Freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan is under serious threat, with journalists, media institutions, and human rights defenders facing repressive conditions and regulations. We spoke with Aigul Adzhieva from the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan (SFK) and lawyers Nurbek Sydykov and Altynai Isaeva from our partner organisation, Media Policy Institute (MPI), to get their expert insights into the recent erosion of press freedom in the country and the work they are doing to combat this.
In this article, we first have a written interview with Aigul, who provides an overview of the situation for press freedom in Kyrgyzstan. This is followed by a video in which Nurbek and Altynai discuss the vital legal defence work that MPI does to protect freedom of expression, the specific challenges they have been facing, and the strengthening of their capacity through partnerships with organisations like Media Defence.
Aigul Adzhieva, SFK:
Hello, Aigul. Thank you for speaking with us today. How do you see the current situation for press freedom in Kyrgyzstan?
Unfortunately, Kyrgyzstan has dropped 50 positions in the new 2023 World Press Freedom Index, ranking 122 out of 180, and it is likely to continue falling. Over the last two years, we have observed lawsuits against leading independent media outlets such as Azattyk, Kloop Media, Kaktus, and Politklinika. Kyrgyz journalists criticising government policies face detention, physical violence, online harassment, and regulatory pressure. The draft law “On Mass Media,” along with other legislative initiatives, the consideration of which may take place anytime soon, aims to severely restrict pluralism of opinion and media freedom—essential components of any democratic society.
The democratic space in the country is rapidly shrinking, and the current and emerging restrictions create an environment of self-censorship, fear, and emotional burnout among journalists, human rights activists, and social media users in general. A range of international human rights and media organisations have made appeals and joint statements in support of press freedom in Kyrgyzstan throughout this year and continue to urge our government to comply with its international obligations regarding fundamental freedoms and rights.
What trends have you been facing recently in Kyrgyzstan in relation to the decline of press freedom?
There is an overall trend to discredit and silence independent media by blaming journalists for being subjective, manipulative, or aiming to destroy the “traditional and national values of Kyrgyzstan.” Based on the “False Information” law, the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sport, and Youth Policy of Kyrgyzstan can block any website it desires, as it already happened to Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in October 2022. Currently, Kloop Media, known for their investigations into corruption within various governmental bodies, is facing the same fate as well.
There is a strong intention to control and regulate the content on the internet and social media, restricting users’ freedom of expression and capacity to access independent information. Just recently, the Ministry of Culture attempted to block the activities of TikTok in Kyrgyzstan, claiming that it has harmful effects on the mental development and health of children.
At the same time, during this unprecedented pressure on journalists, a positive trend of increased support from building associations, unions, and collaborations among media and human rights defenders has emerged. Every stakeholder is ready to share expertise, unite efforts, and resist jointly.
However, the recent attacks on media have become concerted. If previously these were mainly civil cases against journalists, now the number of criminal cases is prevailing—this is one of the main concerns of our legal experts. The government uses increasingly vague grounds to file cases against media and journalists, and because judges side with their appeals, this erodes confidence in the judicial system too. Hence, we cannot expect much protection for journalists and media organisations from the judicial system.
What actions do you believe are needed to improve the situation for reporters and better protect freedom of expression in the country?
The local public outcry and repeated appeals from international institutions and organisations that protect the rights of journalists to stop the pressure on Kyrgyz media are quite helpful. These serve to make clear to the Kyrgyz government that they run the risk of ostracising themselves from important global partners.
The constructive dialogue between policymakers and media society is not practised yet but is obviously required since journalists are punished and persecuted for carrying out their work. The current restrictions and control must be replaced with discussions, debates, and education. I believe that regulation is important but should consider human rights, comply with international standards, and not be fully concentrated within the government. Independent media regulatory bodies might be one of the solutions. They are based on the idea of freedom of the press and concurrently acknowledge that this freedom also implies responsibility.
Media Policy Institute:
To date, MPI has been providing legal support to over 3000 independent journalists and media organisations in both civil and criminal cases. They spoke to us about the vital work they do to protect journalists and freedom of expression.
The Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan (SFK), an international non-governmental private foundation. SFK strive to create conditions for building an open society in the Kyrgyz Republic, supporting the development of public institutions and initiatives in all spheres of public life for 28 years.
The Media Policy Institute is an independent non-profit organisation created in 2005 with the goal of developing a free information space in Kyrgyzstan.
We support organisations that either have or wish to establish a legal aid unit to provide free legal support to journalists or media outlets. Read more about the support we could provide here.
If you are a journalist facing legal threats because of your work, apply for our support here.
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