One of Central Asia’s most respected independent news outlets is taking a government agency in Kyrgyzstan to court for blocking its website. The trial is scheduled to begin in Bishkek later this week.
Moscow-based Fergana News claims Kyrgyz authorities unconstitutionally banned its website – Fergananews.com, formerly known as Ferghana.ru. The ban was imposed by a parliamentary resolution, not a court ruling, as is required under the country’s media law.
Fergana News was one of many prominent outlets to voice criticism about authorities’ response to ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. A year later, on June 9, 2011, after weeks of heated debate over the causes of the violence, parliament voted 95-0 to block the site, passing a resolution that labeled Fergana News “extremist.”
Nationalist lawmakers in parliament were seen as the driving force behind the ban, which was part of a broad backlash against outside criticism of the Kyrgyz leadership’s handling of the violence, which centered on the southern towns of Osh and Jalal-Abad.
A month before the Fergana News ban, parliament voted to ban an international investigator, Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen, from reentering Kyrgyzstan after he authored a report detailing how Uzbeks had suffered disproportionately during the violence, and pointed to evidence that Kyrgyz military units may have been involved crimes against humanity. Kiljunen calculated that 470 people died during the Osh troubles, of which 74 percent were Uzbek, yet “Uzbeks are more than 30 times more often accused of murder [by authorities] than the Kyrgyz.”
Kiljunen’s findings were supported by reports from other respected research groups, such as International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch. International organizations, along with Kiljunen, additionally faulted Bishkek for failing to encourage reconciliation. Fergana News covered the developments in detail.
It is unclear why the Fergana News ban took eight months to go into effect, but it began in February of this year. At the time, the New York-based Committee to Project Journalists condemned Kyrgyz leaders, saying that “yet again, an authoritarian government gets an Internet service provider to do its censorship dirty work.”
According to Fergana News’ lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, the news service filed a suit in a Bishkek court on November 19 against the Kyrgyz Communication Agency for carrying out parliament’s order without a court order. “The first trial session is due on December 14,” said Toktakunov, who went on to outline what he described as irregularities in the implementation of the ban. “According to the Kyrgyz legislation, first the authorities should have applied to the prosecutor’s office to determine whether Fergana News carried extremist ideas, and only then ask a court to block the website.”
Officials at the State Communications Agency, which controls Internet service providers, say they are not in a position to defy an order from parliament.
“The resolution of the National Parliament is a normative legal act – a bylaw – and we did not have the right not to execute a decision of the parliament, which was designed to defend the security and integrity of the country,” Abdisamat Sagynbaev, the agency’s acting director, told EurasiaNet.org on December 10.
Asked whether the Agency is legally obligated to obey parliament’s orders, Sagynbaev said the situation was “confusing” and refused to answer more questions.
Passions are still strained over the violence, and many ethnic Kyrgyz continue to believe they were unfairly pilloried in the aftermath of the Osh events in the court of international public opinion. “The Fergana News website should have been prohibited a long time ago because the contents of its stories are one-sided, are not factual, and therefore violate not only the standards of journalism, but also ethical standards,” activist Idirisbek Kubatbekov told EurasiaNet.org. Kubatbekov serves as the chairman of the Human Rights and Democracy Center, an Osh-based NGO that has received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Kubatbekov alleged that Fergana News has an agenda to discredit Kyrgyz. The coverage of the June violence “was provocative and provided distorted information, thus misleading its readers and showing Kyrgyz in a negative light,” he said.
Fergana News does have some defenders inside the halls of power in Bishkek. MP Irina Karamushkina, a member of parliament’s Defense and Security Committee, disagrees, saying, “the news agency’s reports about the June events were quite balanced.”
“Only the court is authorized to make such decision,” she added. Parliament’s ruling “is not legally binding.”
At the time of the parliamentary resolution, Fergana News editor Daniil Kislov called on authorities to act based on the law, not “emotional hostility.” Now he says he’s forced to take the matter to the courts because despite his repeated pleas, the site remains blocked.
“If they [parliamentarians who voted for the ban] believe in what they say, let them take us to court as only the court can make any legal decisions. We were closed in Kyrgyzstan without any trial, thus the decision was illegal. All we want is to settle the issue in court,” Kislov said.
Even with the blockade, readers in Kyrgyzstan have been able to access the site thanks to proxy servers and Fergana News’ Facebook page.
Kislov said that the ban was “stupid” for the authorities because it had in fact boosted the site’s popularity among Kyrgyz readers.
“The first weeks after the ban, the number of users from Kyrgyzstan decreased, but later on they grew more and more. We have about 17,000 to 20,000 unique visitors every day, including about 4,000 from Kyrgyzstan,” said Kislov. “In fact, we should thank the Kyrgyz authorities for banning us as it promoted our site.”
Marat Tokoev, chairperson of Journalists, a Bishkek-based media watchdog, says the ban has only damaged the country’s image. “The ban on Fergana News access is pointless as new software allows users easily to access blocked websites,” he said.