Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.
Ombudsman Baktybek Amanbaev says the law violates constitutional provisions on free speech. He promises to appeal to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court. “I’m going to protect our constitution,” Amanbaev told EurasiaNet.org shortly after the bill was signed.
The US Embassy said on May 19 that it is “disappointed” with the president’s decision, calling the law “a setback for freedom of speech.” The Embassy urged the government to repeal its “anti-democratic” decision, arguing that while the law is unlikely to solve the problem of false information in the media, “it will almost certainly have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.”
Some see parallels to recent legislation in both Russia and Kazakhstan, which have tightened controls over free expression.
Dina Maslova, the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper’s online editor, concedes the law could do something to help improve the quality of journalism in Kyrgyzstan, especially the Kyrgyz-language media, “where there's a lot of material based on hearsay.” But Maslova fears politicians have designed the law to give them a safety net ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015. “It is very likely that soon several show trials will take place for everyone to understand what a journalist can be convicted of,” she told EurasiaNet.org on May 20.
The law follows other initiatives that have alarmed civil society activists in recent months, such as a bill – reintroduced into parliament this month – that would criminalize publications that paint gay people as normal human beings. Deputies have also debated a bill, also apparently inspired by new restrictive legislation in Russia, that would label foreign-financed NGOs “foreign agents.”