“At first, they appeared on my Instagram, then they showed up on my Facebook and YouTube accounts,” Ali Toktakunov told CPJ in a phone interview. The investigative Kyrgyz journalist and founder of Ali Toktakunov’s Media Hub, a foundation for investigative journalism, says he is a frequent target of trolls or fake social media accounts that journalists have identified as conducting apparently orchestrated attacks on members of the press.
The activity took on new intensity after parliamentary elections were voided in October 2020, Toktakunov said. After protests triggered the resignation of then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, and Sadyr Japarov – a nationalist politician freed from prison by his supporters – was appointed prime minister, independent journalists and media outlets faced physical as well as online attacks, as CPJ documented at the time. Japarov was elected president in January 2021, according to news reports.
Press freedom is already precarious in Kyrgyzstan, where CPJ has documented journalists assaulted and imprisoned for their work, and journalists targeted in recent attacks told CPJ they fear the situation could worsen under Sadyr Japarov’s leadership. Since his appointment, Japarov has reacted strongly to criticism, and initiated amendments to the constitution that experts fear could limit freedom of speech by emphasizing “traditional values” over the rule of law, according to news reports. Some journalists have already been summoned for interrogation for their perceived alignment with the political opposition, according to Toktakunov.
At the same time, Kyrgyz journalists have uncovered a growing domestic industry of fake social media accounts used for political purposes – and many have hounded journalists in the process. Journalists told CPJ that the uptick in harassment, combined with Japarov’s potentially more restrictive policies, may signal bigger challenges to come.
“Kyrgyzstan is living through some very difficult times now, both economically and politically; people are angry,” Toktakunov said. “In order to distract their attention and to shut up those who openly speak about the problems – including journalists – the authorities are using fakes.”
CPJ emailed the press offices of the Kyrgyz government and the administration of President Sadyr Japarov for comment, but did not receive a response before publication.
“Fakes” are social network accounts created under false names using stock or stolen photographs; in Kyrgyzstan, they frequently congregate in the comments sections of critical publications to attack authors or the outlet itself, according to video-producer Aleksandra Titova and news editor Aidai Irgebayeva from the Kyrgyz independent news outlet Kloop, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview. In December, Kloop published a months-long investigation that traced over 800 fake accounts, including several harassing journalists, to five groups they dubbed “fake farms.”
The investigation was prompted in part by a notable wave of online attacks following the 2019 publication of a collective investigation by Kloop, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, according to Irgebayeva. The investigation revealed a large-scale corruption scheme that involved high-level Kyrgyz customs officials, including Raimbek Matraimov, who international media later reported was found guilty of corruption and arrested. “Armies” of fakes started “aggressively commenting on anything published regarding that investigation,” according to Titova. Many shared support for Matraimov and tried to discredit the journalists who published it – even the project’s illustrator – while some posted “threats of murder and violence,” she said. The harassment also coincided with cyberattacks and legal harassment, CPJ noted at the time.
“They execute targeted attacks on the members of the press,” Titova told CPJ.
Irgebayeva started monitoring the activity of fake accounts on Kloop’s social media pages, at first just trying to get them blocked. “If I saw a profile that used, for example, a photo of a Mongolian model, I would find that model and say, “Your photo was stolen by a fake [profile] employed by corrupt Kyrgyz officials. Could you log in from your account and complain?” This way we managed to block several accounts,” she told CPJ.
As the quantity of fakes kept growing, Irgebayeva created a database to document their activities; within three months she had collected over 400, she said, and it became clear that the problem was larger than she imagined. After trying unsuccessfully to reach individual account operators directly, Kloop journalists found out that several were being managed by “curators” working out of organized “farms,” according to Titova.
Bolot Temirov, who founded the journalistic project Temirov.Live and served as chief editor of the independent investigative website Factcheck.kg until March 2021, told CPJ by phone that there are two main types of fakes in Kyrgyzstan: those for hire on a temporary basis, and those who are permanently “attached” to a politician and are ready to “immediately attack journalists for criticism or revelation of some facts.” Factcheck.kg has published a number of investigations exploring Kyrgyz fakes and trolls, and explaining how to identify fake accounts.
“These last elections have not been an exception – trolls and fakes actively attacked critical voices, though I don’t know how much they could actually influence the results,” Temirov told CPJ.
Temirov, who has authored numerous investigations of corruption among Kyrgyz power holders, businessmen, and politicians, said he has personally faced online harassment from a “huge, hired army of trolls” for over a year. “They say I ‘sold out to the West,’ that I was the “enemy of the people,” he told CPJ.
Yet while the attacks threaten to undermine independent reporting, Temirov said, the challenge is compounded by the fact that some journalists – sometimes entire editorial offices – also work in fake farms themselves.
“We don’t have a very developed advertising market that would allow journalistic independence,” said Temirov. “Some outlets exist thanks to grants, while others are financed by politicians, businessmen, oligarchs, and so on. [Owners] tell ‘their’ journalists and editors, that, for instance, they need to create a bunch of fakes and attack Bolot Temirov.”
“There were situations when journalists refused to write something bad about me,” he said. “There were also journalists who apologized to me, saying that they did follow the orders, but that they did not really mean what they wrote.”
Like the Kloop journalists and their colleagues, he was bombarded by “threats of violence, threats to kill,” Temirov said. “I have been living in the state of alert from all these threats, it is something impossible to get used to.”
Yet while there are journalists who have reduced their online activity, Temirov told CPJ that experienced investigative journalists have learned to evaluate the risks, and are continuing to do their work.
Ali Toktakunov agreed. “I am not paying any attention anymore,” he told CPJ. “I am responding [to attacks] with facts.”