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Kyrgyzstan: Film Ban Violates Free Speech

Allow Screening of Gay Documentary; Protect Activists Promoting Film

(Bishkek) – The Kyrgyz government should lift a ban on a documentary film about gay men in Morocco and allow the film to be screened in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said today.

The film, I am Gay and Muslim, shows gay men in Morocco describing their lives and their religious views. On September 27, 2012, Kyrgyz authorities illegally confiscated one copy of the film the day before it was scheduled to be screened at a local cinema in Bishkek, the capital.  The next day, police prevented film festival organizers from showing another copy at the same cinema.

“The Kyrgyz authorities have no legitimate basis for banning this film,” said Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “Although not everyone in Kyrgyzstan may like this film or agree with its content, the authorities should respect free speech by allowing the film to be screened.”

The documentary is one of dozens of films included in the “One World” film festival, organized annually by local human rights groups for the last five years and shown in numerous cities across Kyrgyzstan.

In response to a complaint filed by the chief mufti of Kyrgyzstan to the General Prosecutor’s Office and the State Committee onReligious Affairs, National Security Service (KNB) officers on September 27 took a copy of the film from the Manas cinema in central Bishkek, where the film was to be screened the next day. Festival organizers informed Human Rights Watch that the KNB officials had no search warrant and provided no official documentation permitting them to confiscate the film.  

The Kyrgyz State Committee on Religious Affairs assessed the content of the film and determined it to be “extremist,” “offensive to Muslims,” and “inciting interreligious hatred.” Citing this analysis and the Kyrgyz law on “counteracting extremist activities,” the General Prosecutor’s office ordered the film festival organizers to refrain from screening I am Gay and Muslim.

The festival organizers refused to comply and attempted to show another copy of the film at the Manas cinema on September 28, as scheduled.  Over a dozen law enforcement officers arrived and prevented the screening.  Police ushered members of the audience out of the theater after they were allowed to participate in a short discussion about the film with its director, Chris Belloni of the Netherlands.

The 59-minute documentary, released in March, has been screened in over a dozen countries, including the Netherlands, the United States, Ukraine, and Serbia.

Using “extremism” legislation to ban this film is a misuse of the law to stifle protected speech, Human Rights Watch said.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Tolekan Ismailova, head of Citizens against Corruption, a local group and one of the festival’s organizers, told Human Rights Watch that government officials, journalists, and private individuals had pressured her, other festival organizers, and the Manas cinema director not to show the film. Unidentified people had also threatened to set the Manas cinema on fire if the film was shown. 

Kyrgyzstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to free speech.  Article 19 provides, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Free speech is protected in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution. Article 31 states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and opinion,” and “Everyone shall have the right to free expression of opinion, freedom of speech and press.”

In respecting and protecting the right to free speech, governments have an obligation to refrain from censoring free speech, including speech that may offend.  

“The authorities should in no circumstances harass or pressure people who wish to screen or view this film,” Reid said. “The effort to show the documentary as part of a human rights film festival should not be condemned, but rather welcomed. Like anyone else, LGBT people of faith have a right to be heard.”

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