In December, the powerful Kyrgyz Matraimov family filed a lawsuit against journalists who had published a series of investigations into the family’s activities. The court case has been a rather slow and muted affair, and the two sides are showing signs of a willingness to reach an agreement. At the same time, however, a number of other incidents in Kyrgyzstan suggest a growing clampdown on the freedom of the press.
Greater freedom but little to show for it
In 2019, the international organisation Reporters Without Borders placed Kyrgyzstan 83rd in its annual Press Freedom Index. This was significantly higher than any of the country’s neighbours in Central Asia (regional second place went to Kazakhstan, 158th in the global ranking). Kyrgyzstan was placed far ahead of Russia, which came 149th, as well as both Turkey (157th) and China (177th). Even compared to its own past achievements in the rankings, Kyrgyzstan performed well – in 2013 it came 106th and has been steadily improving its position almost yearly ever since.
A multitude of media outlets operate in Kyrgyzstan and give vivid expression to the country’s day-to-day life, sometimes even in real time: every more or less significant event in the small republic (whether it be a demonstration, an important court session or some public emergency) is broadcast online by two or three outlets simultaneously. Journalists actively engage with anonymous sources in all kinds of government agencies and institutions, but more often than not such sources’ divulgations merely speed up the appearance of news that was about to break anyway. Generally, reports are confirmed or denied by the government’s official press office within a couple of hours. Importantly too, journalists’ attention is not focused exclusively on Bishkek. A number of media outlets specialise in regional coverage, and the national media devotes a great deal of attention to regional events.
No less bustling is the Kyrgyz internet. Ordinary citizens regularly post in local online groups about their frustrations and concerns – about patients’ conflicts with doctors, scandals in local schools and government institutions, land disputes and street fights. Politicians are no strangers to the blogosphere, and neither are civil rights activists, lawyers and state officials. All frequently turn to social media to express their views on some issue or other, without even waiting to be questioned by journalists. Media outlets closely follow online discussions, and popular posts are almost guaranteed to be picked up on (and often developed) in national and local news columns. And state institutions react quickly to significant reports, announcing checks and initiating investigations without delay.
The situation, then, would appear to be more than satisfactory. Yet in practice, the system described above exists in a state of permanent tension. Kyrgyz journalists and activists are able to make use of their unprecedented freedom not because their rights are reliably protected, but because the state is not strong enough to bring censorship in the country up to a level approaching that of the regional norm. To some extent freedom of speech is self-sustaining. It is not so appealing to beat up a journalist or fabricate a case against them if you know that doing so might immediately land you in the spotlight of dozens of media outlets, all ready to recount in detail what it was that their colleague was recently investigating and who they could have offended. But this an entirely surmountable obstacle, ultimately subject to the maxim where there’s a will, there’s a way...
In theory, those who would seek to exert pressure on the press should be sharply restrained by the state itself. But, as just mentioned, in Kyrgyzstan the state is rather weak. For this reason, neither those who try to silence the press nor the innumerable protagonists of the almost daily stream of media scandals in the country generally come up against serious problems. Waves of scandals come one after the other, and then, months down the line, law enforcement agencies quietly close cases, courts opt for acquittal, pass suspended sentences, or send convicts to open prisons that exist only on paper... Dismissed officials are appointed to new positions, disgraced politicians make their comebacks. Investigations that had begun amid fanfare are wound up on account of “insufficient evidence”... Scandals involving major public figures, furiously debated over weeks or months, gradually become a footnote in their biographies...
The untouchable family
At present, the most high-profile and protracted “media war” in Kyrgyzstan is being waged around the powerful Matraimov clan. In November 2017, after the country had just completed its first ever non-revolutionary transfer of presidential power, deputy head of the State Customs Service Rayimbek Matraimov was removed from his post. Following this, the sacked official’s relatives began to be mentioned in the context of the developing conflict between ex-president Almazbek Atambayev and his successor Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The two presidents’ supporters started to accuse each other of having ties to the Matraimovs, who they charged with amassing vast illegitimate wealth.
In the spring of 2019, Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz website Azattyk published an investigation in which it was claimed that, between 2011 and 2017, the Matraimovs had channelled around $700 million out of the country. Journalists had obtained documents and photographs which suggested that the funds had been transferred by a criminal banker operating in the country, a Chinese citizen of Uyghur origin named Aierken Saimaiti. The State Financial Intelligence Service (FIS) conducted investigations and concluded that Saimaiti (who had been wanted since 2017 for defrauding a fellow Chinese citizen) had indeed transferred something like this sum of money out of the country. But the FIS found no evidence linking these funds to the Matraimovs.
The scandal conveniently faded gradually from public attention, until 10 November last year, when Aierken Saimaiti was shot dead in Turkey. It emerged that he had been using a car with Kyrgyz diplomatic plates which had previously belonged to Kyrgyzstan’s consul-general in Istanbul Erkin Sopokov (Atambayev’s former driver). Almost immediately, Azattyk’s journalists confirmed that the dead man was indeed the same man they had interviewed for their investigation earlier that year. Moreover, they announced, Saimaiti had been their main source for the information they published, they had simply tried to hide this for the sake of his safety.
Since there was now no longer any reason to fear for Saimaiti’s safety, together with their colleagues at the Kyrgyz news outlet Kloop and the international organisation Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Azattyk published a number of follow-ups to their earlier investigation, based on information they had received from the shadowy banker. It was claimed that the Matraimovs were protecting a Uyghur clan engaged in large-scale smuggling, whose head Khabibula Abdukadyr had been spotted at Jeenbekov’s inauguration ceremony. Saimaiti had worked for this clan up until 2017, but after coming into conflict with Abdukadyr, he had been placed under police investigation and forced to flee Kyrgyzstan.
The Kyrgyz authorities launched an investigation into the journalists’ claims. To date, however, the work of the special commission set up to look into the case is yet to be completed. According to the latest information, the Financial Intelligence Service has come to the conclusion that not only did the $700m in question not belong to the Matraimovs, it did not even come from Kyrgyzstan. On this version, Saimaiti had merely transferred laundered money into the country and then out again.
The Kyrgyz authorities are also currently working together with the Turkish police to investigate Saimaiti’s murder. Four suspects were quickly arrested and told investigators that they had been members of a religious group together with the dead man in Syria and had decided to kill him following an internal dispute. Two of the men said they were Kyrgyz nationals, one a Syrian, and the other a Syrian-born Uzbek citizen, but according to the latest reports, none of this has yet been confirmed as none of the men were carrying any form of ID. The head of the Investigations Department of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (SCNS) told parliament that the man who ordered the murder was a Syrian national suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. It was not stated whether this is the same Syrian national who is among the four arrested men.
As for Consul-General Erkin Sopokov, following the diplomatic plates scandal, he was removed from his post and arrested upon returning to Kyrgyzstan, though the charges against him have not yet been made clear.
The Taming of the Shrews
The first warning bell for the Kyrgyz press and the country’s online community sounded at the end of November last year, when officers of the State Committee for National Security arrested the administrator of the Facebook group Беспредел.Kg (Lawlessness.Kg) Aftandil Jorobekov. Officially, he was charged with inciting discord between people from the south and north of the country (or more precisely, for taking insufficient action against users who incite discord though their posts and comments in the group). But Jorobekov’s relatives said they were convinced that he had been arrested for posting calls to attend a demonstration to demand a more active response from the government to the journalistic investigations into the Matraimovs. At the start of December, Jorobekov was transferred to house arrest. No details of any further investigation have emerged. It all looked rather like this act of intimidation had been considered sufficient for the time being.
At around the same time, at the start of December, the Matraimovs themselves filed a lawsuit against a number of journalists who they considered guilty of libel. Besides Azattyk and Kloop, among those charged with defamation were Azattyk correspondent Ali Toktakunov and the news agency 24.kg. The inclusion of the latter struck many observers as strange – 24.kg had not been involved in the investigation but had simply republished its findings, just like most other Kyrgyz and foreign media outlets. Why make claims against this particular outlet and not others who had republished the material?
At first it was supposed that those filing the claims simply wanted to turn members of the journalistic corps against one another. People might start to ask why 24.kg and not others, and wonder if these “others” perhaps had influential backers... Whether the claimants really held such a motive is unknown, but no such conflict within the press corps occurred. In January, the Matraimovs’ lawyers belatedly explained that their clients had been offended by 24.kg’s headline: “Smuggling trail leads to Raimbek Matraimov clan”. After all, the journalists had come up with the headline themselves and not just republished it.
Of course, this pretext too sounds somewhat less than convincing. It seems rather more likely that 24.kg’s very popularity counted against it in this instance. It is one of Kyrgyzstan’s key media outlets, and it is possible that the Matraimovs simply did not want to see compromising material about them published on such a popular news site. At the same time, such a course of action could serve as a warning to others who republish stories, making it clear to journalists that the publication of third-party material too can have unpleasant legal repercussions.
The trump card in the Matraimov’s lawsuit, however, was the enormous sum of money they sought in compensation. The claimants demanded 60 million Soms ($857,000) in total from the four defendants. Besides this, after the complaint was filed, the Matraimovs petitioned the court to freeze the respondents’ accounts, and the court duly granted their request. The purpose of such a recourse in procedural law is, of course, to make sure that defendants do not empty their accounts before the court passes its judgement, leaving the plaintiff without compensation. In the present case, however, the compensation sought was so enormous that freezing the accounts “to the level of the amount claimed” led to the news outlets’ accounts plummeting into the red. In practice this meant that, until the case against them was concluded, they would be unable to pay wages, make rent payments on their offices, or purchase any kind of equipment and materials... They would, in other words, be forced to halt operations.
The accounts freeze led to a public outcry, to which the Matraimovs themselves were forced to react swiftly. They asked the court to lift the assets block, and almost immediately their request was approved. Once again, the stern blow dealt to the press ended up being first and foremost an exercise in scare tactics.
The first session in the Matraimovs’ lawsuit got underway on 19 December. During the proceedings, lawyers for the family announced that they were willing to withdraw their claims if the defendants agreed to publish a retraction of the claims made in their investigation. The following session was scheduled for 20 January – quite a lengthy pause, even taking into account the New Year’s holidays. At the second session, it became clear that the two sides had been unable to come to terms. Only 24.kg’s lawyer announced that, as long as it was only a question of one headline, his clients were “prepared to listen to offers”. Representatives for Azattyk and Kloop firmly stated that under no circumstances would they consider publishing a retraction. In the end, the two sides were given another rather lengthy break, until 29 January. Lawyers for the Matraimovs expressed the hope that they would be able to come to an agreement not only with 24.kg, but with the other defendants too.
On 27 January, it emerged that the conflict with 24.kg had been resolved. The Matraimovs declared themselves satisfied with the recognition by the news outlet’s representatives that its headline had been unsubstantiated. Following this, the family withdrew the material part of their claim. They are no longer demanding 15 million Soms ($214,700) in compensation from 24.kg. The total redress sought thereby fell to 45 million Soms ($644,000).
The danger of example
As the Matraimovs’ lawsuit slowly wends its way to a conclusion, ever more frequent news emerges from Kyrgyzstan of worrying developments involving journalists and rights activists and those who work with them. On 14 December, the driver of the famous lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, who has made repeated calls for the authorities to react forcefully to the revelations about the Matraimovs, was beaten up by unknown assailants. According to Toktakunov, unknown men knocked on the door of his driver’s home at 6am. When the man opened the door, he was attacked. “By attacking my driver, they are sending me a clear threat,” Toktakunov suggested. He added that he occasionally notices that he is being followed.
Then, on 9 January, the editor-in-chief of the website Factcheck.kg, Bolot Temirov, was assaulted just outside his office. Not long before this, the website had decided to join the investigations into the Matraimov clan’s activities and had published details about the estimated cost of watches and jewellery worn by Raimbek Matraimov’s wife in Instagram photos. The police, it is true, are treating the incident as an ordinary robbery (the assailants took Temirov’s mobile phone). Four suspects have already been arrested, one of whom has been identified by the victim.
Even journalists who have had nothing to do with the Matraimov case have begun to experience problems. The editor of the newspaper Chyndyk, Tursunbek Beyshenbekov, was arrested as part of the investigations into the former deputy head of the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs Kursan Asanov (who appears to have fallen into disfavour due to conflicts within the ministry following the special operation against Almazbek Atambayev in August). According to the investigation, in the spring of 2019, Beyshenbekov received from Asanov and subsequently published a confidential memo written by Deputy Prime Minister Jenish Razakov. In the memo, Razakov, who was overseeing the settling of border disputes with Tajikistan, responded to accusations that he was working together with the Tajik intelligence services (in August, he filed a lawsuit against the newspaper Asia News on account of these accusations). Beyshenbekov, like Jorobekov, was soon released into house arrest.
On 21 January, it was reported that five officers of the State Border Service were suing Lieutenant Colonel Talgat Alanov, who had gone to the press in November 2019 with allegations of corruption within the agency. For two months, it had seemed as though all involved had forgotten about the incident. But then colleagues who Alanov had mentioned in his accounts of corruption suddenly took offence and demanded 100,000 Soms each ($1,400) in moral damages. Was the Matraimovs’ example contagious?
On 23 January, Kyrgyz civil society hit back. Journalist Kanyshay Mamyrkulova and rights activist Samat Aliyev filed a lawsuit against Deputy PM Razakov, mentioned above. They were angered that the senior official had claimed that a recent demonstration on the border question had been full of paid protestors. Mamyrkulova and Aliyev declared that they had taken part in the event out of their own conviction and demanded moral damages of 5 million Soms ($71,000) each.
If the trend continues, it is not only the journalists who stand to lose from the clampdown on the free press in Kyrgyzstan, but also judges. The workload of each judge in the most “popular” courts these days has reached 65 cases per month (compared with an accepted standard of 20 cases per month). Recent events suggest that the situation could get even worse.
The return of the past
The last time there was talk of a clampdown on the press in Kyrgyzstan was in 2017, when Prosecutor-General Indira Joldubayeva filed lawsuits against Azattyk, news site Zanoza.kg, the head of the legal clinic Adilet, Cholpon Jakupova, and two lawyers representing politician Omurbek Tekebayev. The prosecutor-general accused the defendants of insulting the honour and dignity of Almazbek Atambayev, who at that time was not yet sitting in pre-trial detention but rather was still the country’s head of state. The lawsuit against Azattyk was dropped after a meeting between Atambayev and the head of Radio Liberty (of which Azattyk is the Kyrgyz office), Thomas Kent. The material claims against Zanoza.kg and Jakupova were withdrawn by the president himself (by this time former president) in 2018.
At around the same time, Zanoza.kg became caught up in a dispute about its trademark, as a result of which the news outlet’s editorial team transferred their activities to the portal Kaktus.Media. This was the editorial team’s second such “migration” – Zanoza.kg was set up in 2015 by employees of the newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek who had resigned following a change of ownership. The journalists claimed that the change of leadership was a hostile takeover on the part of Atambayev’s clique. Lawsuits, it appears, are not the only problem overly bold Kyrgyz journalists have to contend with.
Following the travails of 2017-2018, the Kyrgyz civil rights organisation Media Policy Institute filed a complaint on behalf of Zanoza.kg’s editor Dina Maslova to the UN’s Human Rights Committee. On 24 January this year, KaktusMedia reported that correspondence between the UN, the Media Policy Institute and the Kyrgyz authorities on the matter is still ongoing.
The UN’s Human Rights Committee clearly cannot keep up with the pace of Kyrgyz politics. Zanoza.kg’s website long ago ceased to exist, and, from being president and presumed persecutor of free speech, Atambayev has become the target of a number of criminal cases and, yes, the owner of a media outlet struggling under government pressure. Immediately after Atambayev’s arrest in August 2019, the assets of the television channel April, owned by him, were frozen. The station’s employees were thrown out of the sealed-off editorial offices and the channel went off air. Currently, April exists only in the form of an internet news site.
After the freezing of April’s assets, media expert Gulnura Toralieva suggested that this could be the start of a clampdown on the press on the part of Jeenbekov. “True, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov is not resorting to using the prosecutor-general to uphold his honour and dignity, but on the other hand, in the two years he has been in office so far, he has not previously been faced with any strong criticism. Rights advocates and the media continue to show him loyalty, giving him the chance to prove himself,” she explained. It seems as though the expert’s predictions have come true, except that the pressure is coming not from the president, but from the Matraimovs and other murky and disparate figures.
At the same time, the newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek (which in 2019, after years of litigation, seems to have been returned to its “pre-Atambayev” owner) began to regularly publish materials critical of rights activists and investigative journalists. “The Matraimovs are defending their honour and dignity in this case through the proper legal channels. For only a court of law can pronounce someone guilty of smuggling, and even more so of illegally channelling money out of the country. Is it necessary at this point to remind the media of its journalistic ethics? Absolutely. In the chase for ratings and sensation, journalists seem to have forgotten about ethics,” it is stated in one of the paper’s articles. Another article launched an attack on participants in a demonstration in the Tyup district.
In sum, Kyrgyzstan is a supremely free country, where everyone somehow manages to get by – journalists, activists, paid publicists and the protagonists of all kinds of media scandals across several political eras. True, it is a freedom governed at times more by the law of the jungle than by solidly anchored civil rights and the rule of law. But at any rate this is of course preferable to the total impossibility in many neighbouring countries of publishing even a part of what Kyrgyz readers and viewers have access to on a daily basis.
Translated and updated by Nick L.
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