Access restored, but ban on Fergahana News remains

On Wednesday, more than a year after being blocked in Kyrgyzstan by government order, Ferghana News was again accessible to the public without the aid of proxy servers. Most local Internet providers, including the state-owned Kyrgyz Telecom, restored access to the website, Daniil Kislov, Ferghana‘s editor, told CPJ.

Although this is good news, Kislov is not celebrating yet:  the government has not revoked its censorship order, and the newsroom is still waiting for a Kyrgyz appeals court to review the site’s lawsuit against the government. In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan could again block the site–although not allowed by the country’s constitution–at any moment.

Based in Moscow, Ferghana News is popular for real-time reporting by a network of journalists and stringers spread across Central Asia. Their dedication to journalism and critical reporting has brought the outlet respect and recognition, but has also landed it on the blacklists of many of the authoritarian regimes that dominate the region.

According to Kislov and CPJ research, Ferghana News is permanently blocked in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both known for their severe intolerance to critical journalism. In Tajikistan, authorities deny domestic access on an occasional basis, when Ferghana (along with other regional outlets) reports on sensitive issues. In Kazakhstan, Kislov said, there was one incident a few years ago, but it was hard to say whether it was a technical glitch or the website was deliberately blocked.

Access to Ferghana News in Kyrgyzstan was off and on until February 2012, depending on when the site covered local government corruption, human rights abuses, or social discontent about state policies. Together with local journalists and press freedom groups, CPJ protested when the site was blocked, and Ferghana would come back online. But some 18 months after the website reported on the June 2010 violent conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents in the south of the country, authorities imposed a permanent ban.

In a June 2011 parliament resolution, Kyrgyz lawmakers addressed the conflict and put together a list of recommended actions for the government. One of them was to block Ferghana News. The resolution did not contain any reasons for the step, nor say anything about obtaining a court order which, under Kyrgyz media law, is required for shutting down a media outlet. “Introduce measures necessary to block [the website’s former domain name] on the country’s information space,” the resolution said.

For a while authorities ignored the recommendation, but on February 2012 it came into force–residents of Kyrgyzstan no longer could access the website directly, only through proxy servers or its page on Facebook. As in the past, CPJ protested and urged Kyrgyz authorities to stop their censorship practices. Former Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva as well as current leader Almazbek Atambayev denounced the ban, but to no avail; the state communications agency, controlled by the prime minister’s office, ignored their statements. The parliament did the same. Kislov told CPJ that checks and balances in the Kyrgyz system are indeed supposed to restrain the president and prevent authoritarian rule, yet in reality the president’s will is generally respected.

In November, Ferghana News filed a lawsuit against the state communications agency arguing that it had no legal grounds to ban the site. Ferghana‘s lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, also filed a separate lawsuit which said his right to access information was being denied. But after several hearings, in which local Internet service providers took the website’s side, the court sided with the agency and adjourned the case. On April 5, Ferghana appealed the ruling, and Internet providers officially asked the communications agency to allow them restore access to the website. The providers said they hope on Friday to get official permission, which would serve as a degree of protection against retaliation, and which they promised to share with the website.

The providers unblocked Ferghana on Wednesday, but–aware of realities in Central Asia, where authorities change their minds about the press depending on the amount of criticism directed at them–Kislov wants to see the ban officially removed. And so do we; Kyrgyzstan must do away with censorship once and for all.