Kyrgyzstan’s controversial “foreign representatives” bill is on the cusp of becoming law, even though opposition to the draft law has been loud and consistent since the idea was resurrected from the ashes of a 2016 effort in 2023 by Nadira Narmatova.
The latest to voice concern are the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Matteo Mecacci, and the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM), Teresa Ribeiro.
“Protecting freedom of association and other human rights is fundamental to every democracy,” Mecacci said in a press release. “If this legislation is adopted, I am worried it would have an overwhelmingly negative impact on civil society, human rights defenders, and the media in Kyrgyzstan. We call on the Parliament to reconsider this bill and stand ready to provide our support.”
Ribeiro noted in her comments that the draft law would introduce “burdensome reporting requirements” that are “likely to prove unsustainable for small and medium-sized media organizations, and will pose significant risks to media freedom and open debate on issues of public interest in Kyrgyzstan.”
Given Kyrgyzstan’s small media market, and the financial difficulties faced by media around the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of Kyrgyzstan’s best media outlets (such as Kloop and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service) are supported by external backers. While the law is not specifically targeted at media, the conflation of foreign funding with foreign influence will arguably harm media in Kyrgyzstan, alongside other NGOs.
“It is especially concerning that the amendments in question aim at introducing nearly total government control over the right to free expression of civil society and media actors,” Ribeiro said. “The mere possibility of criminal sanctions in case of non-compliance with the proposed legislation will have a significant chilling effect on media freedom and freedom of expression in the country.”
On January 22, the Jogorku Kenesh’s committee for constitutional laws approved the draft bill’s second reading, setting it up for a second full parliamentary consideration. If passed, it moves on toward a third reading and after that signature into law by President Sadyr Japarov.
In its report on the draft bill this week, Kloop noted several specific changes made in the second reading that make it even more restrictive. The changes Kloop highlighted included the requirement that any foreign NGO wanting to operate in Kyrgyzstan would have to register a representative office or branch in the country. Furthermore, if an NGO’s activities have been suspended under the law, the organization would be prohibited from most banking activities, other than administrative expenses – this would effectively halt an organization’s activities immediately.
Kloop also highlighted that the period for the law to come into force was reduced from three months to just 10 days; in addition, the period for the Cabinet of Ministers to prepare by-laws on related regulation was shortened from six months to a month. Together these changes mean that once passed, implementation of the law may be swift and haphazard.
Parliamentary deputy Dastan Bekeshev said after the second reading that the law would “be used as a weapon.”
Nine international human rights organizations urged the Kyrgyz parliament to reject the bill after the second reading in late January. Their statement laid out many of the most serious concerns about the legislation, from its broad definition of “political activities” to the way the law’s label “foreign representative” is stigmatizing and discrediting.
“If adopted and signed into law, the ‘foreign representatives’ bill is likely to have far-reaching implications for Kyrgyzstan’s vibrant civil society because most groups receive foreign funding due to the lack of domestic sources,” the human rights organizations noted.
In their statement, they also pointed out that opposition to the bill is widespread in Kyrgyzstan. In September 2023, when the bill was proposed, 120 Kyrgyzstani NGOs appealed to parliament to drop it, arguing that “the bill, if adopted, will have a negative effect on all [NGOs], including charitable and humanitarian organizations that provide social services to the population.”
Nevertheless, the bill has progressed. It’s not clear when the third reading will take place or whether there will be any kind of significant debate in parliament about it. If passed, Japarov is expected to sign it swiftly and as noted above by Kloop’s reporting, implementation may be swift.