Kyrgyz and US officials
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, meets with Kyrgyzstan Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev, left, in 2023. Blinken has expressed concerns over a 'foreign agents' bill passed in Kyrgyzstan on March 14, 2024, which awaits President Sadyr Japarov's signature. (Photo: AP/Olivier Douliery)

Kyrgyzstan parliament approves ‘foreign agents’ law

Stockholm, March 15, 2024—Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov should reject Russian-inspired legislation that would designate externally funded media rights groups and nonprofits that run news outlets as “foreign representatives,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.

On Thursday, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament approved in a third and final reading, without debate, a bill requiring nonprofits that receive foreign funding and engage in what it defines as political activities to register as “foreign representatives,” according to news reports.

Japarov, who recently defended the law in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has a month to return the bill or sign it into law.

The bill, an amended version of a draft law previously criticized by CPJ, does not directly target news outlets but would apply to media rights organizations and nonprofits that run several of Kyrgyzstan’s prominent independent news websites, according to CPJ’s review.

A new provision requires organizations designated as “foreign representatives” to label their publications as being produced by a foreign representative. Other clauses grant authorities sweeping powers of oversight over the activities of “foreign representatives” and allow them to suspend or shutter nonprofits for alleged violations of the law.

“The ‘foreign agents’ bill passed by Kyrgyzstan’s parliament copies many of the worst aspects of Russia’s foreign agent legislation. It is clearly focused on stigmatizing nonprofits working in news media and threatens to hamstring the work of press freedom organizations,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov must show that his stated commitment to free speech is more than empty words by vetoing the bill and withdrawing his support for any form of foreign agent law.”

Submitted to parliament in May, the bill has elicited extensive international criticism, including from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, U.N. special rapporteurs, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Blinken.

The latest version of the bill, amended by parliament in February ahead of the second reading, removes a controversial clause stipulating prison terms of up to 10 years for vaguely defined offenses, according to CPJ’s review and an analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).

Under the bill, externally funded nonprofits must apply to a public register of “foreign representatives” if they participate in activities defined by the law as “political”—including “disseminating … opinions on decisions taken by state organs,” issuing public appeals to state organs and officials, and “shaping socio-political views and convictions, including by conducting surveys of public opinion.”

The law would require nonprofits to carry out a costly independent audit report each year, according to the ICNL. It would also grant authorities the right to request their internal documents, to send government representatives to participate in nonprofits’ internal activities, and to check—by as-yet-unspecified means—whether their activities and expenditures correspond to the aims listed in their articles of incorporation, it said. The U.N. special rapporteurs said these clauses “may amount to almost unrestricted administrative control over these associations.”

Authorities would have the power to suspend the activities of nonprofits for up to six months and freeze their bank accounts if they fail to declare themselves as foreign representatives or to label their publications after receiving a warning. Nonprofits that fail to rectify such omissions after suspension can be liquidated by the courts.

In his letter to Blinken, Japarov said Kyrgyzstan needed to ensure financial transparency of media outlets and NGOs. However, Aibek Askarbekov, an independent human rights lawyer, told CPJ that authorities already had full access to financial data of nonprofits, which are required to publish information about sources of income and expenditures online. The bill instead aims at “exerting tight control” over nonprofits, he said.

Parliamentary approval of the bill comes amid an unprecedented crackdown on independent reporting in a country previously seen as a regional haven for the free press. In January, Kyrgyz authorities arrested 11 journalists linked to the investigative outlet Temirov Live and raided the privately owned news agency In February, authorities shuttered the prominent news website Kloop.

CPJ’s emails to Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, lawmaker Nadira Narmatova, who introduced the bill to parliament, and the Office of the President requesting comment on the bill did not receive any replies.