A move to ban a popular, independent news outlet in Kyrgyzstan is dredging up bad memories among local rights activists. With the framework of checks and balances on legislative authority still ill-defined, activists worry the precedent is a sign of peril for the Central Asian nation’s experiment in parliamentary democracy.
After months of debate on culpability for last year’s interethnic violence involving Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, parliament unanimously endorsed a resolution June 16 that blamed ethnic Uzbek leaders for inciting unrest; authorized the rewriting of the country’s ethnic development policy; and prohibited the news website Fergana.ru (also known as fergananews.com) from operating in the country. The Moscow-based news website, which covered the tragic events in southern Kyrgyzstan in exhaustive detail, “ignites ethnic hatred,” according to the resolution.
Civil society activists contend that the June 16 resolution is unconstitutional. They also dispute the validity of a May 26 measure to ban the author of an international report that found evidence that Kyrgyz military units may have carried out crimes against humanity against minority Uzbeks during the violence. By law, parliament is beholden to a set of guidelines, a code of conduct specifically barring members from taking actions that limit freedom of expression, says Dinara Oshurahunova, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a parliament watchdog. “They either don’t know or don’t care: They [MPs] have taken on the function of the court system,” Oshurahunova said.
Oshurahunova and other activists say there is very little they can do to counter legislative overreaching. “We’re baffled,” she said. “We can’t do anything.”
“The decision [concerning Ferghana.ru] is not legal and not compatible with current legislation,” said human rights lawyer Dmitry Kabak. “The main function of the parliament is to adopt laws, but I’m sure there are no grounds for such resolutions under the law. The members of the parliament should pass their initiative through legal experts to examine compatibility with provisions of the Kyrgyz constitution.”
Kabak argues the suspect resolution is not only about Fergana.ru: politicians mainly have their eyes on this fall’s presidential elections.
“After the [Osh] conflict, the atmosphere is emotional in Kyrgyzstan,” said Kabak, head of the Open Viewpoint Foundation, a think-tank. “This is also a matter of the forthcoming presidential elections. Some deputies want to benefit. They aren’t happy that Fergana.ru was questioning the events and their interpretations openly.”
President Roza Otunbayeva has vowed to challenge the parliamentary resolution, comparing it to Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s clampdown prior to his ouster amid bloody street riots in April, 2010.
"We will not allow the atmosphere of fear and censorship to return to our country,” Otunbayeva told local journalists on June 17. "We will create dialogue and debate with our opponents and critics, not shut their mouths, as was practiced earlier. We will not forget that access to the website Fergana.ru had been blocked for several days before the events of April 7.”
Without a functioning constitutional court -- defunct since Bakiyev’s ouster -- it is unclear what the president can do to limit the legislature, Oshurahunova said. Adding to her concerns, parliamentary voting procedures during the June 16 resolution may have been violated. A majority of the 95 deputies who voted for the measure were not actually in the legislative chamber when the resolution came up for a vote. Those absent appear to have allowed the roughly 30 legislators who were on the floor to cast proxy votes for them. If that is the case, it constitutes a violation of the legislature’s current code of conduct, Oshurahunova maintained.
Opposition deputy Tursunbai Bakir uulu, who served as Kyrgyzstan’s top human rights official under Bakiyev, has defended the Ferghana.ru ban, telling RFE/RL that it was necessary to prevent future ethnic violence. He recommended several other critical sites be banned as well because they “try to create tensions between ethnic groups."
“This decision makes it evident that no real change in power has yet happened in Kyrgyzstan,” said Daniil Kislov, Ferghana.ru’s editor. He insisted the site’s journalists maintain international standards for fairness in reporting. He also pointed out that MPs routinely ignore provocative and nationalistic rhetoric in Kyrgyz-language newspapers that encourage members of minority groups to leave the country. “In Kyrgyzstan every day a lot of newspapers are being published -- predominantly in the official state language [Kyrgyz] -- and they are full of nationalistic insults, abuse and bad taste. And this is a real example of lopsidedness. Why are Kyrgyz parliamentary deputies not alarmed?” said Kislov. “This decision clearly shows the unwillingness of the deputies to discuss openly the problems accumulated in Kyrgyz society, especially the tragic Osh events.”
Praising Fergana.ru’s “exemplary responsibility and professionalism” in covering the Osh events, the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told Kyrgyz lawmakers, “Fergana is not responsible for bad news, which it just relays and analyzes.”
Fergana.ru is blocked in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the two Central Asian states Reporters Without Borders calls “Internet Enemies.”
Seeing Kyrgyzstan return to censorship, Oshurahunova is now having second thoughts about the country’s experiment with parliamentary democracy. MPs “who don’t care about the constitution or rule of law” – have wasted months arguing whom to blame for last year’s tragic violence, rather than addressing Kyrgyzstan’s urgent needs, she said.
“All this year we’ve just talked about the Osh events. Nothing else. Why does the whole country have to stop and do nothing? Parliament, give the courts this function [of assigning blame]. You have to help the country,” she said. “People have lots of problems and can’t wait until you decide whose fault Osh was. We can’t wait. We can’t keep living like this."
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia editor.