(Bishkek, August 30, 2023) – Kyrgyz authorities have filed a lawsuit to close down Kloop Media Public Foundation, a nonprofit body that runs an independent online news outlet in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said today. The move continues a repressive trend against freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan.
The lawsuit, for which Kloop was officially served on August 28, 2023, was filed by the Bishkek city Prosecutor’s Office alleging Kloop’s failure to register as a mass media outlet and conducting media activity not listed in its charter, which can warrant the liquidation of legal entities under Kyrgyzstan’s civil law code.
The lawsuit also references a pretrial investigation into the foundation’s activities by the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, initiated in November 2021 on suspicion that Kloop Media publications had violated article 327 of Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code, which penalizes “making public calls for the violent seizure of power online” with three to five years in prison.
“The lawsuit against Kloop Media is the most recent in a string of attacks on freedom of media and freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan, all incompatible with the country’s international human rights obligations, as well as its status as a member of the UN Human Rights Council,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyz authorities should immediately withdraw the lawsuit and stop harassing independent media in the country.”
Kloop Media is known for its independent reporting on national and regional affairs. It has also collaborated on anti-corruption investigations with the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a global investigative journalism network.
The lawsuit accuses Kloop Media of “sharp criticism of [the] government” and lists a number of articles that it categorizes as critical of the Kyrgyz government’s policies and of state and municipal bodies. The opinions of several court-affiliated legal experts cited in the lawsuit say that Kloop’s publications use “hidden manipulation,” as experts put it, leading to “dissatisfaction” and “distrust” of the authorities among its readership, which could lead to their “zombification” and encourage its readers to join anti-government protests.
The lawsuit also spotlights Kloop’s coverage of the situation in the country’s southern Batken region, which had been the site of two border conflicts between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the past two years. A Human Rights Watch report on the most recent conflict, in September 2022, found that forces from both sides committed apparent war crimes in attacks on civilians. The lawsuit alleges that Kloop’s articles about the region are responsible for the continued flow of internal and external migration away from the region, which the lawsuit finds to be compliant with Tajikistan’s strategic goals.
Kloop Media’s lawyer, Fatima Yakupbaeva, said the claims lack a legal basis. She said Kloop does not have to be registered as a mass media outlet because it is a nonprofit organization, which according to its charter provides “an information platform for free expression” and aims to “raise awareness of youth in Kyrgyzstan on current socio-political and economic affairs.”
Representatives of independent media community in Kyrgyzstan issued a joint statement saying that the authorities should withdraw their lawsuit, deeming it untenable and asserting that the Kyrgyz government’s effort to punish Kloop’s “sharp criticism of politics” is protected speech guaranteed by the Kyrgyz Constitution and Kyrgystan’s international human rights obligations. The Committee to Protect Journalists also called for the cessation of the legal action against Kloop Media.
Kyrgyz authorities have previously blocked access to Radio Free Europe’s Kyrgyz service websites, froze its bank account for nine months in October 2022 and pursued a lawsuit to shutter it, and ordered the expulsion of Bolot Temirov, an investigative journalist from Kyrgyzstan, in apparent retaliation for his professional activities.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners including the European Union, EU member states, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe should urge the government to withdraw the lawsuit and to uphold its commitments to freedom of speech.
“Kyrgyz authorities should withdraw the lawsuit against Kloop Media and cease all attempts at punishing journalists for their professional activities,” Sultanalieva said. “The preservation of independent media is fundamental for a functioning democracy and any attempts to suppress critical voices undermine the democratic values Kyrgyzstan has aspired to uphold.”