Last month, over the course of two days Kyrgyz authorities carried out raids on the homes and offices of more than dozen journalists in Bishkek, ultimately detaining 11 journalists associated with Temirov Live and sealing the offices of 24.kg.
Although pressure on media in Kyrgyzstan has escalated, Rinat Tuhvatshin, co-founder of Kloop told The Diplomat in a recent interview that it is “worth noting that not a single media outlet stopped working because of the pressure.”
Kloop is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most dynamic media outlets, and has produced some of the most impactful investigative reporting in the country’s independent history. It is perhaps not surprising that it has found itself time and again in the crosshairs of governments uncomfortable with scrutiny. The government of Sadyr Japarov and Kamchybek Tashiev is just the latest to lash out at Kloop, whose website was blocked last September.
In the following interview with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Tuhvatshin explains Kloop’s wide-ranging work, the pressure exerted by governments on media in Kyrgyzstan, and how corruption – a major focus of Kloop’s investigative work – harms Kyrgyz people.
Tell us about Kloop. When was it founded, and what kind of work do you do?
Kloop is one of the leading independent media in Kyrgyzstan. On our website we publish news, investigations, editorial columns, data-based stories, as well as shorter social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Telegram, and videos on YouTube. Our works regularly receive international recognition. Among our awards are the Tom Renner Award by Investigative Reporters and Editors (together with OCCRP and Azattyk) and data journalism Sigma Award.
We train new journalists ourselves at our journalism school. It allows us to constantly be on the lookout for new talents who will not be afraid to do things differently and who will not bend to pressure from the government.
Kloop often draws ire of the authorities who blame us for many things going wrong in Kyrgyzstan from mass migration from the remote regions to making Kyrgyz people depressed. Currently our website is blocked and there is a lawsuit by the Bishkek prosecutor office seeking to terminate the original Kloop legal entity. Despite the pressure we continue our work and constantly expand the ways we serve the people of Kyrgyzstan.
In 2020 we started observing elections with the help of volunteers. We built in-house custom software to train around 10,000 election observers, of which at least 3,000 participated in election observation of more than five elections in Kyrgyzstan using the same software. Later this software was used by other NGOs to observe elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland, Hungary, and Zimbabwe.
Two years ago we started the first in-country self-paced online course of English language in Kyrgyz. For that we use the same software we developed to train election observers.
Recently we opened a journalism hub in Warsaw, that helps journalists from other media in Central Asia who face pressure from the government or want to prepare for work in exile. One of our main aspirations today is to combine our journalism school with our training and observation software to allow young people in remote areas to study and start their journalism careers without leaving their homes. Also it will help their security, since such an approach will help us work with journalists who have never visited our office and cannot be easily traced to our organization.
It may feel strange that a media organization does so many things. But that is exactly what we wanted when me and my friend Bektour Iskender (who recently stepped down as Kloop CEO) founded Kloop in 2006. We wanted to do Western-style journalism that was balanced and gave voice to all parties in a story. At the same time we wanted to be free to experiment and try all kinds of approaches to journalism. For example in 2006 we did not have many journalists in the country who could do journalism the way we wanted, so simultaneously with founding a media outlet we had to start our own very practice-oriented journalism school. We did not have money to hire programmers so we had to become coders ourselves.
That is how it started and how it continues. We report, we code, we teach, and we constantly learn. Also we try to help our colleagues when we can, because we believe that the journalism community needs to stand for itself.
In September 2023, the authorities in Kyrgyzstan blocked Kloop’s website, citing a refusal to remove certain content. Can you talk about what content so bothered the authorities? What is the state of affairs now? Going further, the pressure exerted on Kloop arguably fits into a broader pattern of pressure on independent media in Kyrgyzstan, with the most recent incidents being the detention of several journalists associated with Temirov Live and the raid of 24.kg’s offices. What impact have these events had on media in Kyrgyzstan?
The [Kloop] website is still blocked, but we have had unblockable mirrors prepared for this occasion years in advance. Also we spread content through social media, making sure that following the link to the website is optional. We believe that users should be able to consume our content where it is most convenient for them. If they want news in TikTok format, we will give it to them. Such an approach stops the main website [from] being the single most important point of vulnerability.
Of course, we lost part of our audience on the website, but gained more followers on social media. Being blocked presents its own interesting technical challenges. For example, Facebook removes some of our posts seemingly because of the link to the mirrored website. Getting to your audience against the will of the government is a constant struggle, but we believe we will prevail in the end and emerge stronger and more popular.
Regarding the reasons for the blocking: It was a news article quoting the jailed leader of Kyrgyz opposition Ravshan Djeyenbekov, who accused of torture the State Committee for National Security (yes, direct descendants of KGB both in spirit, purpose and current main office location). We refused to remove the publication and the [SCNS] filed a complaint with the Ministry of Culture. It ordered the blocking of Kloop within days after receiving the complaint. Currently we are suing the Ministry of Culture to unblock the website.
Also it is worth noting that (even though this is not the case with the publication described above) Kyrgyz security services often start legal proceedings against a media outlet not based on the publication that actually drew their ire, but on based on some other older article that makes prosecution easier. For example, the ostensible reason for the legal proceedings against 24.kg is Ukraine-related material, but I believe that crackdown was actually precipitated by 24.kg’s coverage of a mistake made in the design of the controversial new flag.
That is the problem that the media in Kyrgyzstan currently face. It is impossible to predict what will trigger the country’s authorities. It will probably lead to cases of severe self censorship in some media. We will try to do our best to avoid that.
It is also worth noting that not a single media outlet stopped working because of the pressure. Of course many journalists are afraid and undergo tremendous psychological stress. At this point we are not sure if actions by the security services led to any decrease in the number of publications perceived by the government as negative.
Kloop will continue its work and will not remove materials that adhere to our editorial policy. We relocated staff who were most under risk and are ready to help our colleagues from other media.
Thinking more broadly, what does the diminishment of independent media in Kyrgyzstan mean for the country and its people?
Independent media are actually the least vulnerable of government critics. More and more common social media users get jailed for criticizing authorities online. Recently several akyns (traditional poets) who used to criticize the government started praising it instead.
There is an atmosphere of fear prevalent in the country. Several days ago a deputy prime minister, Edil Baisalov, said that the 11 journalists from Temirov Live had been jailed for “educational purposes.” This rivals [the] cynicism of Russian officials and is reminiscent of the ways North Korea treats its dissidents.
Kyrgyzstan is tumbling in all world democracy and freedom of speech indices. Basically we are losing one thing that we could have been proud of on the world stage: our budding democracy.
At the same time there are no indications of economic improvement. People are becoming poorer, more desperate, and now many also live in fear of government repressions. Also no one is really sure who actually heads the country, President Sadyr Japarov or head of the security services Kamchybek Tashiev. This makes the situation in the country extremely unstable and unpredictable. But considering Kyrgyzstan’s current trajectory, that might be not a bad thing.
Some of Kloop’s best work have been investigations focused on exposing corruption. In what ways does corruption harm Kyrgyzstan?
Corruption harms people of Kyrgyzstan in the most direct way possible. It literally deprives people of light, warmth, water, and other basic necessities. Here are three examples.
There were numerous publications by Kloop about corruption during the reconstruction of the Bishkek thermal power station. Pliers bought for $600 as part of the $386 million reconstruction project became one the most famous Kyrgyz memes in 2018. Despite super expensive pliers and hundreds of million dollars spent, the station broke down right after reconstruction finished, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without central heating in -20 [degrees] C freezing winter. Numerous official investigations followed, and authorities vowed that the situation would not repeat itself. Yet the station broke again, now in the beginning of 2024.
Kyrgyzstan experiences electricity deficiencies. Planned blackouts are common in remote regions. Probably for that reason cryptomining is outlawed in Kyrgyzstan unless it is using electricity from a private source. Yet, as covered in multiple publications by Kloop, huge cryptomining facilities are opened regularly. With permission from the government they use electricity from state-owned electric stations, often paying less than common consumers who also, by the way, continue to experience the said planned blackouts to save electricity.
Water is an extremely important resource both globally and in Kyrgyzstan. Yet the Kyrgyz government managed to relinquish the Kempir-Abad reservoir to Uzbekistan as part of a land swap deal. Security services also arrested activists who protested the deal. Months passed and many of them remain jailed. It is still unclear whether corruption played any role in the transfer, but the extreme measures taken by the government against the protesters give rise to strong suspicions.
Problems with heating, electricity, water, inability to earn living wage, and other economic hardships make people leave Kyrgyzstan, very often for menial jobs in Russia. Now as economic migrants they face the risk of being coerced into the Russian army and getting killed fighting for the aggressor [in Ukraine]. So ultimately corruption deprives people of their souls and their lives.