Kiryl Sukhotski, regional director for Europe and television production of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), is pictured on January 27, 2022, at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. The bank account of Radio Azattyk, U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster RFE/RL’s local service in Kyrgyzstan, was frozen under money laundering laws. (AFP/Michal Cizek)

Kyrgyzstan freezes Radio Azattyk bank account under money laundering laws

Stockholm, November 4, 2022—Kyrgyz authorities should immediately restore access to the bank account and website of Radio Azattyk, U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s local service, and cease all attempts to obstruct the outlet’s work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Monday, October 31, staff at the local offices of Turkey-based DemirBank informed Radio Azattyk that they had frozen the outlet’s account under orders of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS), news reports said.

Kyrgyz authorities have yet to provide any confirmation or explanation for the freeze, those reports said. However, DemirBank stated in a Facebook post and letter to Radio Azattyk on Thursday, November 3, that the account has been suspended under Article 14 of Kyrgyzstan’s law “On countering the financing of terrorist activities and the legalization (laundering) of criminal proceeds,” which allows the suspension of accounts deemed to be involved in money laundering.

The move comes after Kyrgyzstan’s ministry of culture last week ordered Radio Azattyk’s website blocked for two months under false information legislation, a decision CPJ criticized as censorship. A November 3 statement by RFE/RL described these actions as part of a series of “punitive steps” against its Kyrgyz service by authorities. Jamie Fly, RFE/RL president and CEO, called the move to freeze Radio Azattyk’s bank account an “escalation” and vowed to fight “this attempt to silence our journalists.”

“After blocking Radio Azattyk’s website, freezing the outlet’s bank account is another outrageous and apparently unlawful step taken by Kyrgyz authorities to pressure one of the country’s most important news sources. These and all other efforts to obstruct the work of Radio Azattyk must end immediately,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Kyrgyz authorities must stop treating the independent press like an enemy and allow Radio Azattyk and other independent outlets to work without harassment and impediment.”

Under Article 14 of the money laundering law, banks are required to block the accounts of any entities in a register where there is information of involvement in money laundering. The register is maintained by the country’s State Financial Intelligence Service (SFIS), which is under the Ministry of Finance and decides on additions to the register based on information received from government ministries and other sources, according to a government decree setting out the law’s operation.

This register was not publicly available on SFIS’ website and CPJ was unable to determine whether Radio Azattyk had been placed on it. The decree says the register must be “published” on the “Registers” section of the site, but a CPJ review found that while the “Registers” section exists, the section did not contain that register. DemirBank did not provide further information about why the account was frozen.

SFIS told CPJ in a November 23 email that Radio Azattyk’s account had been frozen under Article 14 based on an SCNS letter. SFIS did not elaborate. The register is in a restricted part of its website, SFIS said.

CPJ emailed RFE/RL for comment, but the broadcaster referred to its existing statements. CPJ’s emailed requests for further information to DemirBank and SCNS were not answered.

In a phone interview, Akmat Alagushev, media representative for local advocacy group Media Policy Institute, called the freeze “ridiculous,” saying it was equivalent to accusing the U.S. government, which funds Radio Azattyk, of money laundering. Alagushev said there was no point seeking a legal rationale behind the decision, as Kyrgyz authorities are simply “pursuing all possible methods to prevent Azattyk from working.”

The freeze can be appealed in the courts, but Alagushev said he expects SFIS to reverse the decision in the coming days as it has no legal basis.

CPJ emailed the ministry of culture for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.

Editor’s note: Details about the register and what the decree says about it were corrected in the seventh paragraph and SFIS’ post-publication response was updated in the eighth and ninth paragraphs.