The law provides for freedom of speech and press. On May 19, however, President Atambayev signed into law amendments to the criminal code making it a crime falsely to accuse someone of committing a crime “in a public statement and/or in the media.” Many in civil society anticipated the amendments would have a chilling effect on journalists and free speech.
As in 2013, some journalists reported threats for covering sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, the events of June 2010, or the rise of nationalism in the country. The trend was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets. Others felt threatened for reporting critically on public figures. Many journalists, even those not assaulted or threatened, admitted to self-censoring their reporting due to fear of reprisals.
Freedom of Speech: On August 25, the power went out in the movie theater Dom Kino immediately before a screening of the film 20 Testimonies about Maidan. Organized and sponsored by Bir Duino, the film screening was to portray eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding the violence in Kyiv earlier in the year. Although power outages were common in Bishkek, Bir Duino believed the GKNB organized the outage to prevent the screening. According to Bir Duino, on the day of the screening, the NGO’s director received calls from individuals who identified themselves as Ministry of Culture officials instructing Bir Duino not to screen the film until it underwent appropriate “expert review” for approval.
On August 31, police officers detained Marat Musuraliev, head of Kyrgyzstan against the Customs Union, ahead of Musuraliev’s planned distribution on a central square of ribbons with the Kyrgyz flag on them. The purpose of the protest was to oppose the country’s proposed membership in a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. During the detention, police brought Musuraliev first to a police station and then to a police medical facility, where he was screened for alcohol and drugs. Dukenbayev reported the screening was a tactic to keep him away from the protest.
The government took aggressive steps to stop discussion of sensitive issues related to ethnic reconciliation in the South in the wake of the June 2010 events. On September 24, the head of the NGO Uzbek Ethnic Cultural Center in Osh, Rashidkhan Khodzhaev, criticized Freedom House for “inciting ethnic violence” because a subcontractor, the Human Rights Advocacy Center (HRAC), planned to distribute two surveys about the state of interethnic reconciliation in the South. That same day the GKNB summoned a Freedom House employee based in Osh and questioned her about the survey. On September 25, approximately 15 persons appeared at Freedom House’s Osh office, demanding closure of the office. On September 30, six officers of the GKNB conducted a search of HRAC in Osh, seizing four computers as part of an investigation into charges of incitement of “national, racial, or religious enmity.” The GKNB requested an expert opinion from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on the contents of the survey. The NAS stated the document could in “certain situations” incite interethnic hatred.
In late November, following a two-month investigation in which seven employees of Freedom House and HRAC were called in for questioning, the GKNB announced charges against two employees of the center for incitement as part of a conspiracy or group, a crime that carries a mandatory prison term of five to eight years. On December 4, the Osh Regional Court ordered the case closed on the basis of a written request from the Prosecutor General’s Office that stated the GKNB had failed to show a crime had been committed.
On October 17, approximately 100 protesters from Kalys prevented a concert by the international pop group Kazaky because of possible “gay propaganda” in their performance. The protesters told the media they stopped the concert because of the need to preserve “traditional values” and prevent European “ideological extremism.” The concert’s organizers said the protesters were visibly drunk and spent six hours outside of the venue, harassing any ticket holder who arrived and threating to “burn down” the club if a “gay parade” took place. The club’s owner said he repeatedly appealed to the approximately 20 police nearby, but they replied they were not going to take any action because the protesters were “peaceful.”
Press Freedoms: On April 16, the parliament amended the criminal code to make it a crime falsely to accuse another of committing a crime “in a public statement and/or in the media;” the president signed the amendment into law on May 17. The law calls for fines or community service for a false accusation of a nonserious crime, or house arrest or imprisonment for an accusation of a “serious crime.” Members of the news media were concerned about the amendment’s chilling effect on the media and asserted it could “kill independent journalism.” There were no reports the amendment was applied during the year, although GKNB officials threatened to use the law against a journalist in the South. The OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Reporters without Borders, and other international organizations released statements condemning the law.
The Ministry of Justice required all media to register and receive ministry approval in order to operate. The registration process nominally took one month but was often much longer. It included checks on the background of each media outlet’s owner and its source of financing, including financing by international donor organizations.
Foreign media generally operated freely. While the law prohibits foreign ownership of domestic media, there was a small degree of foreign ownership of media through local partners. Russian-language television stations dominated coverage and local ratings. A number of Russia-based media outlets operated freely in the country, and the government treated them as domestic media.
Violence and Harassment: On March 12, blogger and human rights activist Ilya Lukash fled the country after the youth movement Kalys organized a protest against foreign NGO funding and support for sexual minorities. Protesters burned Lukash’s portrait because of his lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) activism and for his alleged promise “to organize a second Maidan in Kyrgyzstan.” After the protest, Kalys activists attempted to attack Lukash in a Bishkek cafe.
On April 2, 50 protesters shut down a Freedom House-organized roundtable in Osh for local human rights organizations, asserting the meeting was a forum for discussing LGBT rights. The protest took place during a visit of two Freedom House officials. Freedom House staff left the premises due to the crowd's aggressiveness and the refusal of police to provide security to a second location, where they were followed. Freedom House staff then sought refuge at an OSCE office until they were able to leave the city safely.
The founder of the opposition newspaper Alibi, Babyrbek Jeenbekov, reported that, on November 6, unknown individuals broke into the newspaper’s office, threw papers on the floor, and tried to open the office’s safe. Jeenbekov, the father of opposition member of parliament Ravshan Jeenbekov, believed the break-in was a “warning” to the paper after it published an article critical of President Atambayev. While the intruders did not take anything, Jeenbekov claimed the break-in intimidated his staff and other independent outlets.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law places significant restrictions on television and radio broadcast companies and establishes Kyrgyz-language and local content requirements. Human rights activists asserted the law is unconstitutional because it conflicts with constitutional rights to freedom of speech and access to information. The law also provides for sign-language interpretation or subtitles in public television programming.
As in previous years, journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from offices of the government to report in a particular way or to ignore news stories.
On December 11, the Prosecutor General’s Office instructed the State Agency on Connectivity to order internet service providers to block the news website Kloop.kg, since the website was carrying a 15-minute video, produced by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, about Kazakhstani nationals, including children, undergoing militant training in Syria. Kloop.kg became unavailable on several providers. On December 16, the State Agency for Connectivity unblocked Kloop.kg and withdrew the request, stating that the Prosecutor General’s Office did not secure a proper judicial decision to have the site blocked.
Libel Laws/National Security: While libel is not a criminal offense, NGO leaders described the False Accusations Amendments, passed on April 16, as a “recriminalizing of libel.” Journalists have noted the law opens journalists and media outlets to libel suits in civil courts that could bankrupt the outlets or journalists. In its report, Freedom House noted “insult” and “insult of public officials” continue to be criminal offenses and that the law is detrimental to the development of freedom of speech and mass media in the country. The head of the Media Policy Institute reported her organization routinely defended journalists charged with libel and slander, and members of the media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.
There were some government restrictions on access to the internet, but no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Members of the LGBT community reported police regularly monitored LGBT chat rooms and dating sites and arranged meetings with LGBT users of the sites to extort money from them when they met.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, the internet penetration rate was 24 percent.
According to the Civic Initiative on Internet Policy, 19 websites remained blocked at year’s end. These sites all involved religious groups that the government deemed to be terrorist or extremist. Four of the sites involved the banned religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Religious higher educational institutions must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.
On June 26, a group of eight protesters attempted to interrupt an exhibition of the paintings of imprisoned human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, held on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On the same day, parliamentarian Nadira Narmatova called on the organizers to close the exhibition, claiming it might provoke unrest, and labeled Askarov a “separatist.”