Kyrgyzstan’s Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) reportedly withdrew a complaint it had filed against award-winning outlet Kloop on February 2, a day after the news site received two letters from the Ministry of Culture and the country’s communications regulator demanding the removal of an article. ARIS had initially complained about the article and threatened to block Kloop’s website.
Under a “fake news” law passed in 2021, the Kyrgyz government can to request that information deemed “inaccurate” be removed from a website. If the website owner does not comply, the site may be blocked.
Kloop refused to remove the article about which ARIS had complained. In the January 25 article, Kloop reported a statement posted by ARIS on January 24 in which the agency pushed back on the “dissemination of information about the overpricing of construction” related to reconstruction efforts in Batken. Batken was heavily affected by the Kyrgyz-Tajik violence last year. ARIS did not specify who had made statements about overpricing, but Kloop made the connection: On January 20 the site had reported such comments regarding ARIS made by the head of the press service of the presidential administration, Daiyrbek Orunbekov, on January 19.
The core of ARIS’s complaint was that its statement had not named Orunbekov as the source of the comments to which it was responding. Kloop’s retort was that it was the prerogative of journalists to interpret sequences of events and the connections between them. Kloop agreed to edit the article’s title and include ARIS’s comments, but not to remove any of the material.
On February 6 Kloop reported that ARIS had withdrawn its complaint last week, though it only announced it had done so after Kloop requested.
The whole rigamarole illustrates a few things. First, Kyrgyzstan’s “fake news” law is being used precisely as human rights activists warned back in 2021 it would be. Rather than taking on troll armies and disinformation, as its sponsors had claimed, it has instead been used in an effort to control what and how Kyrgyzstan’s independent media outlets report. Back in 2021, Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher Syinat Sultanalieva, said the law “paves the way to state-managed censorship and runs counter to Kyrgyzstan’s national and international human rights obligations.”
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service is presently embroiled in several legal battles in Kyrgyzstan, including against a pending court case in which the Ministry of Culture is trying to shut down the outlet’s operations in the country entirely. Radio Azattyk, as the Kyrgyz Service is known locally, has had its websites blocked since October and its bank accounts frozen, too.
Additionally, Kloop’s most recent run-in with the Kyrgyz government illustrates how poorly government agencies manage press relations and how little such agencies seem to understand journalism. The media’s role is not to just reprint a government press release, adding no context or additional information. ARIS’s January 24 statement responded to comments made in public; the agency may not have named the source, but Kloop had already reported on the comments — it was not a wild leap of imagination to connect the two. It was journalism.
The brief threat to block Kloop elicited a string response from rights organization such as the Committee to Protect Journalists. Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement late last week, “Kyrgyzstan authorities’ attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country’s most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted.”
Azattyk and Kloop are not alone in facing difficulties. On February 6, Asel Otorbayeva, the head of 24.kg, posted on Facebook a summons she received from the State Committee for National Security, initially for February 3 but postponed to February 6. After a two-hour interrogation she left the SCNS and told 24.kg that a criminal case had been opened regarding a publication on their website.
Otorbayeva said she “got the impression that the investigation was not interested in the information itself, but in the comments to it that appeared in one of the social networks.” She pointed out that many offensive comments are left by fake or anonymous accounts. “Why don’t their bodies detect and stop their destructive writings?” she asked.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s government put forward a new media law proposal last fall. In the most recent draft, 24.kg reported, popular bloggers — those whose pages have 5,000 unique visitors per month — will be required to register with the state. The Kyrgyz Media Policy Institute said in an analysis of the proposed law that the government wants to equate bloggers with journalists and “give them the responsibilities of an entire editorial office.” This, the institute said, would have a “deterrent effect on those forms of expression that by their nature are not subject to verification, such as expressing one’s opinion about the quality of healthcare, education, housing and communal services, unemployment.”