A Kyrgyz government ministry this week blocked RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, after the U.S.-backed broadcaster refused to remove a video that aired first last month regarding the violent clashes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policy announced on October 26 that it has suspended Radio Azattyk’s website for two months under legislation passed in 2021 ostensibly aimed at countering false information, aka “fake news.” The ministry cited a broadcast by RFE/RL’s Russian-language platform Current Time TV that went up September 16 and was carried also on Radio Azattyk’s website. The ministry alleged that the videos contained “elements of hate speech… unconfirmed information about an alleged attack by the Kyrgyz side on Tajikistan, information that escalates the situation in society and causes hatred, discrimination and division among citizens when covering events in the Batken region.”
Radio Azattyk, per the ministry’s statement, ignored an initial take-down request. The ministry then says that it sent another letter on October 24 formally requesting the removal of the material.
“However, to date, this video has not yet been removed,” the ministry continued.
In its letter to RFE/RL, the ministry said that monitoring of Radio Azattyk’s articles had “revealed that it has been biased in its coverage of the events on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, predominantly taking the position of the Tajik side.” That may comes as a surprise to many readers of Radio Azattyk’s coverage of the September border conflagration.
The ministry nevertheless ordered the site suspended under authority granted earlier this year, which enables the ministry to block a website without a court order.
RFE/RL issued its own statement about the events, sharing the ministry’s October 24 letter and stating that it had refused to comply.
“RFE/RL takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously. We have reviewed the content in question and find no violation of our standards,” RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly said in the press release. “We will not succumb to pressure to remove balanced reporting from our sites, be it from the Kremlin or the Kyrgyz government. Threatening journalists and trying to silence independent media are authoritarian tactics that only serve to undermine Kyrgyz democracy. We will be appealing this decision.”
The suspension of Radio Azattyk comes in the wake of protests outside the outlet’s offices in Bishkek and chatter in the Kyrgyz parliament about banning the service (as well as other prominent independent Kyrgyz media outlets like Kloop and Kaktus).
The suspension has been met with criticism both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan. Naturally, RFE/RL — no stranger to being blocked — continues its work, and published a how-to guide for readers on using VPNs.
OCCRP, which has partnered with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service on various investigations exposing corruption in the country, highlighted violations of Kyrgyzstan’s own laws, pointed out by Kyrgyz legal experts:
Lawyer Akmat Alagushev believes that the decision is illegal because the same institution that complained about the video also decided on the suspension.
“Thus, it turns out that the ministry submitted a complaint itself and considered it itself,” Alagushev said.
Lawyer Saniya Toktogazieva echoed her colleague’s arguments.
“Can you imagine, the Ministry of Culture itself made the complaint and then suspended the site itself. What kind of chaos is that?” she asked in a Facebook post.
She claimed that the actions of the Ministry of Culture of Kyrgyzstan in relation to Azattyk do not hold water and described them as “absolutely incompetent, illegal, outrageous arbitrariness!”
As 24.kg reported, Kyrgyzstan’s Media Complaints Commission — an independent self-regulatory body — pointed out that while the relevant law — officially the law “On Protection from Inaccurate (False) Information” — defines “unreliable information” affecting the “honor, dignity and business reputation of another person” it does not define the alleged violations that the ministry cited: “hate speech,” “discrimination,” “inflaming the situation,” or being in “contradiction to the national interests of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
“There is not a single expert opinion that would prove the presence of hate speech or any kind of discrimination in the video,” the commission stated, concluding that the suspension of Radio Azattyk is illegal and represents a continued deterioration of media freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.
When the “fake news” law was passed in 2021, the Kyrgyz government argued that it was necessary to combat anonymous trolls online peddling false information. Critics, as I noted at the time, worried that it would be used to target voices critical of the Kyrgyz government. At a roundtable in Bishkek last month, journalists and other media experts continued to air such concerns about the law and its use to shut down media, with several editors noting pressure they’d come under to remove content lest they face suspension.
In July, for example, independent news website Res Publica was suspended after it refused to comply with take-down request related to two of its published investigations from the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policy. It was, as other media reported at the time, the first use of the “fake news” law.
Radio Azattyk would seem to be the second case. Both cases suggest that concerns about the “fake news” law being abused by authorities to shut down unfavorable coverage were well-grounded.