Today’s court decision to close down the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Azattyk dealt a serious blow to media freedom in Kyrgyzstan and should be reversed, stated International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). This decision is the most recent in a series of troubling developments undermining freedom of expression and access to information in the country and should be strongly and unequivocally condemned by the international community.
On 27 April 2023, a local district court in Bishkek ruled in favour of a petition filed by the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy (“Ministry of Culture’’) to revoke the license of Radio Azattyk and terminate its activities as a media outlet. The Ministry of Culture had applied to the court because of a video report posted on Radio Azattyk’s website on 16 September 2022 about hostilities on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The video report, which had been produced the Russian-language network Current Time operated by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, presented the official views on these events of the authorities of both countries. When filing the lawsuit in January 2023, the Ministry of Culture argued that the video report allegedly featured elements of ‘’war propaganda’’ and ‘’hate speech’’ in violation of article 23 of the Law on Mass Media, which prohibits such language. The court supported the Ministry’s request, although an expert commissioned by the court to carry out a linguistic review of the contents of the video report did not offer any conclusive assessment, saying that she did not have the necessary expertise to determine whether the video report featured war propaganda or incitement to inter-ethnic hatred.
Radio Azattyk has categorically denied the accusations levelled against it, saying the video report was in line with its standards of balanced reporting and has refused to take down the report. The service announced that it will appeal the ruling about its closure, which Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly called ‘’outrageous’’.
Radio Azattyk’s website has been blocked in Kyrgyzstan since late October 2022 because of the contested video report. The decision to suspend access to its website was issued by the Ministry of Culture under a controversial law on the protection against ‘’false’’ information, which grants the Ministry powers to initiate the blocking of websites for up to two months based on complaints received about allegedly ‘’false’’ information. Radio Azattyk’s site was initially blocked until late December 2022, but the Ministry of Culture then extended the period indefinitely until the report in question is removed from the media outlet’s website. In March 2023, a local court rejected Radio Azattyk’s complaint against the decision to block its site, although officials admitted that the Ministry of Culture had not received any formal complaints about the video report, and that the decision had been based on negative comments posted on social media.
Radio Azattyk’s bank accounts were also frozen for two months in October-December 2022 because of unsubstantiated allegations of money laundering.
The decision to close down Radio Azattyk comes at a time when freedom of expression is under serious attack in Kyrgyzstan: several pieces of restrictive draft legislation have been initiated in recent months, a number of spurious criminal cases have been opened against journalists, bloggers and other government critics, and independent media outlets have been subjected to increasing pressure. We call on Kyrgyzstan’s international partners to speak out against this alarming trend and make it clear to the government that a failure to change course and abide by international standards protecting the right to freedom of expression and other fundamental rights will negatively affect relations with Kyrgyzstan.
See also joint statement by members of the Civic Solidarity Platform about the attacks on Radio Azattyk from January 2023 (signed by IPHR)
For more information on current trends regarding the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan, see our regular updates and publications on this country