The Kyrgyz Republic has a parliamentary form of government designed to limit presidential power and enhance the role of parliament and the prime minister. During presidential elections in 2017, the nation elected former prime minister and member of the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, to succeed outgoing President Almazbek Atambaev. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the elections as competitive and well administered, but it noted room for improvement in the legal framework to prevent misuse of public resources in election campaigns and to deter vote buying more effectively.
The investigation of general and local crimes falls under the authority of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, while certain crimes such as terrorism and corruption fall under the authority of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which also controls the presidential security service. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) prosecutes both local and national crimes. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: law enforcement and security services’ use of torture and arbitrary arrest; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including site blocking and criminal libel in practice; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons (LGBTI); and use of forced child labor.
While the government took steps to investigate and prosecute or punish officials known to have committed human rights abuses, especially those involved in corrupt activities, official impunity remained a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.
Freedom of Expression: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of Article 299 of the criminal code on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted Article 299 to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. According to NGOs, virtually all arrests under Article 299 resulted in convictions in 2018. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm violations of Article 299 arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional. Article 314 of the penal code that came into force in January requires an intent to distribute extremist materials be proven in order to convict of a crime. Article 314 replaces the provisions found previously in Article 299.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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.
In recent years the government, security services, and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.
On August 14, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir expressed his concern over the closure of the television channel April TV in Bishkek and called for respect for diversity in media. On August 9, the security services sealed off channel April TV’s headquarters in Bishkek as part of a security operation, shutting it down. “I am concerned by the seizure of assets of the television channel April and the suspension of its operations,” the representative said. “While I am fully aware of the exceptional circumstances under which this decision was taken, I call on the relevant authorities to review this decision.” The representative also said the safety of journalists who cover political events must be respected by all actors, after media worker Aida Djumashova was injured during the raid on former president Atambaev’s home on August 7 and protesters attacked reporters with Vesti.kg, April and Kloop.kg in Bishkek on August 8. On November 21, April TV received permission to resume broadcasting, but on December 7, the Military Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit to prevent April TV from broadcasting further. The Media Policy Institute appealed to the court, asking that the ban on broadcasting be reversed. The institute released a statement asserting the Military Prosecutor’s Office did not have the authority to ban April TV from broadcasting.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police, and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.
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.
NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.
As the government transitions from an analog to a digital broadcasting system starting this year, individuals and news organizations can submit requests to the government to get a license for a television channel. The government controlled the licensing process, and civil society reported the government abused the licensing process by revoking licenses to individuals or organizations which broadcast content the government disagrees with. The government’s revocation of a license to operate a television channel can financially decimate a news outlet and shutter their operations.
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 Constitutional Chamber narrowed the reach of the law, holding that henceforth it would apply only in cases of knowingly making false statements in a police report but not to statements in media, although subsequent decisions appeared to contradict that ruling. While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.
In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite the improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. The Supreme Court upheld a decision in the suit of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament (MP) Kozhobek Ryspaev against the newspaper Achyk Sayasat. The newspaper had to pay Ryspaev 300,000 soms ($4,300) in compensation. The newspaper editor in chief Nazgul Mamytova said the newspaper was likely to close. MP Ryspaev sued the newspaper due to an article that was published in August 2018, which stated Ryspaev was moving from one political party to another, and the author called him a “chameleon.”
The Adilet Legal Clinic reported the organization defended journalists and media outlets charged with libel and slander and that members of media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
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.
Citizenship: The law on combating terrorism and extremism revokes the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist and extremist activities. The government did not use the law during the year.
f. Protection of Refugees
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. In April the State Migration Service reported there were 193 refugees in the country, including 87 from Afghanistan.
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 UNHCR did not grant refugee status to 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: The government grants legal permission to work to individuals UNHCR has determined are refugees and to whom the government has granted official residency status in the country. Not all refugees qualify for residency status according to the government. Individuals who UNHCR has determined are refugees, but to whom the government has not conferred legal residency, are not legally permitted to work, access medical services, or receive identity documents. Therefore, they are susceptible to exploitation by employers paying substandard wages, not providing benefits, and not complying with labor regulations. They could not file grievances with authorities.
Access to Basic Services: The government deemed individuals whom UNHCR determined ineligible for refugee status, as well as asylum seekers who lacked official status, as ineligible to receive state-sponsored social benefits. Refugees with official status in the country have access to basic services.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. In practice authorities and party officials responsible for administering elections engaged in some procedural irregularities.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Numerous domestic and international human rights organizations operated actively in the country, although government officials at times were uncooperative and unresponsive to their views.
Government actions at times appeared to impede the ability of NGOs to operate freely.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government permitted visits by representatives of the United Nations and other organizations in connection with the investigation of abuses or monitoring of human rights problems in the country, including those of the OSCE, ICRC, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and International Organization for Migration. The government provided international bodies largely unfettered access to civil society activists, detention facilities and detainees, and government officials.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman acts as an independent advocate for human rights on behalf of private citizens and NGOs and has the authority to recommend cases for court review. Observers noted the atmosphere of impunity surrounding the security forces and their ability to act independently against citizens, factors that limited the number and type of complaints submitted to the Ombudsman’s Office.
Although the Ombudsman’s Office exists in part to receive complaints of human rights abuses and pass the complaints to relevant agencies for investigation, both domestic and international observers questioned the office’s efficiency and political independence.