Kyrgyzstan: Pressure on media and civil society at Covid-19 time of crisis

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A new briefing paper prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and its partner Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) highlights key trends in the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan. The paper reviews the rights implications of the emergency measures taken by the Kyrgyzstani authorities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as other recent developments that impede the work of media, journalists and bloggers, threaten civil society space, and limits the rights of protesters in violation of national and international law.

In connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kyrgyzstani authorities introduced emergency measures, including a state of emergency that was in force in the capital Bishkek and several other cities and regions from 25 March to 10 May 2020. These measures negatively affected the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. For several weeks, journalists were not accredited and granted special permission to move around in the capital and other areas where the state of emergency was in place, which prevented them from effectively carrying out their professional activities at this time of crisis. Lawyers also had trouble with providing legal assistance to clients since they were not exempted from the restrictions on people’s movement that applied during the state of emergency. The conduct of rallies, pickets and all other assemblies was fully banned during the state of emergency, and social media users have been threatened with criminal prosecution and made to “publicly apologise” for posting allegedly false information about the pandemic.

In a trend that began prior to the Covid-19 crisis, independent media and journalists have recently come under growing pressure in Kyrgyzstan. In one high-profile case, several leading independent media outlets exposing government corruption are facing defamation lawsuits involving unprecedentedly large claims for damages that threaten their existence. While this case is still pending with court, it has already sent a warning to all media outlets that are critical of the government. Punitive defamation lawsuits initiated by people in power have also been used to target other independent and opposition media outlets. Media resources publishing corruption exposés have been singled out for cyberattacks and investigative journalists have been intimidated and attacked in retaliation for their work. An opposition TV channel was de facto forced to seize its operations last year. Several outspoken bloggers have been charged with “inciting hostility” for exercising their freedom of expression.

Civil society has criticised new draft legislation on NGOs, which the parliament adopted on first reading in March 2020, as an unjustified attempt to step up control of NGOs and warned that it may be used to put pressure on organisations working on issues that do not please the authorities. In a joint appeal, more than 100 Kyrgyzstani NGO leaders called for the withdrawal of the draft legislation, which introduces additional reporting obligations for NGOs on top of those set out by existing legislation.

In a worrying development, civil society groups and activists have been intimidated, attacked and harassed in a number of cases in the past year. The investigations into these incidents have typically not been effective and the perpetrators have not been identified nor held to account. Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov remains behind bars and continues to be denied justice, in violation of the 2016 decision by the UN Human Rights Committee on his case. The current Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced concerns about his health, prompting renewed calls for his release with account of humanitarian aspects.

Under normal circumstances, the country’s residents actively exercise their right to freedom of assembly. For example, in late 2019, two large peaceful protests were held in central Bishkek to call for adequate measures to investigate allegations of government corruption, as well as to protect freedom of expression. Most peaceful protests are allowed to take place without interference. However, in an exception to this, those who had gathered for a march against violence against women in Bishkek on 8 March 2020 were first attacked by unknown perpetrators and thereafter arbitrarily detained and ill-treated by police. The police attempted to justify their measures by calling the march “unsanctioned”, although advance permission for assemblies is not required under national law, and by claiming that they acted to prevent clashes between the participants and their attackers. The police response to the women’s rights march was heavily criticised and a number of the participants filed complaints about unlawful treatment by police, which are currently under investigation.

Shortly before the 8 March event, local authorities sought court bans on all non-official assemblies in the capital until 1 July 2020, citing the need to prevent the spread of the Covid-19. However, the arguments made by local officials in court suggested that the real motive was to prevent the women’s rights march from taking place. In the end, the authorities backed off from this controversial initiative and dropped their requests for such bans. Prior to this, local courts had repeatedly sanctioned blanket bans on holding assemblies in central Bishkek for several weeks a time, based on vague arguments about the supposed nuisance and threat posed by rallies. This problematic practice runs counter to national and international standards protecting the right to freedom of assembly.

The full briefing paper can be downloaded here.