A lawsuit brought against an independent journalist by Kyrgyzstan’s secret police suggests the country’s democratic gains are backsliding, a prominent human rights group says.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) has demanded 1 million soms (over $19,000) in damages from journalist Shorukh Saipov. The GKNB says its reputation was marred by an article the journalist wrote for Fergana News in May in which he quoted an unnamed source complaining that the secret police extort money from Muslims with threats to prosecute them for religious extremism. It is this type of claim that has led young Muslims to flee Kyrgyzstan to join Islamic extremists fighting in the Middle East, EurasiaNet.org reported recently.
Fergana News says the charges are “unfounded” and characterizes them as “harassment.” The outlet quotes a GKNB official as saying that Saipov’s article is “unfounded” and “directly undermines the credibility [and] authority of our body in the eyes of the public.”
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee said on August 25 that the case is a reminder of the tactics President Kurmanbek Bakiyev used to silence his critics before he was ousted in bloody street riots in 2010.
The NHC is concerned that the libel suit could mark the beginning of a return to practices associated with the period preceding the April 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan, when harassment and libel suits against journalists were commonplace. In the time since, Kyrgyzstan’s media freedom record has improved markedly, setting it apart from practices in several neighboring Central Asian states. […]
“The implications of this move by the security services go beyond this particular case,” said Ivar Dale, Regional Representative of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Central Asia. “The allegations presented in the article are not those of Mr. Saipov personally, but of one of his interviewees. In either case, the GKNB has several options available to them if they wish to refute these claims, including a written statement to the news outlet where the article first appeared. Going after journalists in this manner is likely to cause greater harm to their reputation than this article may have done in the first place,” he continued.
One of the methods of the Bakiyev government when faced with criticism, whether founded or unfounded, was to claim compensation in the shape of crippling amounts from independent news outlets. “The current government has rightly been praised for ending this practice, and for facilitating an open public discussion in Kyrgyzstan,” said Dale.
Fergana News is one of the few independent media outlets in Central Asia. In a region where authorities often dictate how news is presented, its journalists have frequently drawn the ire of officials, including in Kyrgyzstan where parliament blocked the site for several years for the crime of reporting objectively on ethnic violence in 2010.
Saipov’s older brother, Alisher, was gunned down in 2007 in Osh, in a murder that has never been solved, but which his supporters believe was orchestrated by the Uzbek security services.
The hearing is set for August 28 at the Osh City Court.