A court in Bishkek has ruled to shut down Radio Azattyk in Kyrgyzstan, the local affiliate of RFE/RL. The ruling sparked a wave of criticism from international human rights organisations. They see the closure of Radio Azattyk as a serious blow to freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan and a wake-up call for the country’s independent media.
On April 27, 2022, the Lenin district court of Bishkek upheld a government order to close Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The case against Azattyk was filed by the Kyrgyz ministry of culture in January 2023. Authorities accused the news agency of spreading false information about the Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict.
The ministry argued that video footage published by Azattyk’s subsidiary, Current Time TV, violated the law on mass media, which bans propaganda of war, violence, cruelty, and intolerance. Representatives of Azattyk intend to appeal the ruling in the Bishkek city court.
Jamie Fly, president and CEO of RFE/RL has expressed his dissatisfaction with the district court’s decision to close Azattyk. This was reported on the news outlet’s website. Fly commented that their audience will find a way to get to information regardless of bans and censorship.
“RFE/RL is appealing the court’s outrageous decision . . . . Our history has shown that when people want reliable information that is censored by their government, they will find ways to access it,” Fly said.
Restrictions of freedom of speech
Amnesty International, an international human rights group, released a statement saying the Kyrgyz authorities have ordered Azzatyk’s closure to restrict critical reporting.
Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Mari Struthers, said the claim by Kyrgyz authorities that the video published by Azattyk radio’s affiliate promotes hatred, was an excuse for closing an independent medium.
“The court decision will be challenged on appeal, and Amnesty International reiterates its call for the country’s authorities to withdraw their order to shut down Radio Azattyk altogether, stop the harassment and intimidation of journalists and government critics, and fully respect, protect and facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of expression for all media in Kyrgyzstan,” added Marie Struthers.
The Committee on the Rights of Journalists (CPJ) urged the Bishkek court to overturn the decision.
“The shutting down (ed.) of Radio Azattyk, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular and trusted sources of news, sends a deeply chilling message to the country’s independent media and raises profound questions about the direction in which Kyrgyz authorities wish to take their country . . . . Authorities should immediately overturn this decision and allow the outlet to work freely,” Gulnoza Saeed, CPJ’s programme coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.
Court ruling sets country back
The court ruling came as no surprise, according to MP Dastan Bekeshev. However, he expressed the opinion that the Kyrgyz authorities will not be able to end freedom of speech in the country.
“The court decision on Azattyk is not unexpected, but in any case, there were hopes that the authorities will come to their senses and signal to the judge to take a lawful decision . . . . But with the closure of Azattyk, freedom of speech is not closed. The authorities are making a mistake by turning freedom of speech into a target, just like other constitutional norms”, Dastan Bekeshev wrote on his Telegram channel.
Bekeshev predicts that media will come under increasing pressure in Kyrgyzstan. Hence, he is afraid the country will gradually become less attractive to foreign investors: “Unfortunately, the country is backsliding because of such unclever decisions and depriving itself of its right to develop. Without freedom of speech there will be no economic miracle,” the MP said.
Comments from other outlets
It is worth noting that Azattyk is one of the most popular media outlets in Kyrgyzstan. The total number of subscribers on their social networks is five million.
Kyrgyz media outlet Bashta came out in support of Azattyk. The editorial board noted that attempts to put pressure on the media occurred only during the “darkest” times in Kyrgyzstan’s history – before the 2005 Tulip Revolution and the April 2010 revolution.
“Ousted presidents Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Askar Akayev stopped broadcasting Azattyk 28 days before the revolution. Later, they were both ousted because of their authoritarian policies, clan rule and pressure on freedom of speech. Sadyr Japarov knows full well how badly the events of that time turned out, because he was Bakiyev’s adviser from 2007 to 2009″, the statement reads.
Eldiyar Arykbayev, editor-in-chief of Kloop.kg, one of the largest Kyrgyz media outlets, shared his opinion on Facebook, condemning the court ruling and pointing out the importance of Azattyk for Kyrgyz citizens.
“The main value of Kyrgyzstan is precisely in the existence of an independent and free press, and judges and officials deprive (literally) Kyrgyzstani citizens of this freedom with their ill-conceived actions”, he wrote.
He noted that Radio Azattyk has conducted important investigative journalism and that without this news agency, the public would not have known about the wrongdoings of some powerful officials in Kyrgyzstan: “Without Azattyk there would not have been all these wonderful investigations: Matraimov would have been running the country and the scale of corruption would have been even greater, and the public would not have been informed about all the offences that the journalists of Azattyk uncovered”, said the Kloop.kg editor-in-chief Eldiyar Arykbaev.
It should be recalled that in October 2022, access to the Azattyk website was temporarily blocked in Kyrgyzstan. Bank accounts of its employees as well as of the outlet itself were frozen, allegedly in accordance with national legislation on money laundering. In December, the ban on access to the site was declared “indefinite” by the authorities.
Written by Sherzod Babakulov
Translated from Russian by Anna Wilhelmi
Edited by Julian Postulart
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