Five years after an ethnic conflict left hundreds dead and Kyrgyzstan’s second city smoldering, the uneven application of racial hatred laws is still hindering open conversations about nationalism.
Last week, veteran journalist Ulugbek Babakulov, who is editor of the MK Asia newspaper and a member of an ethnic minority group, was questioned by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security service and informed that tens of people had signed a statement calling for him to be charged for spreading ethnic hatred.
Babakulov had not publicly defamed another ethnicity. His alleged offence appears to be criticizing an ethnic Kyrgyz public figure for doing so.
In a May issue of MK Asia (a local branch of the Russian daily Moskovsky Komsomolets), Babakulov highlighted comments made late last year by Abdyrakhman Alimbaev, a former head of the Writer’s Union of Kyrgyzstan, likening non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups to “jackals.”
During the December 7 broadcast of the Kyrgyz talk show Tooluktardyn – “Mountain People” – on state broadcaster OTRK, Alimbaev allegedly said: “Of course, if the child's mother is an Uzbek, an Uighur woman or a Jew, the child may become a trader. […] What do we see today? Kyrgyz women marry men of different nationalities, and Kyrgyz men also marry different women. It is like a lion marrying a jackal or a jackal marrying a lioness.”
A court in Tashkent has ordered one of Uzbekistan’s few privately owned newspapers to close, accusing it of undermining the nation’s moral values.
The silencing of the Noviy Vek weekly is the latest blow to the beleaguered media in Uzbekistan, which watchdogs single out as having one of the world’s worst press-freedom records.
“The newspaper was closed down” by court order, Shakhriyor Mansurov, a spokesman for the government’s Agency for Press and Information – which brought the case – confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on May 21, the day after the ruling.
Noviy Vek could not be reached for comment, its telephones going unanswered on May 21. Its website was updated on May 21, but did not mention the case against the newspaper (which is published in print every Thursday).
Mansurov said he was unable to provide any background details to the case. But the Uzmetronom.com website – the only Uzbekistani-based outlet to mention the trial – reported that the government agency had accused Noviy Vek of publishing material “contradicting principles of moral development, shaping an incorrect notion of the socio-political situation in the country, and causing detriment to traditional values.”
The Agency for Press and Information, which had found these alleged violations in the Russian-language newspaper’s reporting, refused to hold the trial in Russian (as the defense had wished) on the grounds that its officials could not speak Russian, Uzmetronom.com said.
A leading newspaper in Kyrgyzstan claims President Almazbek Atambayev’s administration has launched a frontal assault on critical media in the run-up to parliamentary elections this fall.
The embattled, opposition-minded Vechernii Bishkek, whose ownership is the subject of a protracted legal dispute, is under investigation by the secret police for accusing, in an April 17 statement, the president’s aids of attempting to seize the paper.
The State Committee on National Security, the GKNB – which answers to Atambayev – is evaluating if the paper’s statement contains “public calls for a violent overthrow of the constitutional order in the country,” Fergana.ru reported April 25, citing a GKNB press release. Rights lawyers complain the GKNB finds whatever it wants when it conducts such linguistic investigations of allegedly offensive documents.
In Vechernii Bishkek’s statement, the paper appealed to citizens not to remain indifferent to an expropriation bid they say is backed by Atambayev’s team, and which may eventually lead to owner Alexander Kim losing full control of the paper and its lucrative printing press.
Officials in Atambayev’s administration, the paper argues, are trying to silence independent media ahead of parliamentary elections this fall; presidential elections are due in 2017.
The offending statement alleges the current elite around Atambayev is adopting the rapacious habits of previous authoritarian regimes. It may be slightly hyperbolic at times, but one would be hard-pressed to find anything in the statement that threatens the government’s existence.
Satellite dishes are ubiquitous in Ashgabat. The government wants them gone.
According to rights watchdogs and the crumbs of independent reporting coming out of Turkmenistan, the authoritarian government is busy stripping homes of their satellite receivers, plunging the insulated country further into isolation.
At the end of March, 2015, local housing authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, and its suburbs started ordering residents of multi-story apartment buildings to take down their satellite dishes, citing simply an “order from above” that allegedly stated the dishes ruined the view of the city. Authorities told residents they could instead get cable television packages through the government or state satellite antennae.
With Kazakhstan in the economic doldrums, the government is asking the “independent” media to don their rose-colored specs.
“At a time when measures to improve the economic situation are being carried out, the media is recommended to adhere to the following structure for publishing material,” says a statement sent to Kazakhstan’s private media outlets by the authoritarian government's Committee for Communications, IT, and Information and re-published by the Adil Soz media freedom watchdog on February 12.
A list of detailed “recommendations” follows, containing information on what the non-state media should publish, right down to the content, the frequency, and the thrust of the reporting.
The recommendations include publishing “material on every briefing as they are held (1-2 reports in the ‘Main News’ section)”; expert comments on the “correct measures [being taken by the government] and Kazakhstan’s margin of safety that will allow it to withstand a crisis”; and “infographics about Kazakhstan’s margin of safety and achievements in the years of independence (no less than once a month).”
Private media are also recommended to base their reporting on “official statements by competent state bodies,” and they should publish material “on negative social phenomena in foreign countries owing to the global economic situation (daily).”
Kazakhstan is blocking reports of an ethnic clash in the south, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.
Reports highlighting the ethnic angle of the unrest in the village of Bostandyk on February 5 – which pitted local Kazakhs against Tajiks after a row over a greenhouse ended in murder – have mostly become unavailable inside the country, while reports that covered the unrest without stressing the ethnic component are largely available.
Individual reports have been blocked on Kazakhstani sites such as Today.kz and in international media such as EurasiaNet.org and RFE/RL (some of whose reports were blocked while others were not).
Blocking individual reports rather than whole sites is a tactic increasingly used by the authorities to restrict access to information Astana deems sensitive. Legislative changes last year gave prosecutors power to block information without a court order. Since last fall law-enforcement agencies have blocked 703 websites and 198 individual reports, general-prosecutor Askhat Daulbayev said last month, mostly on grounds of extremism.
Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva in her office. (Photo: Joanna Lillis)
An appeal against the closure of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine was adjourned on February 5 amid circumstances that its hunger-striking editor described as “absurd.”
The hearing was adjourned after the plaintiff, Almaty City Hall, failed to show up, citing illness. That left Adam Bol magazine’s supporters questioning why the mayor’s office could not find another official to appear at the hearing.
One of the last remaining independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, Adam Bol was closed in November after a judge upheld the mayor’s office’s claim that it had called for war in its Ukraine coverage.
Wearing a white armband with “hunger strike” emblazoned across it in red letters and looking visibly emaciated, Adam Bol editor Guljan Yergaliyeva – a 63-year-old veteran journalist – said she believed the delay might be down to the “huge fallout” from the controversy.
The adjournment might be a “good sign” that the authorities may reconsider the closure, Yergaliyeva said. But some supporters suggested the government is simply hoping the publicity will die down.
The closure was described at the time by OSCE freedom of the media representative Dunja Mijatović as a “drastic and disproportionate” step that would “endanger pluralism in Kazakhstan and contribute to an atmosphere of fear for members of the media,” and by Reporters Without Borders as the “orchestrated throttling” of the magazine.
A prosecutor warns supporters of embattled news outlet Adam Bol on January 23 that they are breaking Kazakhstan’s stringent public assembly laws.
Kazakhstan’s authorities have taken a hard line against would-be protesters, rounding them up and throwing them in police cells to prevent them attending a public meeting in defense of a hard-hitting current affairs magazine that has been closed down.
The arrests came in the middle of a visit to Kazakhstan by a UN rapporteur to monitor how Astana upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Police arrested Guljan Yergaliyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Adam Bol outlet (who is on hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine), editors Ayan Sharipbayev and Miras Nurmukhanbetov, and prominent freedom of speech activist Rozlana Taukina as soon as they set off to attend the event on Almaty’s main Republic Square January 23.
“I understood [the police] were waiting for me, but I still intended to go and I went out to go and meet our readers, but our car was forcibly stopped and I was forcibly dragged out [by police officers],” Yergaliyeva said in a video address posted on Facebook after her release.
“They break the law themselves, they repress us,” added Yergaliyeva, who is on the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the closure of her magazine last November on the grounds that its reporting on Ukraine contained calls for war or violence.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]