ZOiS Spotlight 9/2024

Under the Pretence of Tradition: Media Repression in Kyrgyzstan

Since taking power in 2021, President Sadyr Japarov has established an increasingly authoritarian regime in Kyrgyzstan. He is cracking down on his critics and restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression. For Japarov, this is justified by a supposed need to protect Kyrgyz values and morals.

Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov in front of members of the press. IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Under the guise of a new law aimed at safeguarding local values, moral principles, and the traditions of Kyrgyz society and ideology, the Kyrgyz state is endeavouring to suppress the media. Journalists are now constrained in their ability to criticise the government, as they risk being accused of spreading misinformation that might contradict the ‘moral values of [the] people’. Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov has been given new powers to interfere with constitutional court decisions in cases involving ‘moral and ethical values’. This means that Japarov can overturn any decisions that contradict these values, including in the work of the media and NGOs, and can justify such repression by citing the state’s role as a moral guardian.

The Japarov-Tashiev tandem

Since Kyrgyzstan’s 2020 revolution, two men have established an authoritarian regime: Japarov and his associate, Kamchybek Tashiev, who chairs the State Committee for National Security, the local successor to the Soviet-era KGB. The pair came to power in 2020 by skilfully taking advantage of the revolution, which had raised so many hopes among the people. To realise their goals, the two men made quick decisions, competently distributed resources, and created short-lived alliances with criminal networks and corrupt officials. Then, to consolidate power, they made significant changes to Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, shifting the country from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. Japarov recently signed a law that places restrictions on so-called foreign representatives in Kyrgyzstan, a move that recalls similar laws passed in Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

Since 2020, there have been persistent crackdowns on the opposition, including arrests of opposition figures, as well as the banning of rallies and the closure of independent media outlets. The duopoly of power that Japarov and Tashiev have built for themselves has allowed them to effectively dismantle opposition voices, weaken civil society, and assert government control over the mainstream media.

Pressure on the mass media

The state administration in Kyrgyzstan is succeeding in demonising critical independent media outlets by mobilising emotions, ethics, and traditions. Various regimes have used or threatened the mass media in Kyrgyzstan for the benefit of those in power. While there are similarities and differences between these regimes, a consistent feature is the targeting of Azattyk radio, a renowned international media outlet with a 70-year history that offers TV, radio, and online platforms. Azattyk is recognised for its critical journalism, coverage of corruption, and in-depth analytical pieces in the Kyrgyz language. Under Japarov’s leadership, Azattyk’s website has been shut down and its bank accounts closed, causing discomfort for many journalists.

More generally, there have been significant pressure and threats directed towards journalists and the broader media landscape in Kyrgyzstan. The government has been particularly hostile towards critical voices, using troll factories to target activists and independent media. Any journalism that criticises the government’s actions or failure to meet societal demands is often discredited through various means. For instance, in an interview, a Kyrgyz-speaking journalist said that she was coerced into resigning from the X news agency for openly criticising state activities.

Kloop Media and its news agency Kloop, one of the leading independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan, has been forced to shut down, and its journalists have been persecuted. Investigative journalist Bolot Temirov, who operates Temirov Live, was compelled to leave the country because of his Russian citizenship, while the 11 members of his investigative team were arrested. These incidents have sparked public outrage. Meanwhile, numerous other Kyrgyz-speaking individuals face similar challenges. From 2021 onwards, Kyrgyzstan’s local journalists were instructed to portray state-funded local TV stations in a positive light.

Social media challenges

Japarov and his supporters use various techniques to justify social media blockades. Critical voices are often disseminated through social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram, where they are frequently subjected to demonisation by troll factories. These trolls work tirelessly to create mocking and derisive content, including caricatures. Journalist Kanyshai Mamyrkulova actively criticises the Kyrgyz government on Facebook and has been summoned by the state authorities multiple times. Mamyrkulova and independent journalist Asel Soornbaeva face harassment from trolls that mock their activities. Both are accused of disseminating information that is foreign to Kyrgyz culture.

Another challenge for the Kyrgyz state is TikTok, which is particularly popular among young people, including schoolchildren and students. The state administration claims that TikTok content goes against local traditional values, customs, and societal morality and has called for the platform’s closure. Despite governmental efforts to control information, shutting down all dissenting voices in the digital age is challenging and almost impossible. People have to learn to analyse and select information. Bloggers and activists have played a crucial role in defending TikTok in Kyrgyzstan. In an interview, one young businessman credits TikTok for increasing his clientele, emphasising that users have the freedom to choose the content they consume.

The Kyrgyz government appears to be focused on manipulating public opinion on the question of how to safeguard local values, moral principles, and the traditions of Kyrgyz society and ideology. In this way, the state redirects citizens’ attention away from pressing matters like economic and social issues, which often require immediate action. Instead, the state administration focuses on punishing independent media and increasing anti-Western sentiments in Kyrgyzstan. It does so creatively by mobilising values and emotions, thus strengthening its hold on power. The state justifies its repression of the media as part of its moral authority over the population.

Aksana Ismailbekova is a postdoctoral researcher at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.

Zinaida Almazbekova is an independent journalist.