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Kyrgyzstan’s Repressive Turn Lands Bishkek on CIVICUS Watchlist

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Kyrgyzstan’s Repressive Turn Lands Bishkek on CIVICUS Watchlist

The watchdog says Kyrgyz authorities are “cracking down on dissent with unprecedented severity”

Kyrgyzstan’s Repressive Turn Lands Bishkek on CIVICUS Watchlist
Credit: Catherine Putz

In the wake of its December 2023 downgrading of Kyrgyzstan’s civic space rating, from “obstructed” to “repressed,” CIVICUS has added the country to its latest watchlist. CIVICUS also raised its concerns about Kyrgyzstan during the general debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council session on March 4

CIVIUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists, routinely releases a watchlist seeking to draw attention to a select few countries where there has been a rapid decline in the respect of civic freedoms. In its March 5 watchlist, Kyrgyzstan is highlighted alongside Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, and Venezuela.

“In Kyrgyzstan, once considered a relative haven of civil society and media freedom in Central Asia, the government is cracking down on dissent with unprecedented severity,” CIVICUS writes.

In the accompanying report, prepared in collaboration with the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), CIVIUS points to two legislative efforts – the draft “foreign representatives” acts and the draft law on “mass media” – alongside the arrest of journalists and activists as causes for concern about the deterioration of civic space in Kyrgyzstan.

“Since the beginning of 2024, the authorities have intensified their efforts to curb dissent, moving ahead with repressive laws and invoking flimsy legal justifications to shut down independent media and arrest and imprison critics,” the report’s introduction states. 

The “foreign representatives” bill was adopted in its second reading in late February. Modeled on the 2012 Russian “foreign agents” law, the present Kyrgyz version has dropped the worrying addition of criminal penalties, but nevertheless has triggered widespread concern both inside and outside Kyrgyzstan. As CIVICUS explains:

Under the proposal, NGOs that are funded from outside Kyrgyzstan and engage in broadly defined “political activities” would have to register as “foreign representatives” and mark everything they publish with this stigmatising label. Failure to register could lead to severe sanctions: The Ministry of Justice could suspend their activities for up to six months without a court order and then petition the court to close them down. In order to ensure compliance with the law, the authorities would be given far-reaching powers to monitor NGOs – through intrusive unplanned inspections, being given access to internal documents and having their representatives attend events, including internal staff meetings.

Tara Petrović, a Europe and Central Asia researcher at CIVICUS, said in a press release accompanying the report, “Everywhere we’ve seen these laws implemented, they have led to the mass shutdown of NGOs. When we look at their inevitable consequences, we can see their real goal is the de facto abolition of independent civil society and the suppression of critical voices.”

The other concerning legislative effort is a draft law on “mass media” which, CIVICUS explains, “would grant the authorities extensive control over all forms of media in the country, expanding the grounds on which they can deny media outlets registration, obstruct their work and shut them down.” The law would require all “mass media” – for which the definition is extensively broad – to register with the state. Accreditation necessary to visit state and local government bodies could be withdrawn if, for example, the journalist or “the outlet they work for ‘tarnish the honor, dignity or business reputation’ of the relevant body.” Freelance journalists and unregistered outlets would not be able to obtain accreditation at all.

Finally, CIVICUS highlighted the pressure exerted by the state on journalists and activists, starting with the mid-January raid on the editorial offices of and the arrest of 11 journalists, many with connections to Temirov Live. CIVIUS also noted the early February decision by a court in Bishkek to shut down Kloop, ostensibly on the basis of its “negative” coverage of the state. 

CIVIUS also highlighted the “Kempir-Abad case,” which in January 2023 was classified “secret” by the Kyrgyz Ministry of the Interior. Sixteen months after two dozen activists, politicians, and journalists who had spoken out against the then-pending Kempir-Abad deal between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were arrested, 11 remain in pre-trial detention, with the remainder released to house arrest. They faces charges of, among other things, plotting to seize power, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

CIVIUS urged the Kyrgyz parliament to reject the proposed laws and Kyrgyz authorities to “decisively to uphold respect for freedom of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan in accordance with the country’s international obligations.” They also urged Kyrgyz authorities to cease repressive actions against media and “stop using criminal prosecution as a tool of retaliation against critics.”