In Kyrgyzstan, once Central Asia’s most liberal country, President Almazbek Atambayev is tightening his grip on critical voices, including independent journalists and foreign media.
In recent weeks, Atambayev has verbally assaulted the media and charges have been brought against critical journalists and outlets, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Authorities also ignored a U.N. order last year to release imprisoned journalist Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a life sentence, and changed the country’s constitution to prevent citizens making further appeals to international bodies. The crackdown comes amid protests over the jailing of Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the opposition Ata Meken party, who is widely seen as a strong contender in November’s elections when Atambayev is due to stand down as president.
In one of his most recent outbursts, during a March 15 meeting with foreign ambassadors, Atambayev accused the media of defamation and called journalists “immoral morons.” In the speech, he singled out Daniil Kislov, chief editor of Moscow-based regional news agency Fergana, and its Kyrgyz correspondent Ulugbek Babakulov; Naryn Idinov, co-founder of independent online news agency Zanoza and Dina Maslova, Zanoza‘s editor; and Zamira Sydykova, chief editor of the country’s oldest independent newspaper Res Publica. Atambayev alleged that the Kyrgyz journalists had Western citizenship and were therefore critical of Kyrgyzstan. He also suggested that Kislov should focus on covering events in Russia.
Separately, in a March 11 statement distributed by his press service, Atambayev accused journalists of “pouring dirt” on him, and on March 6, the president said that RFE/RL spreads gossip about him to keep its U.S. government funders happy, the broadcaster reported. The outlet’s vice-president denied the allegation and said RFE/RL maintains the highest standards of objectivity.
Alongside verbal assaults, several outlets and journalists face legal action. Hours after Atambayev’s March 6 speech, the prosecutor general’s office charged RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, and Zanoza’s founder ProMedia Foundation with “insulting the president.” On March 13, the prosecutor general filed another suit against Azattyk and ProMedia, and a separate suit against ProMedia and Idinov, also on insult charges. Prosecutors are seeking 29 million som (nearly US$422,000) in total from Azattyk, ProMedia and Idinov, according to media reports. On March 14, the courts ordered bank accounts for Azattyk and Zanoza to be frozen and on March 15 a lien was put on Idinov’s Bishkek apartment. The journalist is accused of slander over a 2015 Zanoza article that alleged Atambayev is involved in corruption.
The other charges relate to reports in Azattyk and Zanoza about allegations opposition leader Tekebayev made that the president is corrupt, according to a copy of the prosecutors’ file viewed by CPJ.
Authorities arrested Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, upon his arrival at Bishkek airport on February 25, 2017, and charged him with fraud and corruption. His party says the charges are politically motivated and that he will continue to run for office from custody. Two lawyers representing Tekebayev were charged with insulting the president after holding a press conference about their client’s arrest and claims, according to reports.
In his March 15 speech, Atambayev said that the news outlets should not complain about fines because RFE/RL has a “budget of hundreds of millions of dollars” and Zanoza “receives generous grants from their foreign patrons.” During a March 24 media briefing in Bishkek the president said he is prepared to take his case against RFE/RL to international courts, and said he would complain about the broadcaster to President Donald Trump when he visits the U.S. in September.
In response, RFE/RL reported that its 2016 budget for all operations was $108.4 million. The Kyrgyz service is one of its 26 language services.
Also this month, authorities expelled Grigory Mikhailov, the Bishek-based correspondent for the Russian news agency Regnum, from Kyrgyzstan for visa violations, regional and local media reported. According to his employer, police stopped Mikhailov on March 10 and questioned him about his political views, before transporting him to neighboring Kazakhstan, 25km from Bishkek. He was then denied reentry. Regnum reported that expired visas are usually punishable with a fine. The news agency has widely reported on corruption allegations and Atambayev’s crackdown on media.
In another move to silence dissent, Kyrgyzstan changed its constitution in December to prevent citizens taking cases to international bodies such as the U.N. Atambayev started pushing for a referendum on constitutional amendments shortly after the U.N. Human Rights Council ordered Kyrgyzstan to release and compensate Askarov, a jailed ethnic Uzbek journalist from Kyrgyzstan whom CPJ honored with its 2012 International Press Freedom Award.
Askarov sought redress with the U.N. to appeal a life sentence handed down in 2010. Atambayev ignored the Human Rights Council ruling in April last year and called for a re-trial. The court ruled in January to uphold Askarov’s life sentence.
Following the U.N. decision, Atambayev’s adviser Busurmankul Tabaldiyev called the constitution article that gives citizens the right to appeal to international bodies, a “national security threat.” Tekebayev, an author of the previous constitution that included a provision that prohibits amendments until 2020, criticized Atambayev’s proposal.
Independent analysts believe Atambayev is trying to silence critical voices because he intends to stay in power when his presidential term ends in November. The 2017 election, if peaceful, will be the first constitutional handover of power.
Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has seen two ousters of presidents–in 2005 and 2010. In both instances, Azattyk was instrumental in reporting the events and giving a platform to opposition leaders as well as government officials. Azattyk enjoyed favorable working environments, unprecedented for a region known for its harsh and often brutal treatment of independent journalists. When I reported from Kyrgyzstan in 2005 for RFE/RL’s English-language Central Newsroom, Azattyk‘s bureau in downtown Bishkek was frequented by government officials and opposition leaders alike. Many correspondents, including myself, had phone numbers of political figures, including Roza Otunbayeva, who subsequently became head of the transitional government in 2010, and Kubatbek Baibolov, then-parliament speaker, on speed-dial. Following the 2005 revolution, Otunbayeva brought a cake to the bureau to celebrate.
But journalists working in Bishkek ahead of this year’s election say space for independent reporting is shrinking.
Kislov, whose news agency Fergana has provided unbiased reporting on Kyrgyzstan in general, and Askarov’s case, in particular, says Atambayev’s “purge” of the media space “targets the best media outlets and journalists who covered the corruption allegations extensively.”
“Atambayev wants to be immune to prosecution after his presidential term ends by ensuring the political status quo. For that, he wants to either become a prime minister or will have [his ally] become president and guarantee [Atambayev’s] immunity,” said Kislov, who spoke with CPJ from Moscow.
During a February 28 joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Bishkek, Atambayev said that he would remain in politics, albeit not as president. According to reports, constitutional amendments passed last year transfer presidential powers to the prime minister’s office after Atambayev’s term as president ends.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog post has been updated to clarify that Askarov is an ethnic Uzbek journalist from Kyrgyzstan.]