Police officers patrol in front of the parliament building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on March 26, 2020. The country's parliament recently passed a restrictive new bill to limit so-called false information online. (AFP/Vyacheslav Oseledko)

Kyrgyzstan parliament approves ‘false information’ bill

Stockholm, August 10, 2021 – Kyrgyzstan President Sadyr Japarov should reject legislation approved by parliament that imperils press freedom in the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On July 28, the Jogorku Kengesh, the country’s parliament, approved the bill “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” by a vote of 97 to 5, according to news reports and parliament’s website. The bill will go into effect if Japarov signs it, according to those reports.

The bill, the text of which CPJ reviewed, allows anyone to demand that allegedly false or defamatory information about them posted online be taken down within 24 hours and for its publisher to issue a correction. If the content is not removed within that timeframe, the plaintiff may apply to have the website or social media account’s activity suspended until the content is removed.

The bill does not stipulate how this process will be administered, leaving it to be defined by the Cabinet of Ministers, a decision-making body in the executive branch.

The bill also requires website owners and social media account holders to publicly display their names, initials, and email addresses, and requires internet service providers and public internet access points such as internet cafes to catalog the identities of their users.

“Kyrgyzstan’s ‘false information’ legislation threatens to seriously undermine the country’s fragile press freedoms,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna. “Kyrgyzstan already has civil defamation codes on its books to address issues raised by the legislation. President Sadyr Japarov should reject the legislation, and authorities should refrain from adding expansive but poorly defined new powers to unspecified state bodies that could easily be weaponized against journalists.”

The bill is a revised version of an earlier draft law, which was returned to parliament by former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in August 2020 following public protest, and which CPJ condemned. At the time, dozens of media outlets and journalists sent an open letter to Jeenbekov stating that the proposed law sought to “wipe out” anti-corruption reporting in the country.

In its analysis of a previous draft, the Media Policy Institute, a local advocacy organization, wrote that the bill was devised “to protect [senior state officials and parliamentary deputies] from criticism using administrative resources.”

The new legislation restricts the term “inaccurate (false) information” to online information “defamatory to the honor, dignity and business reputation of another person,” a level of detail not included in the original draft.

Defamation cases in Kyrgyzstan are handled under the country’s civil code, which provides for the printing of corrections and the award of moral damages. The new legislation maintains the right of plaintiffs to apply to the courts separately for damages.

Nurbek Sydykov, a lawyer at the Media Policy Institute, told CPJ in a phone interview that, while the latest version of the bill gives the Cabinet of Ministers power to decide how it would be administered, that body would likely assign such cases to an existing state department.

The bill grants website owners and internet users the right to “disagree” with complainants and contest suspensions in the courts. However, Sydykov said that the appeals process is likely to take at least four to five months, during which time the websites and accounts would remain suspended. While the suspensions are in effect, defendants would be barred from opening any new websites or social media accounts, the bill says.

Sydykov added that the bill did not specify how the government would enforce the provisions requiring website owners, social media account holders, internet service providers, and public internet access points to identify users.

The bill’s author, member of parliament Gulshat Asylbaeva, has argued that it is needed to combat widespread use of fake accounts and troll farms to discredit political actors in the country.

Sydykov told CPJ that, if enacted, the bill will allow the authorities to take “very swift measures” to block media criticism and journalistic investigations, and will lead to increased self-censorship among journalists.

CPJ emailed the press service of the Jogorku Kengesh for comment, but did not receive any reply.