Stockholm, January 16, 2024 — Kyrgyz authorities should drop criminal investigations into privately owned news website 24.kg and investigative outlet Temirov Live, release all detained current and former members of Temirov Live, and end their crackdown on the independent press, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday.
On Monday, officers from Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) in the capital, Bishkek, searched 24.kg’s office, confiscated its equipment, and detained the outlet’s general director Asel Otorbaeva and chief editors Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar, according to news reports.
The SCNS said a criminal investigation has been opened into 24.kg for “propaganda of war,” without providing more details, those reports stated. SCNS officers sealed 24.kg’s office and questioned Otorbaeva, Niyazova, and Lymar at SCNS headquarters as witnesses in that case for about 45 minutes each before releasing them, the outlet’s lawyer Nurbek Sydykov told CPJ by telephone.
Separately, on Tuesday, police in Bishkek raided the office of Temirov Live, confiscated its equipment, and arrested and searched the homes of 11 current and former staff of the outlet, the outlet’s founder, Bolot Temirov, told CPJ by telephone.
Local media quoted Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs as saying that a criminal investigation had been opened into unspecified publications by Temirov Live and sister project Ait Ait Dese for “calls to protest actions and mass unrest.” Police placed all 11 under arrest for 48 hours on those charges, pending a court ruling on further custody measures, according to reports and Temirov.
Press freedom has sharply deteriorated in Kyrgyzstan over the past two years amid a series of legal attacks on independent media. In 2022, authorities raided Temirov Live’s office and deported Kyrgyzstan-born Temirov. Authorities also ordered Radio Azattyk, the local service of U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), blocked. The following April, a court ordered the closure of Radio Azattyk, though several months later an appeals court reversed the decision after the outlet deleted a report that authorities had demanded removed. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz authorities are currently seeking to shutter Kloop, a local partner of global investigative network Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
“Having already cracked down on RFE/RL and Kloop, Kyrgyz authorities are now renewing their assault on key independent media by turning their sights on respected news website 24.kg and once again targeting award-winning anti-corruption journalist Bolot Temirov’s outlet, Temirov Live. Reports that authorities confiscated all the outlets’ equipment on such highly dubious grounds, gaining access to confidential sources, are deeply concerning,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Kyrgyz authorities should drop all investigations into 24.kg and Temirov Live, release all detained current and former members of Temirov Live, and end their repression of the independent press.”
Propaganda of war is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison, according to Article 407 of Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code. Calling for mass unrest is punishable by between five and eight years in prison under Article 278, Part 3, of the code.
SCNS officers began searching 24.kg’s editorial office at around 11 a.m. on January 15, not allowing the outlet’s lawyers to enter the premises until one and a half hours later, Sydykov told CPJ. Officers took all the outlet’s computer equipment before sealing the office shut, Sydykov said.
As SCNS officers led her from 24.kg’s editorial office, Niyazova told reporters that the investigation was related to one of 24.kg’s reports about Russia’s war in Ukraine. Niyazova confirmed to CPJ via messaging app that the investigation was related to one of the outlet’s publications, but said she was unable to say which one, as investigators made her and her colleagues sign nondisclosure agreements.
Niyazova added that the interrogated 24.kg staff “categorically disagree” with an SCNS assessment classifying the report as propaganda of war, saying she believes the investigation is retaliation for 24.kg’s “independent position.”
24.kg is one of Kyrgyzstan’s oldest online news outlets and one of the country’s leading sources for news, according to media reports. In September 2023, Russian authorities blocked the outlet over its reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Starting at around 6 a.m. on January 16, police in Bishkek and the nearby city of Tokmok searched the homes of Temirov Live and Ait Ait Dese director Makhabat Tajibek kyzy, Temirov Live reporter Aike Beishekeyeva, camera operator Akyl Orozbekov, Ait Ait Dese journalist Sapar Akunbekov, and Azamat Ishenbekov, a folk singer who collaborates with Ait Ait Dese. They also searched the homes of six former Temirov Live staff: Aktilek Kaparov, Tynystan Asypbekov, Joodar Buzumov, Saipidin Sultanaliev, Maksat Tajibek uulu, and Jumabek Turdaliev. Authorities took them all to Ministry of Internal Affairs headquarters in Bishkek or to police headquarters in Tokmok, according to Temirov.
Officers then took Tajibek kyzy to Temirov Live’s office, where they conducted a search, confiscated all of the outlet’s computer equipment, and sealed the office, according to news reports and Temirov.
Temirov told CPJ that it was unclear which of the outlet’s material police allegations relate to, but that none of its publications contained calls to mass unrest. The charges may be retaliation for a series of investigations into the wealth of Kyrgyzstan’s Minister ofInternal Affairs, Ulan Niyazbekov, published by Temirov Live in recent weeks, or a September 2023 investigation into links between President Sadyr Japarov’s son and major construction projects in Kyrgyzstan, conducted with Kloop and OCCRP. But it could also be related to older material, since investigators arrested former staff who had not worked for Temirov Live for over a year, Temirov said.
In December, CPJ and partners submitted a letter to United Nations special rapporteurs regarding Temirov’s arbitrary deportation.
CPJ emailed the State Committee for National Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan for comment but did not immediately receive any replies.