The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise these rights. NGO leaders and media rights advocates, however, asserted the situation worsened during the year, highlighting the increase in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and journalists and forced closure of news agencies. Self-censorship was prevalent, and some journalists reported pressure from editors and political figures to bias their reporting on sensitive topics.
Freedom of Expression: As in earlier years, some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. The trend was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets. Others were prosecuted or felt threatened for reporting critically on public figures.
On March 18, local and foreign press reported that police disrupted a small rally in support of freedom of speech held in the center of Bishkek. Media rights activists, journalists, and opposition MPs participated in the march, several of whom were detained briefly by police for deviating from the march route and spilling onto the streets of the city. The event, led by a known activist and government critic, Edil Baisalov, was intended to raise awareness of the numerous libel lawsuits and criminal investigations targeting journalists and members of the independent media community.
On September 12, a Bishkek court sentenced journalist Zulpukar Sapanov to four years in prison for inciting “inter-religious strife.” The PGO initiated a criminal investigation of the journalist after representatives of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims filed a complaint in response to the publication of Sapanov’s book, entitled Kydyr’s Namesake. The Spiritual Administration of Muslims and the State Commission on Religious Affairs both publicly condemned the book, which analyzed the ethnic and pagan past of the Kyrgyz people. The court found the book contained content that “diminishes the role of Islam as a religion and creates a negative attitude toward Muslims.” On September 29, a Bishkek court reduced Sapanov’s initial sentence to two years’ probation and ordered his immediate release from prison.
Press and Media Freedom: In recent years there were attempts to proscribe independent media from operating freely in the country. Tight government controls over news content on state television was widely acknowledged. Media rights advocates noted increasing pressure on media outlets in advance of the October presidential elections. Such pressure included civil and criminal lawsuits filed against independent media and journalists in connection with their reporting.
On June 9, the GKNB initiated a criminal case against journalist Ulugbek Babakulov for “inciting ethnic hatred and enmity.” Babakulov published an online article entitled “People Are Like Beasts,” which described nationalist and anti-Uzbek statements of Kyrgyz users on social networks. In response to the article, MPs called for stripping Babakulov’s citizenship, and the journalist became the target of death threats, prompting him to flee the country. Access to the regional news site where the article was originally published, Fergananews.com, was subsequently blocked in the country (see Censorship or Content Restrictions below).
Media reported on February 10 that a Bishkek court terminated the PGO’s criminal case against journalist Dayirbek Orunbekov, which sought to collect two million som ($29,000) in damages for insulting the honor and dignity of the president. Local authorities, however, barred Orunbekov from leaving the country, and he remained legally liable for civil damages. On August 22, a Bishkek court ordered the closure of the opposition television station September for allegedly disseminating extremist material in connection with its airing of a 2016 corruption allegation against former prime minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov. The station broadcast an interview with a former police chief of Osh Oblast, who alleged that Jeenbekov had used state funds to promote interethnic clashes in 2010.
In March the Prosecutor General’s office pursued defamation charges against former member of parliament Cholpon Jakupova, and Zanoza Media (now called Kaktus.Media) co-founders, Dina Maslova and Naryn Aiyp, on behalf of President Atambaev. On November 30, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling requiring the defendants to pay approximately $430,000 in fines to former President Atambaev for “moral compensation.” Also on December 19, media reported that a court ordered an asset freeze on the television channel NTS, the largest private television channel in the country and widely believed to be affiliated with opposition politician Omurbek Babanov.
There was a small degree of foreign ownership of media through local partners. Nonetheless, on June 3, the president signed amendments to the law on mass media that prohibited a foreign entity from forming a media outlet and limited foreign ownership of television stations. 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: Some journalists were subject to harassment and violence. As an example illustrative of several instances, on May 2, MP Zhyldyz Musabekova reportedly threatened journalist Ypel Ankrulova with violence over corruption allegations published by the journalist. On June 24, Ankrulova filed a complaint against Musabekova with the PGO. The complaint remained pending at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: 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 specific news stories.
On June 8, in response to a petition from the PGO, a Bishkek court ruled to block access in the country to Fergananews.com for its decision to publish Babkulov’s “People Are Like Beasts” article.
NGO leaders and media contacts reported that state-owned broadcasters continued under pressure to run stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.
Libel/Slander Laws: While libel is not a criminal offense except in narrowly prescribed instances, NGO leaders described the False Accusations Amendments, passed in 2014, as a practical “recriminalizing of libel.” Journalists noted the law exposed media to libel suits in civil courts that could bankrupt the outlets or journalists in their defense attempts. In 2015 the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the law, holding that henceforth it would only apply in cases of knowingly making false statements in a police report but not to statements in media. A prominent libel case against the online media outlet Zanoza (see below), however, appeared to contradict the Supreme Court’s 2015 holding. Libel is not a criminal offense.
From March through April, the PGO filed five civil lawsuits against web-based news outlet Zanoza, and two against Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of broadcaster Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty for “offending the honor and dignity” of the president. The suits stemmed from published articles pertaining to statements made by politicians and activists about the president. On May 12, the president requested that the PGO drop the lawsuits against Azattyk, but over the summer, Bishkek courts ruled against Zanoza in separate hearings, finding the outlet liable for damages in the amount of 27 million som ($391,000). One of the co-founders of Zanoza and a defendant in one of the suits, Naryn Ayip, stated that the court’s decisions were designed to force the site to close.
The OSCE’s International Election Observation Mission Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions after the October 15 presidential elections noted that television outlets, including public broadcasters, “failed to provide sufficient and unbiased news coverage of the campaign.” The OSCE also assessed that “defamation claims against media by the incumbent president and other candidates had an adverse effect on public debate and resulted in self-censorship among journalists.”
Freedom House noted “insult” and “insult of public officials” were 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 that the organization routinely defended journalists charged with libel and slander, and members of media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.
The government generally allowed access to the internet, including social media sites, and there were no public credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. Nonetheless, NGOs reported police regularly monitored lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) chat rooms and dating sites and arranged meetings with LGBTI users of the sites to extort money from them.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, the internet penetration rate was 34 percent.
According to the PGO, authorities had blocked 86 websites as of the beginning of the year. These sites involved groups that the government deemed to be terrorist or extremist, as well as sites advertising sexual services. Four of the sites involved the banned religious group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
In May 2016 parliament passed an amendment to the law on countering extremist activity that authorizes the Ministry of Transport and Communications to block internet websites spreading extremist and terrorist materials without a court order. During the year there were no reports the government utilized this law.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom. Institutions providing advanced religious education must follow strict reporting policies, but they reported no restrictions on academic freedom.