(Berlin) – Kyrgyzstan’s General Prosecutor has brought a series of cases against two prominent local media outlets that have been critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today.

The outlets are accused of discrediting the honor and dignity of the president and spreading false information. The actions violate standards on freedom of expression, and the authorities should promptly drop the lawsuits.

“Kyrgyzstan’s authorities should understand the role of independent media and what it means to respect freedom of expression and drop these lawsuits,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan has a dynamic media landscape, which should be allowed to flourish, and laws that allow these kinds of prosecutions should be repealed.”

The General Prosecutor’s Office filed three lawsuits – two on March 6, 2017, and one on March 13 – against Zanoza, a local online media outlet and its founder, Idinov Narynbek. The office filed two suits on March 6 against Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In both cases the suits alleged “biased coverage of unchecked, false information that deliberately affected the honor and dignity of the head of state” and requested both media outlets to pay compensation totaling 32 million soms (US$462,855). Local courts ordered the bank accounts of both outlets frozen.

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev addresses a news conference in Berlin, April 1, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

The coverage on which the General Prosecutor’s office based its cases was articles reporting comments by Omurbek Tekebaev, a leader of the opposition party Ata Meken, who was detained on February 26 on fraud and corruption charges, and on coverage of a press conference held by his lawyers. Tekebaev and his lawyers have accused President Almazbek Atambaev of involvement in smuggling illegal goods in a plane that crashed on January 16 near Bishkek. At least 37 people were killed in the crash and 23 homes destroyed. Other media outlets also reported on Tekebaev’s lawyers’ press conference and have not faced prosecution.

Article 4 of the law on “Guarantees of the activities of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic” obliges the prosecutor general to take legal action on behalf of the president if disseminated information has defamed the president’s honor and dignity. Laws that provide for offenses and penalties for those who criticize public figures, including figures such as the president, on the basis that it is considered insulting, are not compatible with freedom of expression standards under international law, and in particular with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Kyrgyzstan is a party.

On March 7, local courts in Bishkek ruled in the General Prosecutor’s office’s favor, ordering the articles that allegedly defamed the dignity and honor of the president immediately be removed from the media outlets’ websites. The outlets complied.

On March 22, Azattyk and Zanoza were informed that on March 14, the court had also ordered that their bank accounts were to be frozen. Representatives of the outlets told Human Rights Watch that this court order can lead to the closure of their offices as they would not be able to pay rent and staff salaries.

A lawyer from the Media Policy Institute, a local nongovernmental organization working on media policy and legislation who represents both media outlets, filed an appeal, contending that the courts' decisions are unfounded. He told Human Rights Watch that the pressure on these media outlets is selective and that the amount of compensation is disproportionate.

Dina Maslova, the chief editor of Zanoza, told Human Rights Watch that “authorities have chosen these two media outlets because of their critical stance about the government and their actions are connected to the upcoming presidential elections,” scheduled for November. She said that the “authorities are using the political situation to remove political opponents and critics.”

Venera Djumataeva, director of Azattyk, told Human Rights Watch that the media outlet did not breach any law as the journalists were simply doing their work. She believes the reason Azattyk was targeted is because it is popular among the local population and conducts serious, journalistic investigations into corruption.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the ICCPR, has previously warned Kyrgyzstan about bringing libel suits against journalists critical of the government and expressed its concerns about the kinds of laws protecting the president against insult in Kyrgyz law that are being invoked for these lawsuits.

“Kyrgyzstan should uphold media freedom at all times, and particularly during election seasons,” Williamson said. “Invoking inappropriate ‘insult’ laws and targeting critical media sends the wrong message to the country’s international partners at a time when respect for international human rights standards is paramount”.