Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. NGO leaders and media rights advocates acknowledged a more relaxed press environment under the Jeenbekov administration, noting a clear drop in libel lawsuits against independent media outlets and the withdrawal of existing cases launched under the previous administration. Self-censorship continued to be prevalent, and pressure reportedly existed from editors and political figures to bias reporting.
Freedom of Expression: Multiple civil society groups noted an increase in the application of Article 299 of the criminal code on the “incitement of interethnic, racial, religious, and interregional hatred.” Observers stated in some cases authorities broadly interpreted Article 299 to sanction speech, which tended to affect ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. According to NGOs, virtually all arrests under Article 299 resulted in convictions in 2018. Civil society organizations called the process to confirm violations of Article 299 arbitrary, politicized, and unprofessional. Article 314 of the penal code that came into force in January requires an intent to distribute extremist materials be proven in order to convict of a crime. Article 314 replaces the provisions found previously in Article 299.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: As in earlier years, some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as interethnic relations, “religious extremism,” or the rise of nationalism. The trend was particularly salient against Uzbek-language media outlets.
In recent years the government, security services, and oligarchs attempted to prevent independent media from operating freely in the country. The government continued its tight controls over news content on state television.
On August 14, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir expressed his concern over the closure of the television channel April TV in Bishkek and called for respect for diversity in media. On August 9, the security services sealed off channel April TV’s headquarters in Bishkek as part of a security operation, shutting it down. “I am concerned by the seizure of assets of the television channel April and the suspension of its operations,” the representative said. “While I am fully aware of the exceptional circumstances under which this decision was taken, I call on the relevant authorities to review this decision.” The representative also said the safety of journalists who cover political events must be respected by all actors, after media worker Aida Djumashova was injured during the raid on former president Atambaev’s home on August 7 and protesters attacked reporters with Vesti.kg, April and Kloop.kg in Bishkek on August 8. On November 21, April TV received permission to resume broadcasting, but on December 7, the Military Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit to prevent April TV from broadcasting further. The Media Policy Institute appealed to the court, asking that the ban on broadcasting be reversed. The institute released a statement asserting the Military Prosecutor’s Office did not have the authority to ban April TV from broadcasting.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists, especially those who are ethnic Uzbeks, reported harassment by police, and continuing pressure by local and national authorities to avoid reporting on sensitive issues, including ethnic conflicts, corruption, and political figures. Media members also reported that nonstate actors, particularly politically well connected and wealthy individuals, harassed them for reporting on those individuals’ alleged corruption and other kinds of wrongdoing. Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship to avoid reprisals for their reporting.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: As in previous years, journalists and NGO leaders alleged some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials. The sources also reported some news outlets received requests from offices of the government to report in a particular way or to ignore specific news stories.
NGO leaders and media sources reported state-owned broadcasters remained under pressure to transmit stories promoting government policies and initiatives and develop narratives critical of NGOs, opposition figures, and civil society activists.
As the government transitions from an analog to a digital broadcasting system starting this year, individuals and news organizations can submit requests to the government to get a license for a television channel. The government controlled the licensing process, and civil society reported the government abused the licensing process by revoking licenses to individuals or organizations which broadcast content the government disagrees with. The government’s revocation of a license to operate a television channel can financially decimate a news outlet and shutter their operations.
Libel/Slander Laws: While libel is not a criminal offense except in narrowly prescribed instances, NGO leaders described the False Accusations Amendments, passed in 2014 as a practical “recriminalizing of libel.” Journalists noted the law exposed media to libel suits in civil courts that could bankrupt the outlets or journalists in their defense attempts. In 2015 the Constitutional Chamber narrowed the reach of the law, holding that henceforth it would apply only in cases of knowingly making false statements in a police report but not to statements in media, although subsequent decisions appeared to contradict that ruling. While slander and libel are not criminal offenses, civil lawsuits can result in defendants paying compensation for moral harm, which the law does not limit in size. Observers stated courts arbitrarily ruled on the amount of compensation and that failure to pay compensation could serve as a basis for criminal prosecution.
In the first half of the year, press reported that, despite the improvements in press freedom, attacks on media continued through the use of libel laws. The Supreme Court upheld a decision in the suit of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament (MP) Kozhobek Ryspaev against the newspaper Achyk Sayasat. The newspaper had to pay Ryspaev 300,000 soms ($4,300) in compensation. The newspaper editor in chief Nazgul Mamytova said the newspaper was likely to close. MP Ryspaev sued the newspaper due to an article that was published in August 2018, which stated Ryspaev was moving from one political party to another, and the author called him a “chameleon.”
The Adilet Legal Clinic reported the organization defended journalists and media outlets charged with libel and slander and that members of media regularly feared the threat of lawsuits.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.