The Prosecutor General of Kyrgyzstan has filed five lawsuits against media organizations and journalists for insulting the honor and dignity of the president; but for the moment the suits have reportedly been suspended.
Klara Sooronkulova, a lawyer and former judge in the Constitutional Chamber, told 24.kg that “The court proceedings in relation to Azattyk and Zanoza.kg will be suspended.”
In March, as Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev channeled Donald Trump in lambasting media organizations for spreading “fake news,” the country’s prosecutor general began filing libel suits, primarily against Azattyk (the Kyrgyz RFE/RL service) and Zanoza.kg, but also 24.kg — the suits name not only the media organizations, but specific journalists as well as people quoted by those journalists.
The first suit targeted two lawyers for the Ata-Meken party for statements made in late February alleging that the cargo of the plane that crashed while landing at Manas in January belong to the president. The suit also listed Azattyk and ProMedia, the foundation behind Zanoza.kg, as co-defendants for reporting the statements. Many other media outlets, both local and international, reported on the allegations made by Ata-Meken leader Omurbek Tekebayev. Tekebayev was arrested on corruption charges in late February. The suit demands 10 million som from Azattyk and 3 million from Zanoza.kg, and 20 million from the two Ata-Meken lawyers. A second suit was filed against Azattyk and Zanoza.kg for previous coverage of other allegations levied against the president.
The next suit in this series — against Zanoza.kg and its founder, journalist Naryn Aiyp — references an article published in 2015. The suit seeks 3 million som each from the outlet and the journalist for damaging the president’s honor. A fourth suit also targeted Idinov as did a fifth suit. The fifth lawsuit named Aiyp, the current editor-in-chief of Zanoza.kg, Dina Maslova, the publication, and Cholpon Dzhakupova, the head of a legal clinic and long-time Atambayev critic. As with previous suits in this series, the complaint are comments made by Dzhakupova and reported on by Zanoza.kg journalists.
Aiyp’s property was reportedly seized and Aiyp and Maslova were ordered to not leave the country — which seems extreme for a civil suit.
Aiyp, the founder of Zanoza.kg and former chief editor of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, wrote an article for Open Democracy in late March cataloging the lawsuits to date and Atambayev’s harsh comments toward the media. “The authorities’ targeting of these media for punishment shows that they’re trying to clear Kyrgyzstan’s media environment before the elections later this year,” he wrote.
It seems, however, that these suits — which are all based on what the prosecutor sees as libelous insults to the president’s honor — may be on hold.
The Constitutional Chamber of Kyrgyzstan reportedly accepted Klara Sooronkulova’s appeal to examine the relevant laws. Sooronkulova claims that the applicable laws are in violation of the constitution.
According to 24.kg, Sooronkulova said “honor and dignity are personal characteristics of a person, and the President is an institution after all, and one should not personify him.”
As explained by Nurjamal Djanibekova for Eurasianet:
Sooronkulova says that since 2010, when a new constitution was approved, the office of the presidency has been notably downgraded in importance and that Atambayev’s allies have been basing their assaults on media on legislation dating back to 2009.
“This provision was used to crush freedom of speech. All the punitive power of the state machine was directed toward free media and civil activists,” she said.
Sooronkulova said that the chamber agreed to hear her petition “despite clear pressure.”
Sooronkulova dismissed from her seat in the Constitutional Chamber in summer 2015. At the time she was handling a case relating to the government’s decision to mandate biometric registration to vote. The push to oust her from the court appeared to emanate from the president’s office.
After she was dismissed, Sooronkulova said she would appeal, “but I realize what the result will be… What is the Judicial Council? It is as rotten, subordinate, rubber-stamping and controllable as the rest of the judicial system.”
Sooronkulova — with her recent petition to the same chamber she was dismissed from — is, in part, a dare to the Kyrgyz judicial system to prove its independence. It is also poised to indicate the direction of civil liberties in the country. Where is the line between reporting allegations made by public figures and spreading libel? How sacred is the president’s honor?