After nine months of legal wrangling, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, and Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture have come to a settlement that paves the way for the unblocking of the broadcaster.
On July 12, the Bishkek City Court annulled a district court’s April decision to shut down Azattyk at the request of the Ministry of Culture. The ministry contended that the broadcaster had violated the country’s “fake news” law by posting a Current Time TV report on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border violence of September 2022. The law, passed in August 2021, is particularly expansive in its definition of false information.
In October 2022, Azattyk’s website was blocked by Kyrgyz authorities after the broadcaster refused to remove the offending video, which shared the positions of both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments on the September violence. Soon after its bank accounts were frozen. In January 2023, the Ministry of Culture pushed to have Azattyk shut down. In April, the Lenin District Court in Bishkek agreed and ordered Azattyk shut down; the following month the Bishkek City Court upheld that ruling.
The recent resolution of the case is rooted in a settlement agreement between Azattyk and the Ministry of Culture. According to RFE/RL, the settlement is predicated on a change in “general content storage protocols” on RFE/RL websites, under which content is not stored indefinitely. In simpler terms: The video is no longer available on Azattyk’s website, satisfying the Ministry of Culture’s demand that it be removed.
The Ministry of Culture, under the settlement agreement, will send a letter to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Digital Development requesting the unblocking of the Azattyk website.
It’s worth recalling that as then-RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly noted, the Current Time TV website, where the video originated and was also posted, remained unblocked through the entire Azattyk saga — suggesting that the real bone of contention was not the specific video but Azattyk more broadly.
In an interview with The Diplomat in January 2023, Fly said, “If there is a deeper agenda with regard to Azattyk, let’s be frank, it’s probably because Azattyk for years has been boldly reporting inconvenient facts not just for this administration but for others about deep seated corruption in the Kyrgyz government, working with other media partners like Kloop, like OCCRP — winning international awards for our investigations into corruption.”
The blocking of Azattyk was met with widespread outcry, both inside Kyrgyzstan among its many loyal readers and listeners and globally among Kyrgyzstan’s partner countries and media freedom organizations.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan welcomed the court’s decision in a tweet, noting “The resumption of [Azattyk’s] activities is important for press freedom and a step in the right direction to ensure that all voices can be heard in the Kyrgyz Republic.”
Earlier this month, in an interview with The Diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Lesslie Viguerie said he hoped “that the [Kyrgyz] government would decide to put this behind them — essentially withdraw the suit — and move forward.”
Viguerie noted that the United States’ main friction with the Kyrgyz government is “our concern that the space for free media and for civil society is closing.”