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A protester holds a sign saying “don’t scare everyone” 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) – Kyrgyzstan’s parliament should reject two draft laws currently under discussion that would restrict freedom of speech and the work of the mass media, Human Rights Watch said today.

These draft laws, as well as a highly controversial draft law on “foreign representatives” that would restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations, may be adopted before the end of the parliamentary session on June 30, 2023, and come into force by the end of July.

“Freedom of media and expression are once again under siege in Kyrgyzstan today with a slew of highly restrictive legislative initiatives, as well as a spate of criminal cases against independent journalists and media outlets,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should stop trying to control and censor journalists work and withdraw these bills.”

The first draft law, On Introduction of Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Kyrgyz Republic, also known as Protection of Children from Harmful Information Law, would amend the Code of Offenses and several other national laws to prohibit certain types of information as harmful to children’s health and development. It was registered in the parliament on March 17,  and on June 20 a parliamentary committee passed the draft law in three hearings, submitting it for full parliamentary consideration. On June 22 in one sitting the parliament passed the draft law in second and third hearings, in violation of the official parliamentary regulations, which require periods of at least 10 days between each hearing.

Article 2-1 of the draft law expands the definition of information harmful to the health and development of children to include information about “nontraditional sexual relationships” and reads as follows: "[information] that denies family values, promotes nontraditional sexual relationships, and encourages disrespect for parents or other family members.” Distribution of such information would be prohibited, and anyone found to have violated the law would be fined the equivalent of from $25 to $250.

The draft law would also require a warning on any video materials that contain information allegedly harmful to children, that print materials in bookshops and other places that might be accessed by anyone under 18 could only be sold or displayed completely wrapped, and that such materials not be sold to children. Distribution of such information would be prohibited in schools and other specialized institutions for children. If enacted, the law would be detrimental to children’s rights, Human Rights Watch said.

While governments have a legitimate interest in protecting children from exposure to harmful information, such as material that portrays violence or discrimination, care should be taken to ensure that such laws are not overly broad and that children’s rights to information and freedom of expression are guaranteed. That includes the right to receive and share information on sexual and reproductive health, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Media experts note that the draft amendments contain many elements of the Russian law On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development, which Human Rights Watch has criticized as enshrining discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in violation of international human rights standards.

The second bill, developed by the administration of President Sadyr Japarov, would amend the Law on Mass Media and was initially submitted for public consideration in September 2022. It would have introduced penalties for “abuse of freedom of speech” (article 4) and treated bloggers as media outlets. After a public backlash the initiators withdrew the draft law for further work with participation of media experts, lawyers, and representatives of the human rights community.

On May 15, the administration submitted the fifth version of the draft law for public consideration. Although the new version does not treat bloggers as media outlets, further restrictive clauses were added, including a prohibition on “propaganda of same-sex marriages.” Members of the working group stated that their recommendations had been largely ignored in the final draft of the bill. Under parliamentary regulations, formal consideration of the bill began on June 15, though there has been no movement on the bill.

The draft law would designate all websites as media outlets and require registering or reregistering them under new, stringent procedures. The requirements could cover websites that are not media oriented, which could include those of national and international nongovernmental organizations and professional organizations.

These new registration requirements would significantly increase the risk that independent media outlets would be denied registration on technical grounds and that the authorities would use them to silence critical voices, Human Rights Watch said. Foreign individuals and legal entities, including citizens of Kyrgyzstan with dual citizenship, would be prohibited from creating television and radio channels, as well as programming for them, and from establishing news websites.

National and international organizations have called on the Kyrgyz authorities to withdraw both draft laws and to continue any work on development amendments based on full cooperation with media experts and journalists.

“The negative consequences of passing these draft laws on Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights reputation would be significant,” Sultanalieva said. “The authorities should respect the country’s rights commitments and withdraw the draft laws immediately.”

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