Last week, a court in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, ordered the country’s former president to compensate three former government officials who claimed he had insulted their dignity and honor via an interview he gave to his own television channel.
According to local media, Almazbek Atambayev will appeal the court’s decision that he should pay each of the three former officials — former Prosecutor General Azimbek Beknazarov, former head of the State Committee for National Security Keneshbek Duishebaev, and former speaker of parliament Akmatbek Keldibekov — 100,000 Kyrgyzstani som (about $1,450). The court also ordered April TV, a private channel owned by Atambayev, to retract the statements made by Atambayev.
In December, Beknazarov, Duishebaev, and Keldibekov filed a lawsuit against Atambayev, accusing the former president of libel and the TV channel of “disseminating false information.” They initially sought 18 million soms.
There are several aspects to this case worth examining (this list is non-exhaustive, of course).
First, one cannot help but feel some degree of schadenfreude to see Atambayev on the losing side of a defamation lawsuit. As president, Atambayev was both loose with his own tongue — lobbing insults at will — and thin-skinned when it came to barbs directed his way. For example, in the summer of 2017 a Bishkek court sided with Atambayev in a suit against the young and popular Kyrgyz news site Zanoza.kg, its co-founder, its editor-in-chief, and a former MP interviewed for an article. That was one of several lawsuits filed by the then-president against media outlets that had published less-than-flattering stories about Atambayev.
In an interview with April TV last November, Atambayev admitted he might have been wrong to pursue multimillion som suits against media outlets and journalists. He said maybe he had succumbed to his emotions.
Second, the suits against Atambayev and the former president’s mea culpa come amid an extended and seemingly irreparable breakdown between the former and current president. Although current Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was put forth by the Social Democratic Party (SDPK) as Atambayev’s preferred successor, relations between the two have frayed since Jeenbekov’s October 2017 election victory. The SDPK itself looks headed for a split between pro- and anti-Atambayev factions.
As previous waves of defamation suits have ridden the tides of Kyrgyz politics, there’s good reason to see this wave as a function of politics as well. As the Jeenbekov administration pursues corruption and abuse of office cases against Atambayev allies, Atambayev is ripe target — no longer protected by high office. Lawsuits may be the least of the former president’s worries. Last fall, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by former presidents was unconstitutional.
A third aspect worth keeping in mind is that there’s more than just the case against Atambayev’s media outlet at play. This deepens the issues beyond even the murky politicking between the Jeenbekov and Atambayev camps. Keldibekov, in particular, has launched a spree of lawsuits against media outlets in the past year.
In October 2018, Keldibekov won a pair of suits against Asia-News and journalist Aslan Saparbayev, for a million som each. Then in December, Keldibekov sued Kyrgyztoday and one of the outlet’s journalists, Argument.kg, and then Atambayev’s April TV.
Why the spate of suits? Well, at the risk of raising his ire: Keldibekov has a colorful history in Kyrgyz politics. As Temirlan Bekbotoyev, the editor-in-chief of Argument.kg, explained to 24.kg, the offending article stated that Keldibekov had been convicted and paid a fine to clear his record. The former speaker had detained on corruption charges in 2013 and, in the words of his lawyer recently, a court “sentenced him to a fine for abuse of office.” Keldibekov filed to contest the 2017 election but his candidacy was thrown out on account of his still having a criminal record. Kyrgyz law allows for the paying of a fine to remove some kinds of past convictions. Keldibekov paid a 10 million som fine and on November 8, 2017 his conviction was removed.
Without remarking on the verity of each and every claim of trashed honor, the atmosphere around these suits says something unfortunate about the state of Kyrgyz politics and the fragility of freedom of speech. These conditions easily dovetail with the phenomenon of “fake news” accusations (which Atambayev liked to make), that have muddied the waters between fact and falsehood the world over. Politics by way of libel lawsuits is far from efficient. Furthermore, it’s incredibly detrimental to the health of journalism in the country if outlets are fearful that mentioning information — such as past convictions of active political figures — will lead them to financial ruin.