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Protesters flash the light of their mobile phones during a rally for freedom of speech and freedom for political prisoners in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on November 25, 2022. © 2022 Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP via Getty Images

(Bishkek, January 26, 2023) – The Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture has filed a lawsuit to try to terminate the operation of “Azattyk Media,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz service, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately withdraw the lawsuit and cease its harassment of independent media outlets.

The ministry filed the lawsuit before a district court in the capital, Bishkek, on January 23, 2023. The ministry blocked access to Azattyk Media’s websites and froze its bank account in October 2022, following the outlet’s coverage of a border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Azattyk Media filed a legal appeal. The hearing is scheduled for January 26.

“Shutting down Azattyk Media would be a huge blow to media freedom in Kyrgyzstan and the lawsuit should be immediately withdrawn,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to end its attempts to control and censor independent journalism in Kyrgyzstan and restore its commitment to international human rights obligations, particularly to media freedom.”

In October 2022, using the controversial Law on Protection from False Information, the ministry ordered access to Azattyk Media’s websites, blocked for two - months because of a video broadcast about the September border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The order was extended indefinitely after the outlet refused to take down the video. The authorities claim the video, which featured correspondents from both countries presenting the official positions of their governments, used hate speech and false information to imply that Kyrgyzstan had attacked Tajikistan.

The January 23 lawsuit refers to the Kyrgyz Law on Mass Media Article 23 (clause C), which prohibits “propaganda of war, violence and cruelty, national, religious exclusivity and intolerance towards other peoples and nations.” In the lawsuit, the ministry says that Azattyk Media’s refusal to take down the video in defiance of the October order has led to the video’s wide circulation on social media, which the ministry construes as propaganda. A hearing in this case is scheduled for February 9.

The ministry first asked Azattyk Media to take down the video on September 16, followed by a warning that it would use the Law on Protection from False Information to suspend the sites if the video was not removed within 24 hours. Azattyk Media formally responded, refusing to take down the video, in accordance with what it considers to be standard journalistic practice. The authorities then froze the media outlet’s bank account.

Kyrgyzstan’s media community has expressed its concern over the Kyrgyz government’s continued harassment of independent journalists and attempts to restrict media freedom, saying that the ministry should withdraw the lawsuit. The Committee for Protection of Journalists has said that the potential shutdown of Azattyk Media would be a stain on the country’s international reputation. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty issued a statement rejecting “these continued unlawful attacks against Radio Azattyk and our independent reporting.”

Kyrgyz authorities have recently increased efforts to control and censor mass media amid a continued crackdown on freedom of expression and civil society. On November 23, Bishkek’s city court ordered the expulsion of Bolot Temirov, an investigative journalist from Kyrgyzstan, in apparent retaliation for his professional activities.

In September, the Kyrgyz administration submitted draft amendments to the Law on Mass Media, which included penalties for “abuse of freedom of speech” (Article 4), for public consideration. After the draft drew significant criticism, the government withdrew it with the stated intent to rework it in cooperation with media experts, but the most recent draft is reported to have strengthened restrictions on media and ignored civil society suggestions.

On January 20, United States Senators Bob Menendez and Jim Risch, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement condemning the Kyrgyz government’s crackdown on RFE/RL and other independent media in the country. The Kyrgyz President’s press secretary, Erbol Sultanbaev, responded via his Facebook page, claiming that Kyrgyzstan had the right conditions for a fully functioning independent media in the country.

“Kyrgyz authorities should ensure favorable conditions for independent media in the country, not just on paper, but with their actions,” Sultanalieva said. “The Kyrgyz government should stand up for independent media, not undermine its work.”

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