The global network organization IFEX published an appeal to the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Legislation, State System, Rule of Law and Human Rights as well as the Parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture and Health of the Kyrgyz Republic to express its concern over recent developments regarding the climate for media freedom in Kyrgyzstan.
In particular, the organization is alarmed at the use of defamation lawsuits to levy disproportionate fines, travel bans and other harsh penalties against journalists and media outlets accused of insulting the President.
As an example, IFEX cites a case brought on behalf of ex-President Almazbek Atambayev against the founders of news site Zanoza.kg after their publications. The website and its founders have since been fined 27 million Kyrgyz soms and face potential prison time for failure to pay within a month. In addition, some of their assets have been frozen and they have been barred from leaving the country.
«The outrageously large fines, the small window granted to them for payment, along with the irregular trial proceedings make it clear that this is a politically motivated attempt to silence critical reporting through legislative harassment,» IFEX says in the appeal.
Such harassment of journalists and the media has continued into 2018.
On 22 February, the Supreme Court upheld a sentence requiring journalist Kabai Karabekov to pay 5 million soms for «offending» the new president, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Freelance journalist Elnura Alkanova has been charged with «seeking and disclosing confidential commercial information» and also faces a travel ban for an investigative report on the allegedly corrupt sale of government property. The blocking of Fergana News’ website and closure of Sentyabr along with both voluntary and forced expulsions of local and foreign journalists alike, including Ulugbek Babakulov, Russian journalist Grigoriy Mikhailov and Agence France-Presse’s Chris Rickleton, mark other low points for media freedom in Kyrgyzstan.
While Kyrgyzstan has generally been a rare positive example in a region where autocracy has been the rule, recent developments threaten to send the country down a similarly repressive path.IFEX
When small media outlets are forced to shut down due to lawsuits by government officials, this significantly damages freedom of speech in the long term, increases self-censorship in the media, weakens their role in communicating socially significant information to citizens, and can play a role in the overall decline of socioeconomic and political conditions.
For this reason, members of the organization call on the government of Kyrgyzstan to withdraw punitive lawsuits and other restrictions against local journalists and media outlets and review and amend the ’Law On Guarantees for Activity of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic’ to bring it in line with international standards. IFEX also calls on Parliament of the country to reject the legislative amendments contained in the draft law on ’Amending the Civil Code of the Kyrgyz Republic’, due to its similar incompatibility with established standards on legal limits to free expression.