Stockholm, March 7, 2022 – Kyrgyzstan authorities should immediately release Next TV director Taalaibek Duishenbiev, drop their investigation into the outlet, and allow it to work freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.
On the afternoon of Thursday, March 3, the privately owned TV and radio broadcaster Next TV’s accounts on Facebook and Telegram published posts covering claims by a former head of Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency that Kyrgyzstan had secretly agreed to provide military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At about 7:30 p.m. that evening, plainclothes officers with the State Committee of National Security (SCNS), the country’s internal security agency, raided the station’s office in Bishkek, the capital, confiscated its broadcasting equipment, sealed the outlet’s studio and journalists’ offices, and detained Duishenbiev, according to news reports and Next TV journalist Perizat Saitburkhan, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
In a closed court hearing on Saturday, the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek ordered Duishenbiev to be held until May 3 on charges of inciting interethnic hatred “by a group of persons by prior conspiracy,” according to those sources. If convicted, he could face five to seven years in prison, according to the country’s criminal code.
“As their attacks on the independent press intensify, Kyrgyz authorities appear to be resorting to any legal means, however spurious, to clamp down on critical outlets,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities must immediately release Taalaibek Duishenbiev, drop the investigation into Next TV, and allow the station to resume broadcasting without interference.”
The Facebook and Telegram posts by Next TV cited the Ukrainian outlet Ukraine Now, and Kyrgyzstan’s Defense Ministry later denied the allegations, which had been reported by a number of Ukrainian news outlets.
In its press release, the SCNS accused the broadcaster of spreading “false information” that “misleads the population of the Kyrgyz Republic and other countries and acts as a catalyzer for inciting interethnic strife.”
Duishenbiev’s lawyer Akmat Alagushev told CPJ in a phone interview that Duishenbiev denied the charges and they would appeal the decision to keep him in custody, as well as the sealing of the outlet’s studio and workspace, which he said investigators had carried out unlawfully.
Alagushev added that, as authorities had opened an investigation for alleged group conspiracy, charges could also be filed against other Next TV employees. He told CPJ that the charges against Duishenbiev were illegitimate not only because Next TV had simply republished allegations reported by another outlet, and that the information posed no threat to interethnic relations, but also because Next TV’s social media accounts were not legally related to the television station and were not verified accounts, so the outlet’s director and staffers should not be held responsible.
SCNS officers detained technical engineer Taalai Beishenbaev during the office raid, interrogated him without a lawyer present, confiscated his phone, and released him at about 3 a.m. on Friday, according to Saitburkhan.
Also on Friday, investigators summoned and questioned Saitburkhan and a producer at the outlet, and on Monday questioned another four employees, Saitburkhan said.
Saitburkhan told CPJ that the charges were a “mere pretext” to shutter Next TV, and that the outlet had been targeted due to its critical reporting and the fact that Next TV rebroadcasts material from U.S. Congress-funded RFE/RL’s local service Radio Azattyk across the country, which she said current Kyrgyz leadership “strongly dislikes.”
Next TV is reportedly controlled by opposition politician and former presidential candidate Ravshan Jeenbekov, who has twice been jailed and remains under investigation by the authorities. Jeenbekov wrote on Facebook following the raid that the SCNS had been pressuring him “for several months” to close the broadcaster.
Previously, on February 1, the prosecutor general’s office placed independent news website Kaktus.media under investigation for alleged “propaganda of war” after the outlet reprinted an article from a Tajik news site about a clash at the disputed border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as CPJ documented at the time.
CPJ emailed the State Committee for National Security for comment, but did not immediately receive any reply.