New York, June 9, 2017--Kyrgyz authorities should drop a criminal investigation into independent journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, allow him to work freely, and cease blocking access to a news website that published his writing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Security officials are investigating Babakulov on suspicion of "inciting inter-ethnic hatred," Kyrgyz and regional media reported today.
The country's State National Security Committee (GKNB) investigation into the journalist followed the publication of a May 23 article he wrote for the Moscow-based, regional news website Fergana, in which he analyzed Kyrgyz-language social media posts and concluded that they incited hatred against the country's ethnic Uzbek minority, used ethnic slurs, and urged the "slaughter" of ethnic Uzbeks. Since then, Babakulov received death threats, members of parliament urged the government to strip him of his citizenship, and state and pro-government media labeled him an "instigator of ethnic hatred" and an "enemy of Kyrgyzstan," CPJ documented at the time.
Fergana editor Daniil Kislov told CPJ that Kyrgyzstan blocked access to Fergana today. The news website was included on leading Kyrgyz internet service provider Megaline's list of websites it blocks when CPJ accessed the list today. The company cited a district court order dated today as the justification for the censorship.
"Investigating Ulugbek Babakulov for inciting ethnic hatred because he criticized those who he said incited ethnic hatred is an outrage," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "Lawmakers and pro-government media have tried to smear Babakulov as a traitor and villain for warning about the dangers of nationalism. We call on Kyrgyzstan to cease harassing the journalist immediately and to restore access to his outlet, the website Fergana."
Three days ago, the GKNB launched investigations into at least six social media users who posted negative comments about ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. One of those social media users was arrested today, according to press reports.
"Ulugbek is a journalist who reported about social media posts. He did not write them himself. Charging him with inciting hatred is absurd. He was doing his job and was doing it well," Fergana's Kislov told CPJ.
"The authorities cannot solve the problem of nationalism...and so they decided to make a scapegoat out of me," Babakulov told the independent news website Zanoza, to which he has contributed, in a June 1 interview.
The charge of inciting ethnic hatred carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, according to Kyrgyzstan's criminal code.