Screenshot from a YouTube comedy show from Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan: threat of censorship looms after controversial comedy show

After a controversial comedy show on YouTube, Kyrgyzstan’s culture minister discussed stronger state control of musicians. Artists and parts of civil society reacted with indignation and criticised the lack of support for culture in the country.

This article was originally published on Novastan’s German website on 16 January 2021.

A group of comedians pokes fun at a guest. This format, known in stand-up circles as “roast”, has also become popular in Russian-speaking countries in recent years. A particularly successful example is the Internet show “Chto bylo dal’she” (“What happened next?”) whose videos have millions of viewers on YouTube. A recent attempt to introduce the format in Kyrgyzstan, however, ended in scandal.

After just two episodes, the show “V pi#du zvezdu” (which can be roughly translated as “F#ck the star”), hosted by the Kyrgyz pop singer Kural Chokoev, caused a stir on social media. The first guests were the former The Voice Russia finalist Kairat Primberdiev and the singer Kairat Kyrgyz. Some viewers saw in the show’s profanity and off-colour jokes a sign of “social degradation” and called for a boycott of its sponsors.

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In response to these critics, Chokoev decided to end the project and delete the recordings from his YouTube channel. “Your opinion is very important to me. If our videos and our content have hurt someone, of course we apologize,” he said in a video published on Instagram. Primberdiev also recorded an apology.

The government wants harsher laws

The scandal also reached the minister of culture, Nurjigit Kadyrbekov, who expressed his indignation at the show. “Unfortunately, the laws don’t provide any leverage against independent singers. But we will hopefully find a way to get them to act morally,” he announced on 9 January on the Ministry of Culture’s Facebook page. He also evoked measures against Chokoev and Primberdiev, including broadcast and concert bans for the two singers. As the online media Kloop.kg notes, these would be the first bans of this kind in the history of independent Kyrgyzstan.

Kadyrbekov also spoke out in favor of a fundamentally stronger state control of musicians: “It would not be bad to license singers for their work,” the minister said. “Otherwise, the ministry will keep being blamed for all the nonsense of whistlers and singers.”

Action followed. On 12 January, the Ministry of Culture said in a statement that it had revoked a cultural award granted to Chokoev in 2011 and suggested the presidential administration should take back the title of “honoured artist of the Kyrgyz Republic” given to Primberdiev in 2017. In addition, neither artist will be invited to any state-organized cultural events in the near future.  

Strong criticism from civil society

The minister’s words were met with strong criticism from civil society. In a public statement, the Committee for Civil Control, a non-governmental organisation, demanded Kadyrbekov’s resignation. “His words … are ominous, outrageous and unprecedented in terms of unlawfulness and unconstitutionality in the entire history of sovereign Kyrgyzstan,” the statement said, at the same time noting that Kyrgyzstan is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “This threat is not only directed against the singers, but against each and every one of us.”

Censorship is like poison gas: a powerful weapon that can injure you as soon as the wind changes its direction,” said lawyer Saniya Toktogazieva on Facebook. Everyone, she explains, can express their dissatisfaction with certain forms of expression, but such criticism must always consist in “more words, not silencing others”.

Media personalities and cultural workes also expressed their views, as reported by the online media Kaktus: “The show, of course, sucks. But if the Ministry of Culture even tries to withdraw Kairat and Kural’s awards, I will voluntarily return all my awards to the minister,” said the television presenter Erkin Ryskulbekov.

Little support for the arts in Kyrgyzstan

In fact, there has so far been little state intervention in Kyrgyzstan’s independent cultural scene. Beyond the funding of public institutions such as the Philharmonic, the Ministry of Culture actually plays almost no role, neither through restrictive measures nor through financial or material support. The exception is an article in the penal code on “inciting interethnic, racist, religious or interregional hostility” the authorities often use to take action against cultural content. For example, the blogger Elmirbek Sydymanov was arrested in 2017 for inciting interregional hostility after he said in an Instagram video that Kyrgyzstan’s southern regions were “not developed”.

In this way, Kyrgyzstan differs greatly from its Central Asian neighbours, who interfere more actively in cultural life. For example, Kazakhstan launched the Ruhany Jańyrý (“Spiritual Renewal”) program in 2017 to promote contemporary Kazakh culture. In Uzbekistan there has been a licensing system for pop musicians since the early 2000s, coordinated by the state agency O’zbekkontsert (“O’zbeknavo” before 2017).

With the state’s inaction in terms of cultural funding in mind, the reaction of Kyrgyzstan’s minister of culture seems inappropriate to some, to put it mildly. “Who paid for Kairat Primberdiev’s international trips when he praised our country? The Ministry of Culture? Of course not. Who invests in the work of our artists? The Ministry of Culture? NO,” commented the journalist Meerim Osmonova on Instagram.

I’ve already had enough of the populists who come to power and make decisions for their own sake,” she added, probably in reference to the fact Kadyrbekov did not become minister of culture until October, when Sadyr Japarov became prime minister (he has since then been elected president). “Is mat [obscene or vulgar language in Russian] the biggest problem in our country? Perhaps the Ministry of Culture should deal with Sadyr’s fans, who use mat every other word, rather than our artists?

 A “cultural revolution” in the making

The current legal situation in Kyrgyzstan provides for freedom of expression as a fundamental right and prohibits censorship of any kind. But that could change with the upcoming constitutional reform. The first draft of the new constitution foresaw a ban on content that “harms the morality and culture of the people of Kyrgyzstan“. After a referendum where voters chose to switch to a presidential rather than parliamentary form of government, constitutional reform is now planned for spring.

Read more on Novastan: Kyrgyzstan elects Sadyr Japarov and opts for presidential government

At the same time, the past few months have brought increasing politicisation in the country’s pop music. The Kyrgyz superstar Mirbek Atabekov, for example, was a prominent participant in protests last October where he spoke out in favour of a change in the political class alongside young activists. In the summer, Primberdiev also declared that he would no longer take part in political election campaigns: “I am ashamed of the fact that I used to perform at campaign concerts. I apologize to the Kyrgyz people.”   

According to Chokoev’s recent declaration, he also viewed “W pi#du zvezdu” as a socio-political act. “The main aim of the project was a desperate attempt to draw the attention of state bodies to the development of culture in our country,” he writes, pointing out that even the national epic, the Epic of Manas, is promoted by civil society and individual artists. Instead of a constructive discussion about the problem, the Ministry of Culture acted “by default” through penalties.

I have a lot to say, a lot of suggestions and dreams! It cannot go on like this. I declare a CULTURAL REVOLUTION!” said Chokoev. “How often have I taken part in international competitions on my own and waved the flag for my Kyrgyz people alone! This project was a step that I had to take.”  

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On 18 January, the State Awards Commission refused the Ministry of Culture’s application to revoke Primberdiev’s title of honoured artist of the Kyrgyz Republic, as Kloop.kg reports. There is “no legal basis for depriving the singer Kairat Primberdiev of his title” because he has not broken any law.

On the same day, Kadyrbekov invited the two singers to a meeting, the Ministry of Culture announced. In addition to the show, they discussed projects to promote Kyrgyz culture abroad “in a friendly atmosphere”.

Florian Coppenrath
Founder of Novastan Deutsch

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