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With Journalists Behind Bars, Kyrgyzstan Enters New Era of Repression

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With Journalists Behind Bars, Kyrgyzstan Enters New Era of Repression

The authorities have accused Temirov Live, a respected investigative outlet, of inciting mass unrest, and jailed nearly a dozen of its current and former employees.

With Journalists Behind Bars, Kyrgyzstan Enters New Era of Repression
Credit: James O’Brien

On Aike Beishekeyeva’s 23rd birthday on January 16, the young Kyrgyz journalist was planning to buy a cake to share with her colleagues.

That celebration never happened. Instead, early that morning, Beishekeyeva was arrested at her family home on suspicion of “inciting mass unrest.” For weeks, she has been awaiting trial in Detention Center 1, a grim warren of low-slung buildings in the center of Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek.

Her mother, Nazgul Matanayeva, recalls how her daughter looked at a court hearing — brave, but tired. “She holds herself well, but you can tell by her eyes,” she says. “As a mother, I can tell. … She’s not getting enough sleep.”

Matanayeva has been frantic with worry. “I’ve lost weight. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks. If I don’t distract myself, all kinds of bad thoughts come,” she says. “Twenty-three years old — for me, she’s still little. For a mother, she’ll always be little.”

Beishekeyeva may be young, but she was doing serious work. Just a few months into her career, she had recently been hired by Temirov Live, a team of journalists whose video investigations — sometimes performed as traditional Kyrygz poems — have repeatedly uncovered gross corruption on the part of top officials in the Central Asian country. (OCCRP has partnered with Temirov Live on several investigations.)

A screenshot from one of the investigations presented by Aike Beishekeyeva on Temirov Live. Image credit: Temirov Live/YouTube

“I told her this was dangerous work,” Matanayeva says, “But she always calmed me down: ‘Mom, don’t worry, there are journalists like this all over the world.’”

In Kyrgyzstan, though, there may soon be none left. Along with Aike, 10 other current and former Temirov Live employees were arrested on that January day. They, too, are accused of inciting mass unrest under a law being used with increasing frequency to target dissenting voices. If convicted, they face years in prison.

All 11 have denied the accusations. “‘Look at her. She’s still a child,’” Matanayeva says she told the officers who came to arrest her daughter. “‘How could she gather people for a demonstration? Or is she so rich that she could pay someone [to protest]?’”

The campaign against the group is the latest symptom of Kyrgyzstan’s deepening democratic malaise.

The country was once the freest of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics by a large margin. Though known for frequent revolutions — it’s had three since independence in 1991 — it also had real elections, a vibrant media scene, and a vigorous civil society that included everything from feminist groups to disability rights activists.

In the last few years, however, under a president who combines populist rhetoric with Russian-style methods of control, the noose has tightened. Multiple independent outlets have been pressured or closed. On Reporters Without Borders’ index of worldwide press freedom, Kyrgyzstan’s rank has dropped 50 places in a single year, plunging from the level of Japan to the level of South Sudan.

The detentions of the Temirov Live staff, observers say, are part of a campaign directed against the outlet’s founder and one of the government’s most vocal critics, Bolot Temirov.

“The authorities simply want to play this scorched-earth strategy, where they just burn everything around Temirov, so he has no team,” says Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a Kyrgyz human rights activist working from exile in Vienna.

“The only thing the authorities want right now, more than anything else, is for everyone to just be silent and do nothing,” Seiitbek says. “And the question is, are people ready to do that?”

One person not ready to be silent is Temirov himself. The 44-year-old has already paid dearly for his investigative journalism. In the last few years he has been beaten, bugged by the secret services, deprived of his citizenship, and deported to Russia. His wife, who worked as the director of Temirov Live, was among the journalists arrested in January.

Police officers lead Bolot Temirov out in handcuffs after a raid on his office on January 22, 2022 raid on his office. Image credit: Aziza Raimberdieva

Now working from an undisclosed location in Europe, Temirov maintains a furious stream of videos and social media posts decrying the authorities and demanding that they free his colleagues.

The authorities have attempted to get to Temirov through his staff before. In a 2022 investigation, OCCRP revealed how agents of Kyrgyzstan’s secret service, the GKNB, entrapped a young woman who worked for Temirov, threatening to release compromising videos unless she provided information about him and his work. 

Now, the jailed journalists have been questioned about Temirov’s whereabouts, he says. And his wife was warned that the couple’s 11-year-old son could be placed in an orphanage if she did not cooperate with investigators.

Kyrgyz officials at the presidential administration, the interior ministry, the prosecutors’ office, and the GKNB did not respond to OCCRP’s requests for comment on the case. But in the two months since the arrests, several have made revealing public statements.

On a talk show hosted by Radio Azattyk, Deputy Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers Edil Baisalov framed the case as a matter of discipline and re-education.

“These young guys, of course they’re not enemies, of course they’ve made a mistake. Neither the president, nor any state bodies or courts want them to rot in prison,” Baisalov said.

“It’s a question of education. A fatherly, brotherly duty — education,” he continued. “In some cases, someone — the head of a family, the master of a house — has to call things to order.” 

In response to a request for comment about his statements, Baisalov again emphasized that “no one among the authorities considers these guys to be enemies of the people.” 

Kyrgyz society is undergoing a transformation, he wrote, with a growing economy and a new willingness to reconsider old priorities. “I’m talking about education because we need to reorient the youth, we need to build the country and raise up the people, to distract from empty actions, to say that this is no longer trendy and dignified,” he wrote.

President Sadyr Japarov has aired his own views in an interview with the newspaper Vecherny Bishkek, arguing that boundaries must be imposed on freedom of speech to preserve security.

“In today’s turbulent and restless times, freedom of speech is tightly intertwined with responsibility,” he said. “Countries that one could count as the most democratically developed are already instituting restrictions against those who use freedom of speech to reach political goals and destabilize society. In this respect, we have to take preventative measures.”

“In the current case,” the president continued, referring to the Temirov Live arrests, “the forensic service of the Justice Ministry established that video messages from [Temirov’s wife] Makhabat Tazhibek kyzy include calls to mass unrest.”

In the video he referred to, posted on YouTube in December, Tahibek angrily denounces corruption and authorities who have been “sitting in their chairs for 30 years.” It does not contain any calls for uprising or violence.

“She says in this video that all coups and revolutions are useless, because one clan will only replace another,” Temirov says. “It’s hard to describe this as a call to revolution.”

This accusation, Temirov says, demonstrates the absurdity of the whole affair.

According to multiple people with knowledge of the case, Makhabat’s video was the only piece of evidence officials have presented as justification for all 11 detentions — though six of the detained are no longer employed at Temirov Live. Some haven’t been there for years. 

“None of the others have any connection to this video,” Temirov says. “Not even the camera operator.”

Rapper and Poet Among Those Arrested

The YouTube channel on which the video appeared, called Ait Ait Dese, is one of Temirov’s most unique projects. A sister channel of the main Temirov Live account, it posts videos entirely in Kyrgyz — a way, Temirov says, of reaching the widest possible audience: “Our goal was to be closer to the people, become the voice of the people and speak with them in one language.”

In addition to more traditional journalistic reports, Ait Ait Dese features rhymed performances by traditional poets, called akyns, calling for action against social problems, inveighing against corruption, or even presenting the findings of Temirov Live’s investigations.

In one video for the channel, an akyn named Bolot Nazarov retells in poetic form an investigation into Maltese offshore companies allegedly tied to relatives of the chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Council of Ministers, Akylbek Japarov. In another performance, he denounces the dual power wielded in the country by President Japarov and secret service head Kamchybek Tashiev.

The technique is powerful, says Seiitbek, the exiled human rights activist.

“The akyns are traditionally these voices that always spoke about the problems that the Kyrgyz people had. And it’s also traditional that the rulers never went after the akyns. That’s their job to speak about grievances, to make fun of politicians.”

“Many people don’t watch things on YouTube if they are not traditionally Kyrgyz things,” she says. “But people do go to concerts to listen to akyns, because that speaks to their heart. It’s something that they understand, something they grew up with.”

With the January arrests, Ait Ait Dese’s work is now on hold. One of the channels’s star performers, rapper and poet Azamat Ishenbekov, is among those in detention. 

Azamat Ishenbekov, rapper and poet, arrested in Kyrgyzstan. Image credit: Politklinika

As Temirov tells it, Ishenbekov left school to work as a migrant worker in Russia while building a following for his performances on TikTok. When one of Temirov’s colleagues noticed his popularity, he was invited to collaborate.

“Though driving taxis in Moscow he earned much more, he chose to become a member of our team,” Temirov wrote in a Facebook post calling for Ishenbekov’s freedom.

The arrest of a streetwise artist who has appeared in hip-hop videos and crooned pop songs underscores the diverse backgrounds of the jailed 11. Among them is Aktilek Kaparov, who went from attending Temirov’s fact-checking trainings to working for Temirov Live to opening his own outlet, and Saipidin Sultanaliev, an educator who came to journalism later in his life and whom Temirov calls “an interviewer from God.”

And then there’s Aike Beishekeyeva, the youngest of them all, arrested in her parents’ apartment on her 23rd birthday.

Of all those arrested, Aike Beishekeyeva, 23, is the youngest among the journalists currently detained in Kyrgyzstan. Image credit: Politklinika

Her mother, Matanayeva, says she was a studious child who preferred to spend time reading books and learning languages online over going out with friends.

“I wanted to sign her up for courses, but she felt sorry for us, [saying] ‘Why should you spend money on courses? Let me just study at home,’” Matanayeva says.

To expand her horizons, Beishekeyeva took an internship in Japan, a country her mother says she admired for its culture, and studied journalism at a university in Poland. 

But Matanayeva was shocked when her daughter actually went into the profession, taking a job with the Temirov Live team. Her father, a professional musician, was dead-set against a career he considered far too dangerous. He fought with his daughter, and with his wife, who was more supportive. Just a few months later, the police were at the family’s door. 

Frantic with worry, Matanayeva has withdrawn into herself since her daughter’s arrest. “If anyone says anything about it, I just start to cry. So I’m trying not to see anyone,” she says.

A Climate of Fear

While some in Kyrgyzstan stay silent out of grief, others do so out of fear. An analyst based in the country declined to be interviewed for this story, citing concern for their personal safety — the first time this has happened in this reporter’s experience.

Activists describe a suffocating dread spreading across Kyrgyz civil society that can be felt even from afar.

“People are very afraid,” says Seiitbek, the Vienna-based human rights activist. “Even our colleagues, which I’ve never seen before. There were situations where they were afraid to bring books with them [back to Kyrgyzstan] from trips abroad. That never happened before.”

The feeling that anyone could be targeted next is only enhanced by the absurdist flavor that sometimes accompanies Kyrgyzstan’s recent cases of repression. 

When OCCRP’s award-winning Kyrgyz member center, Kloop, was shut down by court order last month, prosecutors used testimony from psychiatrists to show that the outlet “affected people’s mental health” by “upsetting” them with negative information. (Kloop is fighting the decision and plans to continue to operate.)

Then there’s Japarov’s explanation for why the country’s highest-profile case against a group of dissidents was being conducted in secret. Asked at a national gathering of community leaders about the jailed opponents of a land swap with neighboring Uzbekistan, he said their efforts had been financed by the ambassador of an unnamed foreign country. 

“If we make this public, you’ll start to hate this country,” he said. “And then there could be a misunderstanding, our relationship could be disrupted. That’s why it’s a closed case.”

‘There Are No Institutions’

How did Kyrgyzstan come to this? After all, the country was once commonly referred to as Central Asia’s “island of democracy,” with observers often impressed by its repeated popular revolutions against unpopular regimes.

Asel Doolotkeldieva, an expert on Kyrgyzstan and non-resident fellow at George Washington University, agrees that the Kyrgyz public has strong democratic expectations. But, she said on a recent episode of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast, a mobilized public isn’t enough.

“You can’t expect such deep transformations of society just on the back of vibrant civil society alone,” she said. “There are no institutions to carry out democratization… You need political parties, you need ideologies, left, right, you need proper political conflict to formulate these ideologies. Without that, you can’t expect sustainable changes.”

Indeed, it was a popular uprising that put Kyrgyzstan’s current leaders in power. In October 2020, Kyrgyz citizens poured onto the streets in outrage at the results of an allegedly rigged election and at the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the chaos, Sadyr Japarov — a former member of parliament and populist firebrand who was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping a local official — was sprung out by a crowd of supporters. He then managed to maneuver himself into the halls of power, first becoming interim president and then winning a presidential election several months later.

One of Japarov’s most consequential decisions was to appoint his ally, Kamychbek Tashiev, to run the GKNB. Both men have made frequent use of nationalist rhetoric, aggressively decrying foreign values and influence and claiming to stand for ordinary Kyrgyz citizens. In practice, as the influence of the secret service has grown, they have built what local specialists call a “tandem” rule over the country.

“Since 2020, a lot of money from the budget was allocated to strengthen the special security forces,” said Doolotkeldieva. “In these three years, there have been allegedly 50 new buildings opening across the countryside, which are basically the buildings of the special security forces. Which means that [it’s] not only the capital, there is a huge effort to take under control the countryside as well.”

With little organized political opposition and no genuinely independent judiciary, Japarov’s government has also been pushing a series of laws — on misinformation, on the media, on the nonprofit sector, and on “foreign agents” — to tighten his control.

Much of this legislation is reminiscent of the laws used against dissidents in Russia, and observers say this has been no accident.

“The Russian security services have been sitting in the GKNB building for years. And it’s a big contingent, it’s not like one or two people,” says Seiitbek. 

“Kyrgyzstan is under very strong Russian influence, stronger than anyone would have guessed. It comes from the authorities being weak by themselves. They have to rely on somebody to keep their power safe and keep them in power. So they traditionally see Putin as this guarantor of their safety. And when you have Putin as your lord protector, obviously there isn’t much you can do in terms of development of democracy.”

Eldiyar Arykbaev (OCCRP) and Vyacheslav Abramov (OCCRP/ contributing reporting.

This article was originally published by OCCRP and is republished here with permission.