambayev could not run again himself, due to presidential term limits, he openly campaigned in support of Sooronbay Jeenbekov, a member of his party, and used his position and influence to promote this candidate, who was elected in the first round on  October 15 with 54 percent of the vote. Though international observers found the elections to be competitive, concerns remain over the misuse of public resources, biased media coverage and cases of pressure on voters.

Babakulov fled Kyrgyzstan soon after the criminal case against him was opened, fearing that the authorities would make “an example” of him in a show trial as was done in the case of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, imprisoned for his alleged role in the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence following a flawed investigation and unfair trial. Babakulov has not revealed his current whereabouts but is concerned the authorities have uncovered his location and will seek to have him extradited. He also fears greatly for his family members who are still in Kyrgyzstan and are even afraid to leave the house because of constant surveillance and threats. There are suspicious cars always parked outside the house; unidentified individuals have attempted to climb over the fence and enter the house. Insulting writing has periodically appeared on the gates of the house,” says Babakulov, who believes the state security services may be behind the harassment.

In a country aspiring to be part of the democratic community, the harassment, criminal cases, defamation charges and other methods of silencing dissent and critical voices, such as Babakulov’s, must end. There is an urgent need for the new president to change the country’s course from the previous administration’s approach and rather safeguard free speech and allow space for critical voices to be heard. As Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights, a Brussels-based NGO that works with local partners in Central Asia on human rights issues, stated:

The new president has a choice: he can continue to attack and pursue government critics, or he can take resolute steps to break with the legacy of his predecessor and promote free speech and public discussion on challenges facing the country, including inter-ethnic tensions. The case of journalist Ulugbek Babakulov is an important test case in this respect”. 

Though the threats against him and his family persist, Babakulov is determined to be reunited with family and return home to continue his important journalistic work that is crucial to Kyrgyzstan’s democratic development, but only when there can be security guarantees and a fair trial. “I will definitely return, when the situation calms down, when the wave of hatred subsides and when I have a chance for a fair trial”, says the journalist. President Jeenbekov can ensure that happens by calling for an end to the threats against and persecution of Babakulov and other independent journalists, thus steering a new course for the country where freedom of expression is fully protected.

About the authors: Ann-Sofie Nyman works for International Partnership for Human Rights and Bobbie Jo Traut works for CIVICUS.