Crossroads Asia

Will Kyrgyzstan’s ‘False Information’ Law Threaten Free Speech?

Recent Features

Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Will Kyrgyzstan’s ‘False Information’ Law Threaten Free Speech?

Japarov signed the bill passed by the parliament last month, but many questions remain about how it will be implemented.

Will Kyrgyzstan’s ‘False Information’ Law Threaten Free Speech?
Credit: Kyrgyzstan Presidency Press Office

On August 23, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signed into law a “fake news” bill approved by the Kyrgyz parliament in late July. The law — officially titled “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” — had been sharply criticized by human rights organizations, which said it would threaten free speech in Kyrgyzstan.

Per the Kyrgyz government, the law is meant to regulate the rights and obligations of platforms that host “inaccurate information.”

It does this via a government watchdog body that would quickly “react to complaints” about content posted online. The same body would be tasked with identifying anonymous internet users and mandates the creation of a real-name registry for internet users. Internet providers would be responsible for surrendering user information if requested by a court or other government body. Meanwhile, sites hosting content that yields complaints would be obliged to following directions from the watchdog — such as a take-down order — within 24 hours. As both RFE/RL’s reporting and Human Rights Watch noted, the law doesn’t stipulate what state body would be responsible. 

While the bill’s sponsors claim it aims to tackle troll armies and the spread of “fake news” via social media, its critics believe it will be used to target Kyrgyz critical of the government and the president. In addition, those writing about or advocating in regard to domestically controversial social issues, like LGBTQ rights or women’s rights, would likely be the target of complaints. It’s unclear who will get to decide between valid and invalid complaints.

Such a bill has been in the works for some time. Human Rights Watch cited a July 2020 predecessor vetoed by former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and sent back to parliament for revision. Another draft was rejected in late June 2021 only to be approved in July (despite the apparent lack of a legal regulation supporting a re-vote and suspiciously after Japarov hosted a tea party for MPs at the presidential residence.)

The sitting Kyrgyz parliament is past its mandate, anyway, opening its present lawmaking to future questions of legitimacy. Under what authority is Kyrgyzstan’s parliament even working?

The results of Kyrgyzstan’s October 2020 parliamentary elections were so marred by fraud that they triggered immediate protests, which quickly spun out of control and took down the government. Not only were the election results nullified, but within a fortnight Jeenbekov was pressured to resign the presidency by Japarov, who had been released from prison during the protests the day after the October 4 election.

Instead of rescheduling the parliamentary elections that had triggered the unrest, Japarov pushed for presidential elections in conjunction with a constitutional referendum to dump the parliamentary system Kyrgyzstan had been operating under for a decade. Japarov succeeded.  Not only did he win election on January 10, but his preferred constitution was approved in April

Under the new constitution, the Kyrgyz parliament will have fewer faces (dropping from 120 members to 90) and less influence. But that new parliament isn’t even in place; there have not been new parliamentary elections. At present, it looks like Kyrgyzstan will hold parliamentary elections in November (earlier, October 31 was floated as a date).