Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and citizens generally were free to exercise these rights. 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: 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. Some journalists were prosecuted or felt threatened for reporting critically on public figures.
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 that in some cases authorities broadly interpreted Article 299 to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. HRW reported that the majority of prosecutions under Article 299 occurred in the south and targeted ethnic Uzbeks. According to NGOs, 98 percent of arrests under Article 299 resulted in convictions. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm violations of Article 299 arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional. In November 2017 former opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov faced charges for allegedly violating Article 299 during one of his campaign rally speeches (see section 3, Elections and Political Participation).
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 were widely acknowledged. Media rights advocates noted increasing pressure on media outlets in advance of the October 2017 presidential elections. Such pressure included civil and criminal lawsuits filed against independent media and journalists in connection with their reporting.
While there was a small degree of foreign ownership of media through local partners, in June 2017 the president signed amendments to the law on mass media that prohibit a foreign entity from forming a media outlet and limit foreign ownership of television stations. Nonetheless, 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.
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.
The government continued to block internet users from accessing Fergananews.com in connection to a June 2017 decision by a Bishkek court. NGO leaders and media sources reported that state-owned broadcasters continued under pressure to transmit 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 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 appear 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 that courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.
From March through April 2017, the PGO filed five civil lawsuits against individuals and media entities for “offending the honor and dignity” of the president. In March a defendant in one of the suits, journalist Naryn Ayip, published retractions of three articles.
Outstanding defamation cases from the previous year were largely resolved by the former and current presidents. In May former president Almazbek Atambaev voluntarily withdrew material claims awarded in defamation cases against former member of parliament Cholpon Jakupova, and Zanoza Media (now called Kaktus.Media) cofounders, Dina Maslova and Naryn Aiyp. Prior to Atambaev’s decision, some of those defendants had already complied with the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that required the payment of approximately 29.5 million som ($430,000) in fines to former president Atambaev for “moral compensation.”
In February President Jeenbekov cancelled a five million som ($73,000) judgment against online news outlet 24.kg for “moral damages.” In January, 24.kg published a retraction and an apology to Jeenbekov on its news site. In September 2017 then presidential candidate Jeenbekov had sued 24.kg and codefendant and former deputy Kabay Karabekov for the publication of an article that alleged the Jeenbekov brothers had close ties with radical Arab organizations. A Bishkek court in October 2017 ruled in Jeenbekov’s favor and awarded him a 10 million som ($146,000) judgment, assessed equally against the defendants. In April President Jeenbekov withdrew his claim after Karabekov issued a formal apology.
The Adilet Legal Clinic reported that the organization defended journalists and media outlets 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. There were no reports during the year that the government blocked websites spreading “extremist” and terrorist materials without a court order. Media reported that in August, courts blocked five social media accounts and eight online media channels, due to extremist content.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 38 percent of the population used the internet penetration rate in 2017.
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. 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.
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 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, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar. Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to A. A. Tihomirov, also known as Said Buryatsky.
As in 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
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, access to medical services, or the right to receive identity documents. 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 July, 1,189 individuals were listed as stateless, a significant decrease from the approximately 13,431 stateless individuals identified in the country since 2014. Of this number, 11,636 stateless individuals either confirmed or acquired citizenship or obtained status of a stateless person due in large part to a countrywide registration and documentation campaign conducted jointly by UNHCR, the government, and nongovernmental partners. As of July there were an estimated 1,600 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.