Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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.
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for this right, and the government generally respected it, with some exceptions. Organizers and participants are responsible for notifying authorities of planned assemblies, but the constitution prohibits authorities from banning or restricting peaceful assemblies, even in the absence of prior notification. Local authorities, however, have the right to demand an end to a public action and, in the event of noncompliance, are empowered to take measures to end assemblies.
According to media reports in August, a Bishkek court ruled to ban peaceful protests, meetings, and other public gatherings from July 27 to October 20 in certain parts of the capital city where protesters typically gather, including the central Ala-Too Square, the parliament, the Government House (Old Square), the Central Election Commission (CEC) buildings, and the Pervomaisky District Court. On August 9, police arrested a demonstrator at the CEC building for violating the ban.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected it. NGOs, labor unions, political parties, and cultural associations must register with the Ministry of Justice. NGOs are required to have at least three members and all other organizations at least 10 members. The Ministry of Justice did not refuse to register any domestic NGOs. The law prohibits foreign-funded political parties and NGOs, including their representative offices and branches, from pursuing political goals.
The government continued to maintain bans on approximately 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, the Kurdish People’s Congress, the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Party of Turkistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, and the Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky. On June 15, a Bishkek court added Yakyn Incar to the list of banned extremist groups.
Similar to recent years, numerous human rights activists reported continued arrests and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature (see section 1.d.). Most arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members occurred in the southern part of the country and involved ethnic Uzbeks. The government charged the majority of those arrested with possession of illegal religious material. In some cases NGOs alleged police planted Hizb ut-Tahrir literature as evidence against those arrested.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The law on internal migration provides for freedom of movement. The government generally respected this right, and citizens usually were able to move within the country with ease. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations to provide some protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
A 2016 amendment to the law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The law was not used during the year.
Foreign Travel: The law on migration prohibits travel abroad by citizens who have or had access to information classified as state secrets until the information is declassified.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
As of October UNHCR reported there were 343 refugees in the country. There were continued reports of Uzbek refugees seeking refugee status due to fear of abuse by the Uzbek government.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law on refugees includes nondiscrimination provisions covering persons who were not refugees when they left their country of origin and extends the validity of documents until a final decision on status is determined by a court.
Employment: UN-mandated refugees who lacked official status in the country do not have legal permission to work. They were therefore susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities. Refugees with official status in the country have legal permission to work.
Access to Basic Services: UN-mandated refugees and asylum seekers who lacked official status were ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.
UNHCR officials stated the country’s stateless persons fell into several categories. As of October, 2,135 individuals were listed as stateless, a significant decrease from the approximately 11,700 stateless individuals in 2016, due in large part to a country-wide registration and documentation campaign conducted jointly by UNHCR, the government, and nongovernmental partners. As of 2015 there were an estimated 700 Uzbek women who married Kyrgyz citizens but never received Kyrgyz citizenship (many such women allowed their Uzbek passports to expire, and regulations obstructed their efforts to gain Kyrgyz citizenship). Other categories included Roma, individuals with expired Soviet documents, children born to one or both parents who were stateless, and children of migrant workers who renounced their Kyrgyz citizenship in the hope of becoming Russian citizens. The government denied access to social benefits and official work documents to stateless persons, who lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge exploitative labor conditions in court. The State Registration Service maintained its database of stateless persons based only on those who contacted it.