Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to freedom of speech today by upholding three defamation rulings punishing critics for apparently insulting the “honor and dignity” of the now former president, Almazbek Atambaev.
Ironically, Atambaev just made a name for himself by being the first elected president in Central Asia to voluntarily step down from office last week at the end of his term. That comes following elections in October dubbed by international monitors as having “contributed to the strengthening of democratic institutions.”
Maybe so, but these defamation lawsuits have exposed the weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary – a key democratic institution. The rulings also undermine a free press and freedom of speech – another important component of a functioning democracy. They will leave a stain on Atambaev’s record in office.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners should take note. Today’s Supreme Court rulings don’t bode well for democracy building either.
To recap, earlier this year, Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General’s office pursued defamation lawsuits against a media outlet, journalists, and a human rights defender, who have been critical of the government. The suits alleged that the defendants had discredited the honor and dignity of the president and spread false information. Courts ruled in favor of the former president, awarding damages worth US$430,000, and the decisions were upheld on appeal. (The media outlet Zanoza.kg and its founder Narynbek Idinov are still facing two lawsuits that have not yet been reviewed by the Supreme Court.)
These rulings go against international standards that public figures such as presidents don’t get special legal protections against speech considered “insulting.”
Today’s Supreme Court rulings are final and cannot be appealed. The defendants must pay damages or risk criminal prosecution.
These rulings have real consequences for the individuals and media outlets in question, and a broader chilling effect on freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan.
But it’s not too late for Kyrgyzstan’s new president to turn a new page.
President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, whose campaign platform noted “the President should act as the guarantor of freedom of speech, media, and internet,” should indeed uphold the right to freedom of speech, and ensure that on his watch, no journalist, media outlet, or human rights defender is unjustly prosecuted for defamation on his behalf.